Twitter announced last month that it would email notifications to 677,775 users in the US: that’s how many people it says followed one of the accounts created by the Russian government-linked propaganda factory known as the Internet Research Agency (IRA).
Less than two weeks later, Twitter announced that the number had more than doubled.
The number included those of us who retweeted or liked a tweet from Russian accounts during the 2016 US presidential election. The accounts had already been suspended, Twitter said, meaning that the relevant content is no longer publicly available on the platform.
But it is, in fact, available somewhere: Last week, NBC News published 200,000 Russian troll tweets that Twitter had deleted.
NBC News says that the accounts worked in concert as part of large networks that posted hundreds of thousands of inflammatory tweets, “from fictitious tales of Democrats practicing witchcraft to hardline posts from users masquerading as Black Lives Matter activists.”
The US intelligence community has determined that the IRA is part of a Russian state-run effort to influence the 2016 election, and all signs are pointing to the organization gearing up to do the same to the November mid-term elections.
Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats told the Senate Intelligence Committee last Tuesday that the US is “under attack,” adding that Russia is attempting to “degrade our democratic values and weaken our alliances.”
Coats said that Russian President Vladimir Putin considers Russia’s interference in the 2016 presidential elections a success and that he’s targeting the midterms:
There should be no doubt that [Putin] views the past effort as successful and views the 2018 US midterm elections as a potential target for Russian influence operations.
Twitter trolls and their seeds of discord are great tools for the Russians, Coats said: they’re cheap, low-risk and effective:
The Russians utilize this tool because it’s relatively cheap, it’s low risk, it offers what they perceive as plausible deniability and it’s proven to be effective at sowing division. We expect Russia to continue using propaganda, social media, false flag personas, sympathetic spokesmen, and other means of influence to try to build on its wide range of operations and exacerbate social and political fissures in the United States.
Twitter handed over to Congress a list of 3,814 IRA-connected account names and, as is its practice, has since suspended those accounts. That means deletion of the accounts’ tweets from public view, both on Twitter and from third parties. Unfortunately, erasing the evidence of foreign election meddling isn’t helpful for the investigation into that meddling – an investigation that resulted in a federal indictment on Friday, accusing 13 Russians and three Russian companies of conducting a criminal and espionage conspiracy using social media to interfere in the election.
To retrieve the evidence that Twitter deleted, NBC News asked three sources familiar with Twitter’s data systems to cross-reference the partial list of names released by Congress to create a database of tweets that could be recovered. The sources requested anonymity to avoid politicization of their work and to stay out of trouble regarding possible violation of Twitter’s developer policy.
The news outlet said it’s already analyzed the data to expose “how Russian accounts impersonated everyday Americans and drew hundreds of millions of followers, exploiting terrorist attacks, the debates and other breaking news events.”
Our investigations revealed how the accounts pushed graphic, racist and conspiracy theory-filled disinformation, while flattering, arguing and cajoling more than 40 U.S. politicians, media figures and celebrities into interacting with and amplifying their propaganda.
Now, to fend off the continuing onslaught of Russian Twitter trolls and bots, and to “help shine a light on this persistent threat to democracy,” NBC News has open-sourced the 200,000 tweets.