Twitter Says Russian Bots Retweeted Trump 470,000 Times

By
Gerrit De Vynck

and

Selina Wang

January 26, 2018, 6:41 PM EST

Updated on
January 26, 2018, 7:13 PM EST

Russian-linked Twitter bots shared Donald Trump’s tweets almost half a million times during the final months of the 2016 election, Twitter Inc. said in a submission to Congress.

The automated accounts retweeted the Republican candidate’s @realDonaldTrump posts almost 470,000 times, accounting for just more than 4 percent of the re-tweets he received from Sept. 1 to Nov. 15, 2016. Hillary Clinton’s account got less than 50,000 retweets by the Russian-linked automated accounts during the same period of time, the company said in documents posted Friday by the Senate Judiciary Committee.

The information further underscores how Russian-linked accounts sought to stir up discord during the 2016 U.S. presidential election. Congress has been investigating exactly how social-media platforms like Twitter, Facebook Inc. and Alphabet Inc.’s YouTube were manipulated during the election. The documents are Twitter’s response to follow-up questions from the Senate committee following an Oct. 31 hearing on the issue of Russian infiltration of the media platforms.

Twitter also found that Russian-linked accounts were responsible for 48 percent to 73 percent of the retweets of WikiLeaks’ Twitter accounts during the same time period. During the campaign WikiLeaks published emails from hacked Democratic party servers.

In this further assessment, Twitter said it identified about 2.12 million automated, election-related tweets from Russian-linked accounts that collectively received about 455 million impressions within the first seven days of posting. This is significantly higher than the number of impressions Twitter had previously reported.

Twitter also said accounts linked to the Russian government-backed Internet Research Agency exhibited non-automated patterns of activity, such as trying to reach out to journalists and “prominent individuals” through mentions. Some of those accounts represented themselves as news outlets, members of activist organizations, or politically engaged Americans, the company said. Bloomberg News has previously reported that the IRA operated dozens of Twitter accounts masquerading as local American news sources that collectively garnered more than half-a-million followers. More than 100 news outlets also published stories containing those handles in the run-up to the election, and some of them were even tweeted by a top presidential aide.

“Some of the accounts appear to have attempted to organize rallies and demonstrations, and several engaged in abusive behavior and harassment,” Twitter said.

The new disclosures from Twitter demonstrate how Russian meddlers are complementing their networks of bots with human activity, which the company said makes it harder for Twitter’s algorithms to detect the difference. Twitter previously said it had suspended 3,814 IRA-linked accounts.

The company has made several changes to address the manipulation in the past several months. It has banned Russian state media accounts from buying ads and is creating a “transparency center” to show how much political campaigns spend on advertising, the identity of the organization funding the campaign, and what demographics the ads targeted.

Facebook told a Senate panel in a written response to questions released earlier this week that it has detected “only what appears to be insignificant overlap” between targeting of ads and content promoted by a pro-Kremlin Russia group and by Trump’s presidential campaign. The company said it “does not believe it is in a position to substantiate or disprove allegations of possible collusion” between Russia and the campaign.