Recently, a study from researchers with the University of Wisconsin-Madison looked at how various U.S. news outlets unintentionally used tweets from the Internet Research Agency, the Kremlin-backed organization accused of meddling in the 2016 presidential election, in their reporting. The researchers examined 33 outlets, ranging from the Washington Post to Buzzfeed, and found that 32 had embedded an IRA tweet at least once. (The one outlet in their set that didn’t fall for it: Vice.)
The findings, which authors discussed in a piece for the Columbia Journalism Review, show just how widespread tweets from IRA accounts were even in mainstream media. But how does a piece of Russian propaganda find its way into a legitimate journalistic outlet in the first place? It’s actually pretty easy.
I should know—Slate was among the outlets included in the study. The researchers found that in a sample of about 116 Slate articles, there was one that included an embedded IRA tweet: a blog post I wrote in June 2017 on Johnny Depp joking about assassinating Donald Trump. That post constituted 0.86 percent of Slate’s work in the sample, a relatively low percentage compared with some others on the list, but how it got there is a very familiar story.
The researchers found a few trends in its study across different outlets: The faux tweets in question often commented on real news rather than “fake news,” espoused partisan opinions, and were used to exemplify public response. And that’s exactly what happened in my post about Depp’s comments: After briefly summarizing the news story itself, I wanted to convey how Depp’s comments were being received, so I embedded five tweets as a small sample of the wider backlash, including this now-unavailable one, from the IRA-backed @TEN_GOP:
Kathy Griffin: I ruined my career, no one can ever screw up as badly as I did.
Reza Aslan: Hold my beer!
Johnny Depp: Mind if I join you?
— Tennessee (@TEN_GOP) June 23, 2017
Depp’s comments in June had closely followed two other public figures who got in hot water for their own attacks on Trump: Kathy Griffin, who posed with a replica of his severed head, and Reza Aslan, whose CNN show was canceled after a tweet calling the president “a piece of shit.”
I may not have explicitly framed @TEN_GOP’s as partisan opinion—plenty of people on the left thought Depp’s comments were boneheaded, too—but the account does have “GOP” right there in the name, and the other four tweets I used were from figures on the right. @TEN_GOP’s was sandwiched between tweets from Republican National Committee Chairwoman Ronna McDaniel and Fox News’ Greg Gutfeld.
Why include @TEN_GOP alongside those other, more obviously legitimate tweets? Well, when I’m putting together a Twitter roundup about public opinion on any subject, really, I usually look for at least one of three criteria:
• opinions from prominent, preferably verified voices
• tweets that make a specific point rather than just echoing the same argument as others
• tweets that have momentum, as indicated by a lot of likes and retweets
The @TEN_GOP tweet fell into those last two categories. I didn’t mistake @TEN_GOP for the real Twitter account of Tennessee Republicans—it was missing the telltale checkmark, after all—but I also didn’t think twice about including it, since it was a popular account (it had amassed more than 100,000 followers before it was suspended in August) making a point I’d seen in scattered tweets elsewhere on Twitter, pointing out how Depp’s comments shortly followed those of Griffin and Aslan.
Unlike those other tweets, however, @TEN_GOP had summarized that point neatly—even cleverly—and had found a lot of support, or so it seemed. (Just as a high ratio of replies to likes and retweets is a pretty reliable indicator that a tweet is unpopular, the opposite still usually indicates that a tweet has resonated with a lot of people. In February, Twitter changed the way engagement counts are displayed when a tweet is embedded on another site, taking out retweets and instead saying how “many people are talking about this.”)
When the Columbia Journalism Review piece came out, I was surprised, but not shocked, to see Slate on the list of outlets that had reproduced Russian propaganda. We are, after all, in good company. However, I was definitely not expecting that the offending post that landed us on the would be one that I had written—I write about culture, not politics!
Then again, as the line between the two is increasingly blurred, it may be time to rethink that distinction and to be extra scrupulous about turning to Twitter as a source for public opinion. As far as Russian propaganda goes, a tweet making fun of Johnny Depp for making a stupid, politically volatile joke is fairly innocuous. But it does show how fake Russian accounts inserted themselves into Twitter discourse—and in some cases, into legitimate news outlets, too.