By DAISUKE WAKABAYASHI and SCOTT SHANE
© 2017 New York Times News Service
SAN FRANCISCO — As Twitter prepared to brief staff members of the Senate and House intelligence committees Thursday for their investigation of Russian interference in the 2016 election, researchers from a public policy group have been following hundreds of accounts to track the ongoing Russian operations to influence social media discourse and foment division in the United States.
There is evidence that Twitter may have been used even more extensively than Facebook in the Russian influence campaign last year. In addition to Russia-linked Twitter accounts that posed as Americans, the platform was also used for large-scale automated messaging, using “bot” accounts to spread false stories and promote news articles about emails from Democratic operatives that had been obtained by Russian hackers.
Twitter has struggled for years to rein in the fake accounts overrunning its platform. Unlike Facebook, the service does not require its users to provide their name and allows automated accounts — arguing that they are a useful tool for tasks such as customer service. Beyond those looser restrictions, there is also an online black market for services that allow for the creation of large numbers of Twitter bots, which can be controlled by a single person while still being difficult to distinguish from real accounts.
Since last month, researchers at the Alliance for Securing Democracy, a bipartisan initiative of the German Marshall Fund, a public policy research group in Washington, have been publicly tracking 600 Twitter accounts — human users and suspected bots alike — they have linked to Russian influence operations.
Of 80 news stories promoted last week by those accounts, more than 25 percent “had a primary theme of anti-Americanism,” the researchers found. About 15 percent were critical of Hillary Clinton. Eleven percent focused on wiretapping in the federal investigation into Paul Manafort, President Donald Trump’s former campaign chairman, with most of them treated the news as a vindication for Trump’s earlier wiretapping claims.
In the face of such public scrutiny, Twitter has said almost nothing about what it knows about Russia’s use of its platform. But Rep. Adam Schiff, D-Calif., said he would like to know exactly what the company has done to find covert Russian activity and what it has discovered so far about fake accounts — including their reach and impact.
“I think right now the public is aware of only a subset of a subset of Russian activity online,” Schiff said.