Online activity by Russian trolls in the lead-up to the 2016 election was significantly more widespread than initially estimated, cybersecurity firm Symantec concluded.
Symantec announced their findings following the analysis of a dataset released by Twitter in October 2018. The data, consisting of 3,900 accounts and 10 million tweets linked to a Russian company known as the Internet Research Agency (IRA), showed a massive and coordinated campaign to target both sides of the U.S. political divide with propaganda relating to wedge issues.
Twitter activity from the IRA was categorized by Symantec. There were 123 “main accounts,” with large numbers of followers and mostly generating new content as well as 3,713 “auxiliary” accounts, which were used to amplify the messaging from those main accounts.
“Main accounts generally were ‘fake news’ outlets masquerading as regional news outlets, or pretending to be political parties or hashtag games,” stated the report. “The top 20 most retweeted English-language accounts were split evenly between conservative and liberal messages.”
The most successful account in the IRA campaign went by the username TEN_GOP. The handle dubbed itself the “Unofficial Twitter of Tennessee Republicans. Covering breaking news, national politics, foreign policy and more.” It managed to accumulate almost 150,000 followers and 6 million retweets, almost entirely from non-IRA-linked accounts.
Among the IRA fake news accounts were “New York City Today,” “Chicago Daily News,” “San Francisco Daily,” and many others. Their primary function seems to have been the proliferation and adoption of fake or skewed news content to further propagandize targeted audiences.
“It was a highly professional campaign. Aside from the sheer volume of tweets generated over a period of years, its orchestrators developed a streamlined operation that automated the publication of new content and leveraged a network of auxiliary accounts to amplify its impact.”