Breitbart News tops a list of otherwise “mainstream” news sites most linked to by troll accounts managed by Russian propagandists during the 2016 U.S. election, according to research just released by Jonathan Albright, research director at Columbia Journalism School’s Tow Center for Digital Journalism.
Other top-linked sites included Trump-backing outlets such as Fox News and the Daily Caller, as well as RT, the Kremlin-linked site that’s been banned from buying Twitter ads since October over its role in the election. But also high on the list were mainstream outlets like the The Washington Post and The New York Times, as well as a slew of regional outlets from San Francisco and Boston to Topeka and Cleveland.
“Most of these troll accounts are situated in cities with a history of systemic social and racial issues,” Albright writes on Medium.
The Russian accounts’ Twitter activity exploded after Clinton stumbled on Sept. 11 while she was battling pneumonia, an incident that raised concerns about her health. On Sept. 17, Russian accounts tweeted more than 2,000 times. As The Washington Post reports, one account “named ‘Amelie Baldwin’ and adorned with the image of a smiling blond woman who described herself as a ‘Wife, Mother, Patriot, Friend,’ tweeted 538 times that day to more than 2,000 followers.”
One such message retweeted, “Obama trying to start WWIII to avoid a Trump presidency?” and linked to an Associated Press tweet about Syrian government allegations of a U.S. strike on forces there.
Someone reading all of the Amelie Baldwin tweets that day would have seen Clinton portrayed as a sickly, dishonest criminal under investigation by the FBI and eager to open America’s borders to dangerous immigrants. Trump, by contrast, appeared in the tweets as a bold, widely respected leader gaining in the polls with the support of gay voters and African Americans, despite being unfairly maligned by journalists.
Twitter, which deleted the accounts last year, hasn’t yet commented on Albright’s research, since company officials haven’t had time to review the results, the Post reports. (Albright also compiled an interactive timeline of Russian news tweets, which allows you to scroll down and click on each data point.) In a tweet of his own, Albright called on Twitter and other internet companies to share this sort of data with the public, so researchers can stay ahead of Russia and other would-be manipulators.
If we continue to be left in the dark about what’s actually happening on these platforms, manipulators [NOT just “Russia”] will **ALWAYS be two steps ahead** Tech companies *must* start sharing this data w/public & researchers, or it’s only going to get worse.
— J0nathan A1bright (@d1gi) February 15, 2018
Previously, Albright’s research has showed how Russia’s Internet Research Agency also spread propaganda through thousands of Instagram posts, in addition to Facebook ads, YouTube videos, and other social media. Many believe the Kremlin will continue trying to influence elections, including this year’s U.S. midterm elections.