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Massive Twitter data release sheds light on Russia’s Trump strategy
The social media platform says the 10 million tweets show the full scope of foreign influence operations dating back nearly a decade.
WASHINGTON — Twitter on Wednesday released a trove of 10 million tweets it says represents the full scope of foreign influence operations on the platform dating back nearly a decade — including Russia’s consistent efforts to disparage Hillary Clinton and an initially erratic approach to Donald Trump that eventually settled on a concerted pro-Trump message during the 2016 campaign.
The huge data cache consists of tweets from some 3,400 accounts tied to the Kremlin troll farm known as the Internet Research Agency and 770 others linked to Iran. It also includes some two million gifs, videos and other visual content. Twitter said it’s making the information available to “enable independent academic research and investigation,” according to a company blog post.
The Russian tweets around the 2016 presidential election showed distinct patterns when it came to Clinton and Trump, according to researchers at the nonpartisan Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Lab, which has been scouring the data since late last week.
While the Clinton animus was clear from the start, it took the IRA a while to settle on its Trump strategy, as the Republican primary played out.
“Literally from the day Clinton announced her candidacy they were attacking her,” Ben Nimmo, an information defense fellow at the lab, told POLITICO. “But on the Republican side, in the early days, they seemed to be backing more than one horse.”
He described “peaks and troughs — a lot of pro-Trump content and a lot of anti-Trump content” in 2015 and 2016, adding that Trump’s Republican rival Senator Ted Cruz (R-Texas) got a similar mixed treatment while former Florida Governor Jeb Bush was the target of negative content. But Nimmo said the messaging around Trump turned decidedly in his favor around the time the reality show star began locking up the Republican nomination.
That period of time is said to be of interest to investigators with special counsel Robert Mueller’s team, which is looking into Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. presidential election — including a June 2016 Trump Tower meeting between Trump campaign officials and Russian lawyer Natalia Veselnitskaya.
Nimmo said the Atlantic Council’s research into the data is still in its early stages, but he said it’s clear that much of the U.S.-focused tweeting was aimed at simply fomenting discord around political and social issues, a dynamic similar to what’s already been identified in Facebook ads and highlighted in Mueller’s indictment of Russian nationals and entities over 2016 election interference.
“There was a lot of stuff that was just plain divisive, that were just attempts to inflame,” Nimmo said. “They had Black Lives Matter accounts and Blue Lives Matter accounts. There was a lot of sticking fingers in painful wounds.”
Twitter and Facebook have been widely criticized since the 2016 election for not doing more to stem the abuse of their platforms by Russians and other foreign actors hoping to manipulate the American political landscape. Some lawmakers on Capitol Hill say the companies have failed to do proper post-mortems of that interference, including via digging into the enormous stores of online data they alone hold.
The newly released Twitter data may eventually shed light on the style as well as substance of foreign campaigns.
Russian accounts appeared to be particularly good at building personality into their tweets, such as those published by accounts like @TEN_GOP and @Jenn_Abrams, the Atlantic Council researchers found. By comparison, the Iranian operation was “much clumsier and clunkier and less engaging,” focused mostly on getting users to click on government propaganda, Nimmo said.
The Twitter database is not limited to U.S. influence operations. Many of the Kremlin-linked tweets are in Russian and appeared aimed at shaping politics in Russia and Ukraine, according to Nimmo.
While aspects of social media foreign influence operations have been disclosed in bits and pieces, he said, “the massive value of this Twitter dump is now it looks like we’ve got the lot.”