After special counsel Robert Mueller charged 13 people associated with the Russian troll farm known as the Internet Research Agency with conspiracy to interfere in the 2016 election, it didn’t take long for known Russian Twitter bots to try to muddy the news cycle’s waters—just as they helped do as part of the very propaganda campaign Mueller describes in his indictment.
By early Saturday morning, seven of the top 10 trending topics of a collection of 600 Twitter accounts that are known to be linked to Russia—including openly pro-Russian users, accounts that take part in Russian disinformation campaigns, and automated bot accounts that parrot Kremlin messaging—were about Mueller’s indictment. Those topics included “Indictment,” “Rosenstein,” “Rod,” “Rod Rosenstein,” “allegation,” “13,” and “meddling,” according to a dashboard maintained by the Alliance for Securing Democracy, a project of the German Marshall Fund, that monitors these accounts. “Mueller” was the top hashtag on Saturday, and by Tuesday morning, the top trending hashtag had evolved to “trumpcolluded.”
Why is this still happening? With Russian troll accounts continuing to attempt to influence American political conversations—even after the company claims to have purged nearly 4,000 Russia-linked disinformation accounts and more than 50,000 bots total from its platform—it appears Twitter still hasn’t adequately dealt with its bot problem. Twitter and peers like Facebook and YouTube have focused on accounts from one troll operation, the Internet Research Agency, the same one at the heart of Mueller’s indictment. The accounts that are continuing to tweet could either be IRA accounts that Twitter hasn’t identified as such, or could come from a different operation. Wherever they come from, they’re not taking a break, even when ostensibly under the microscope of the U.S. government.
Twitter’s had a bot problem for years, but since Donald Trump won the presidency, calls for the company to do something about it have grown louder as politicians began to zero in on the role social media companies played in unwittingly facilitating Russian attempts at meddling in the 2016 election. And while Twitter says it has taken measures to start to rein in its bot infestation, like by detecting coordinated tweet timing and updating its CAPTCHA-like system for ensuring a human is in control of accounts, recent research from Indiana University and the University of Southern California estimates as much as 15 percent of Twitter accounts are bots.
Though the indictment is largely focused on how operatives from the Internet Research Agency instrumentalized U.S. social media companies to attempt to stoke divisions in relation to the 2016 election, there’s no doubt that Russia-backed agents have a much broader interest in trying to amplify social and political discord across the country’s most contentious issues. After the school shooting in Parkland, Florida, the same dashboard revealed Russia-linked accounts had pivoted to tweeting with the hashtags “Guncontrolnow” and “ParklandShooting.” Likewise, after the deadly white nationalist “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, last August, Russian bots and troll accounts joined the conversation, too.
It’s not easy to tell if an account is real or automated or controlled by a foreign agent on Twitter. According to the indictment, the Internet Research Agency regularly made social media accounts with real people’s photos and names and included content penned by large teams of writers. In other words, these troll accounts are designed to deceive. So while it’s true that American social media users probably need to start learning some telltale signs for spotting trolls, the companies that give them a place to thrive, like Twitter and Facebook, need to toughen up too. If they don’t, the confusion that dogged the 2016 election may well make an unwelcome return this November.