Not content with spreading propaganda on Facebook, YouTube, Twitter, Russia Today and Sputnik, Russian trolls have added a new weapon to their arsenal of political meddling: blogging.
WIRED has found that a number of the Russian-linked Twitter accounts, which the company identified in evidence to the US Congress, were also posting on Medium.
At least three accounts – @TheFoundingSon, @WadeHarriot, and @jenn_abrams – were active on Medium until they were suspended by Twitter. Medium says it doesn’t comment on individual accounts but has “specific rules” that “prohibit deception”.
“With regards to the recent reporting around Russian accounts specifically, we’re paying close attention and working to ensure that our trust and safety processes continue to evolve and identify any accounts that violate our rules,” a spokesperson for the company said.
What do we know about the accounts?
Twitter user @TheFoundingSon had more than 39,000 followers. The account, which went by the name John Davis, billed itself as a business-owning, Conservative, Christian family man. “Love my country and my family,” its Twitter bio said. On Medium, @TheFoundingSon posted three blogs: one on race, one on science and politics, and another on indoctrination at US colleges.
@WadeHarriot was the least followed of the three accounts we investigated. There are no recent caches of how many Twitter followers the account had, but back in 2016 it had just 1,000. On Medium the account posted about political dynasties in the White House and a very short, two sentence, post criticising ‘lies’ from Hillary Clinton. The account also reacted to a previous post.
@jenn_abrams is one of the most prominent Russia propaganda accounts we know about. An investigation by The Daily Beastshows how the account had posts embedded in media articles around the world, created a personal website, had a Gmail address and grew a Twitter audience of more than 70,000 people. The account was also on Medium. Cached results show at least ten posts that continued well after the 2016 US presidential election and into the mid-2017.
What are they blogging about?
At times @jenn_abrams writes about a diversity on a new cover of Vogue; another post, which hasn’t been archived, discuses the CIA and Russia.
“The views expressed are in line with what one would expect of a campaign intended to appeal to the conservative right in the US,” says Steve Hutchings, a professor of Russian Studies at the University of Manchester. “However, many of them are also fully aligned with the anti-liberal rhetoric that dominates public discourse in Russia.”
Hutchings explains this rhetoric includes a hostility to political correctness, a contempt for feminism, family values and a sympathy for racist attitudes and white supremacy. “These are not, to stress, the policy or the views of the Kremlin,” Hutchings adds.
For instance, in @thefoundingson’s post about the March for Science, which took place in April 2017, the account says the event was a “political farce” and “liberals” were “desperately trying to make it look like the whole world is against Trump”. The post looks at people who attended the march and argues they have “screwed up” everything they’ve been involved in.
Another claims US college students are indoctrinated and that university teaches them to “[beat] a man to a pulp” for wearing a Make America Great Again cap. “The only thing kids learn in colleges is how to effectively manipulate the system and get away with any wrongdoings,” the Russian propagandist wrote. Another Medium post discusses race.
A post from @WadeHarriot talks about a Clinton “dynasty” in the White House. “A president from the same self-perpetuating dynasty will further rupture the American political system, turning American democracy into a monarchy,” the author writes.
Nishanth Sastry, a senior lecturer in informatics at King’s College London, says the dynasty approach is one that’s been consistently repeated by known Russian propagandists. He highlights one Facebook ad identified as Russian that talked about the “dynastic succession” of the Clinton family.
“And of course, ‘Dynastic succession of the Clinton family’ in the third paragraph seems to have been a theme of the alt-right and conspiracy theorist,” Sastry says. He points to two similar articlesfrom right wing websites.
Are they convincing?
The posts from the Russian accounts are generally well written and are in coherent, although not perfect, English. “It is evident from all of the posts – except the one on ‘hamburger meat” – that they have not been written by a native English speaker,” Hutchings says. “The English is very good and vernacular, suggesting that these people either live in, or have lived in, the US or another Western country”.
The posts contain several non-standard English constructions and fairly straightforward errors. In @TheFoundingSon’s Huffington Post vs. Whiteness and White Women Medium post, the propagandist confuses ‘right’ and ‘write’. “There are grammar mistakes but not what I have seen with others from Russia,” Sastry says.
They also employ a few obvious propaganda techniques. Commenting on @TheFoundingSon’s Huffington Post critique, Sastry explains the quotes used have been taken out of context. “This is common with lots of other propaganda and hyperpartisan literature. If you read the quote in the Huffington Post article, you see a lot more nuanced discussion, though that article is also quite one-sided.”
Did they work?
This is the big question. With Twitter accounts we can see that the @TheFoundingSon, @jenn_abrams and @southlonestar built-up large followings, with their posts being unwittingly quotes by the media. But it’s harder to establish whether longer blog posts gained as much traction. Of the three profiles we looked at, @WadeHarriot had just 47 followers, while @jenn_abrams, as of October 2016, had more than 1,300 followers on Medium. There are no stats for page views or unique visitors for each post.
“Unquestionably Russians have been involved in attempting to sow anger and division in the US and elsewhere, particularly through social media,” Hutchings says. “But ‘Russians’ and ‘the Russian State’ are different things, as are ‘the Russian State’ and ‘the Kremlin’ and even ‘the Kremlin and Putin’.” With each discovery, the complex web of Russian propaganda gets more tangled still.[“Source-wired”]