Russian operatives used a fake Twitter account that claimed to speak for Tennessee Republicans to persuade American politicians, celebrities and journalists to share select content with their own massive lists of followers, two people familiar with the matter said.
The list of prominent people who tweeted out links from the account, @Ten_GOP, which Twitter shut down in August, includes political figures such as Michael Flynn and Roger Stone, celebrities such as Nicki Minaj and James Woods, and media personalities such as Ann Coulter and Chris Hayes.
There is no evidence that any of them knew the account was run by Russians. Independent researchers had suspected the account was Russian, and their work was confirmed Wednesday by two people familiar with the investigations into the Kremlin’s meddling in the 2016 U.S. election.
The spread of links from the account shows the remarkable reach of a disinformation campaign that harnessed the power of American celebrity and the immediacy of social media to propel messages further, faster and more cheaply than possible even a few years ago.
At a time when public scrutiny has focused on Russia’s exploitation of Facebook, the new discoveries about the reach of @Ten_GOP underscore the role Twitter and other social media platforms also played in reaching audiences, including people influential in shaping political narratives.
“They were trying to influence influencers,” said Jonathan Albright, research director at the Tow Center for Digital Journalism at Columbia University. Like several other researchers, Albright has used analytics tools to map the spread of the reported Russian account. “They’re creating buzz,” he said. “It’s a buzz machine.”
Michael Sullivan, executive director of the Tennessee Republican Party — whose verified Twitter handle is @TNGOP — said his group had complained to Twitter about the account in September of last year, as well as in March and August.
“We’ve done a significant job trying to improve our digital footprint, so it’s very frustrating when you see something like that come out and continue to impersonate you,” Sullivan said.
He said he never tweeted back at the account to set the record straight. “We didn’t want to give them credit for getting under our skin,” Sullivan said.
The Russian news site RBC named @Ten_GOP in a report this week on the disinformation campaign. The account was created, according to archived versions of its account page, in November 2015 and included Tennessee’s state seal.”
Twitter declined to comment for this report.
In terms of sheer numbers, Twitter is a fraction of the size of Facebook, with fewer than 70 million U.S. users logging in monthly, compared with 210 million for Facebook. But Twitter’s reach extends far because so many celebrities and media personalities use the platform to share their views and embed tweets into their own content. That made it an ideal target for Russian operatives seeking to shape public opinion in the 2016 election, said Clinton Watts, a former FBI agent and senior fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute.
“Twitter can spread conspiracies much more quickly” than Facebook, Watts said. “These accounts show that they were engaging at the highest levels of the campaign. If they [Russian operatives] can get their messages into the feeds of the leaders of campaign narratives, it has tremendous weight.”
A tweet by @Ten_GOP on Oct. 10, 2016, the day after the second presidential debate, was featured in an online People magazine article on prominent online reactions. “Trump slaughtered Hillary,” tweeted @Ten_GOP, with the words followed by images of knives and the hashtag #debate.
Another widely traveled tweet came from Flynn three days before the election and linked to an ad bashing Democrat Hillary Clinton as dishonest. The ad, showing an African American actress in what at first appeared to be a pro-Clinton campaign spot, abruptly changed tone halfway through, with the actress stopping the action to say that she can’t deliver scripted lines praising Clinton because they were so at odds with the truth. “I’m not that good of an actress,” said the unidentified woman. Written on the screen, in red, are the words: “SOME PEOPLE ARE BETTER LIARS THAN OTHERS. STOP HILLARY.”
That ad — produced by Make America Number 1, a super PAC largely underwritten by conservative hedge fund executive Robert Mercer — was featured in an October 2016 article by Breitbart and reportedly played on television in the battleground states of Ohio and Pennsylvania.
The account @Ten_GOP also tweeted about it in then. Flynn linked to that tweet on Nov. 5, calling it “great” and saying it deserved to be shared widely. More than 5,300 accounts retweeted it or hit a heart-shaped “like” button to pass a link to the ad onward to their followers, according to Twitter data available on Flynn’s tweet. He later served a brief tenure as President Trump’s national security adviser and now is being scrutinized by federal investigations probing possible links between Russia and Trump’s campaign.
Flynn, through his attorney, declined to comment on the tweet.
Stone, an informal adviser to the Trump presidential campaign and another figure in the Russia probe, linked to a tweet and a picture from @Ten_GOP that has been deleted by Twitter and is not available on the Wayback Machine, an online site maintained by the Internet Archive, a nonprofit group in San Francisco. Stone said in an email that he recalled tweeting about a photo.
“There’s no way of knowing the province of the image,” Stone wrote.
Those who shared links from @Ten_GOP tended to lean conservative, according to Albright’s research, but included some liberals and others.
Minaj, a pop singer and rapper, tweeted a link in April 2017 that originated from @Ten_GOP. An archived version of the original tweet focuses on the disturbing shooting of an elderly man in Cleveland and live-streamed on Facebook Live. The tweet said of the killer, “He has claimed on Facebook to have killed 15 people in an ‘Easter Day Slaughter.’ ”
Minaj, whose representatives did not respond to queries from The Washington Post seeking comment, appeared to be reacting to the events themselves more than the tweet from @Ten_GOP, which she linked to in her tweet. “The video u posted is so disturbing,” she said. “Be safe in CLEVELAND today everyone. He just killed this old man live on social media. Jesus have mercy.”
That tweet was retweeted and “liked” more than 24,600 times. The original tweet was shared nearly 8,700 times. The content also appeared in news reports that ricocheted across the Internet, in outlets such as Daily Beast, Vanity Fair, the Huffington Post and Fox News.
But those numbers almost certainly undercount how many Twitter users saw the tweet. When a celebrity such as Minaj retweets or “likes” a link, it can potentially end up in the feeds of all 21 million of her followers. There is no way to know how many read it.
Investigators, lawmakers and propaganda researchers have said that the Russian disinformation campaign was shrewd in its use of trolls, who are people often hired to push certain types of content, and bots, which are automated accounts that can be programmed to post particular types of messages to amplify the spread of favored narratives.
Bots and trolls are most effective, experts say, when they find ways to interact online with actual people — an especially those with large followings.
“By getting a celebrity or someone famous to retweet what a bot or troll network is sending out gives an illusion of legitimacy and allows it to get picked up by the broader public,” said Samuel C. Woolley, an online propaganda researcher and research director at the Digital Intelligence Lab at the Institute for the Future, a Palo Alto, Calif.-based think tank.
Hayes, the MSNBC host, linked to an @Ten_GOP tweet, calling it “the best #EarthDay tweet so far.” The original tweet said, “Nothing says more about environmental ‘activists’ at #MarchForScience than piles of trash they left behind. #EarthDay.” It showed pictures of two overflowing garbage cans.
“I vaguely remember the tweet being pretty bonkers and thought it was the actual Tennessee GOP account because of the name,” Hayes said.
Coulter retweeted @Ten_GOP content in March on the way Trump’s handling of U.S. attorneys was being portrayed by news reports. Actor James Woods retweeted @Ten_GOP several times, including one from February in which Woods added the words above the link, “Paris resonates with the sweet sound of Islamist terrorism.”
Neither Coulter nor Woods responded to requests for comment.
Dwoskin reported from San Francisco.Tom Hamburger contributed to this report.