UK news organisations have cited tweets from Russian trolls more than 100 times, a Guardian investigation has found, in stories about topics including Donald Trump, Donald Glover and Lena Dunham.
In June the US Congress released details of 1,000 accounts that Twitter believes were run by the Internet Research Agency (IRA), a state-backed misinformation operation based in St Petersburg, adding to more than 2,000 accounts the company had already identified.
The accounts were cited in news stories by the British press more than 20 times. Adding to the 80 citations the Guardian uncovered in November 2017, Russian propaganda ended up being published by the British press more than 100 times.
One account, @KaniJJackson, posed as a Black Lives Matter activist and tweeted under the names “Kanisha J” and “Remove Trump Now”, with a profile picture of Michelle Obama.
That account was cited nine times by publications, including by the Daily Mail in a story about an American football game attended by Trump, by BuzzFeed in an article about Childish Gambino’s song This Is America, and the Daily Express in a piece about Hillary Clinton at the Grammys.
Another Russian-run account, @wokeluisa, was embedded five times, including in stories published by the Guardian, the Telegraph and the BBC. The Guardian and the BBC have since removed the embedded tweet and acknowledged that the account is believed to be fake.
Other publications that sourced material from Russian troll accounts include the Mirror, which used a picture tweeted by the IRA-run account NovostiSPb to lead its coverage of a terror attack in St Petersburg, and the Metro.
While most of the accounts removed by Twitter were tweeting in English and explicitly attempting to influence American politics, some were posting in Russian and apparently not targeting the English-language media at all.
A BuzzFeed story in 2015 about Russian sanctions banning the import of European cheese embedded two tweets from Russian-language Twitter accounts now thought to be run by the Internet Research Agency.
Perhaps strangest of all was the Russian troll who posted a picture of Helsinki with the caption in Russian: “You can’t but love this city. #Moscow.” The apparent error started a meme on Russian Twitter, with users jokingly mislabelling other pictures, which was reported on by the BBC.
Whether the initial post, by the Moscow Herald account, was a deliberate troll or a genuine mistake remains unclear.
The discovery of another 20 instances of Russian trolls infiltrating British media reports shines more light on the IRA’s success in using humour to influence the discussion of topical news in the mainstream media.
While it was rare that the fake accounts were cited as credible by news organisations, their presence in roundups of supposedly grassroots reaction to news events could have altered the perception of how popular the views they supposedly espoused actually were.
According to researchers at America’s Rand Corporation, Russia focuses on producing “high-volume, multichannel” propaganda in order to drown out competing messages while ensuring that audience members are likely to identify with the source.
“All other things being equal, messages received in greater volume and from more sources will be more persuasive,” the researchers noted.