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Natalie Martinez

Author ››› Natalie Martinez
  • Fake news purveyors regularly cited a Twitter account revealed to be Russian propaganda

    Articles from these websites, which have received more than 300,000 Facebook engagements, have promoted tweets from @TEN_GOP claiming a Muslim takeover, attacking the media, and denying Russian collusion


    Sarah Wasko / Media Matters

    Fake news purveyors have repeatedly promoted tweets from a Twitter account that was run by Russian operatives, often framing their articles directly around the account.

    In September, Facebook announced that a Russian firm tied to the Kremlin, the Internet Research Agency, had bought at least $100,000 worth of advertisements on its platform during the 2016 election. Later that month, Twitter announced that it had found at least 200 accounts linked to the same firm. Several news outlets have also reported that Russian operatives used these social media platforms to push anti-immigration rhetoric, including organizing an anti-Muslim rally and impersonating a Muslim group to stir chaos in the U.S. In October, one of the Russian Twitter accounts was identified as @TEN_GOP, which had claimed to speak for the Tennessee Republican Party. The account previously had been repeatedly cited by media outlets, celebrities, and figures in Trump’s orbit.

    Websites known to purvey fake news also regularly cited the account, sometimes to push the same themes that Russian-affiliated accounts did on Facebook. For example, multiple fake news purveyors in February wrote pieces about “angry filthy Muslims tak[ing] over streets of NYC,” citing a video posted by @TEN_GOP that claimed to show “Muslims taking over streets in NYC.” One of the fake news purveyors was The New York Evening, which is based in Macedonia, a major hub for fake news writers. One of those articles drew more than 23,000 Facebook engagements, according to social media analytics website BuzzSumo. In turn, other Facebook pages shared those articles, with users claiming they showed that Muslims “are starting to make the move to take over the country” and that it was “more reason to ban them.” Other anti-Islam tweets from @TEN_GOP, such as those claiming a supposed riot in Paris justified Trump’s Muslim ban and attacking London’s Muslim mayor, were also written up by fake news purveyors and subsequently shared on multiple Facebook pages and on Twitter.

    Fake news purveyors also relied on @TEN_GOP for stories that pushed narratives they had already been promoting, such as attacks on mainstream outlets. Some of them cited the account to promote a supposed protest in front of CNN’s Atlanta headquarters -- so they could attack CNN as “fake news” -- and those articles in turn were shared on Facebook. Trump campaign digital director Brad Parscale also promoted the same rally on Twitter.

    Another fake news purveyor promoted the account’s claim that CNN removed a countdown clock chyron on the screen because it would help Trump, and another website featuring the same article was promoted on Reddit’s notorious “r/The_Donald” message board. That same claim was also pushed by Michael Flynn Jr., a former Trump aide and son of former national security advisor Michael Flynn. Fake news purveyors also promoted other @TEN_GOP attacks on CNN and MSNBC that were in turn shared and engaged with on social media by thousands.

    Fake news purveyors also wrote articles about tweets from @TEN_GOP that:

    These fake news purveyors' articles that cited @TEN_GOP combined had at least 330,000 Facebook engagements, according to BuzzSumo.

    TruthFeed articles citing @TEN_GOP were also frequently pushed on Twitter by two pro-Trump handles, @3lectric5heep and @ThePatriot143. The handles have over 96,000 and 119,000 followers, respectively, and suspiciously high activity. Most of the TruthFeed articles that cited @TEN_GOP were also tweeted by a network of at least 28 handles operating through the automation platform

    FBI agent Watts told The Daily Beast that Trump aides’ promotion of @TEN_GOP demonstrates that Russia’s efforts to push propaganda through social media works, “because Americans will use it against other Americans.” It’s clear that people are doing the same with Russian messaging pushed by hyperpartisan fake news purveyors, sharing and reacting to these articles on social media. Thanks to disguised accounts like @TEN_GOP feeding into narratives that these fake news websites support, Russia has been able to interfere in American domestic affairs and further polarize the country.

  • We looked at Trump's Twitter interactions for more than a year. A lot of them are suspicious.  


    Sarah Wasko / Media Matters

    President Donald Trump tweets … a lot. But along with his usual flurry of tweets attacking the media, lamenting fake news, or criticizing practically anyone who disagrees with him, Trump has another Twitter habit -- quoting his supposed supporters' tweets. A look at over a year of Trump’s retweets, quote tweets, and tweets in which he quoted another Twitter handle has left a lot of questions.

    Using the Trump Twitter Archive, Media Matters audited the president’s Twitter handle, @RealDonaldTrump, between April 1, 2016, and July 31, 2017, focusing on retweets, quote tweets, and tweets where @RealDonaldTrump quoted another Twitter handle. We used that list to identify unverified accounts that he quoted or retweeted, which we then checked for the original tweet and suspicious or bot-like activity. If an account seemed suspicious (for example, it posted an unrealistic number of tweets or exclusively pro-Trump messages), we examined its tweeting habits during the weekend of the second presidential debate (October 6 to 10, 2016). Finally, if an account seemed like a bot, we reviewed its tweeting habits between August 2015 and January 2016.

    Factors used to identify suspicious behavior included the date the handle was created; the number of tweets sent; the general frequency of tweets and use of hashtags and images; the content and frequency of tweets the weekend of the second debate; and what the account tweeted before the October 2015 primary season. Here’s what we found:

    1. Trump retweeted and thanked a woman named Nicole Mincey over the weekend of August 5, 2017, as was widely reported by numerous outlets. Mincey was suspected to be a bot, but was later identified by BuzzFeed and others as a real Trump supporter who was using her page to sell merchandise. It was odd for Trump to simply retweet an unknown account because, based on Media Matters’ findings, Trump typically retweets only verified accounts, such as Fox & Friends’ Twitter account or those of his staffers and family members.

    However, Trump frequently does quote tweets from unverified accounts (not using the Twitter “quote tweet” function but literally quoting a tweet). These quote tweets have been called out in the past for featuring white supremacists, and it appears that he also quotes tweets with some frequency from accounts that appear to be either fake accounts or bots.

    2. At least 12 of the Twitter handles that Trump quoted in tweets have had their accounts suspended, and at least 16 additional handles have been deactivated. For example, on May 15, 2016, Trump quoted a tweet from the handle @TakingIt_Back: 

    However, when one tries to go to the page for @TakingIt_Back now, it redirects to an "Account Suspended" page. This is true for Trump's quoted tweets of @Gengm7, @patrioticpepe, @EyeCandyTMGayle, and @tweak626 as well as others.

    3. On at least six occasions, Trump retweeted tweets from accounts that have only one or two tweets on their page -- and currently have largely inactive profiles.

    While we were unable to locate the original tweets from these accounts, they are still active. For example, on August 29, 2016, Trump quoted a tweet from @RhondaR:

    When one goes to @rhondar's page now, this is what they find: 

    Similar account activity can also be seen on the pages of users Trump quoted in these tweets

    4. Trump has quoted tweets from the handles of at least two suspected bots, one of which is the well-known, now-suspended @PatrioticPepe. The other handle, @Don_Vito_08, has been described as “a partly automated pro-Trump cyborg.” @Don_Vito_08 was created soon after Trump announced he was going to run for president; the account began aggressively tweeting pro-Trump memes in December 2015 and anti-Clinton memes after the presidential primaries. The account has over 33,000 followers and claims in its Twitter bio that it was retweeted three times by Trump.

    5. Over 20 original tweets that Trump quoted on Twitter could no longer be found.

    UPDATE: Trump retweeted another account with suspicious bot or sock puppet-like activity. On August 21, he retweeted and responded to an account with the handle @aroliso, which was created in October 2015 but which only has tweets going back to August 18, 2017. According to The Daily Beast’s Ben Collins, “This is a really recent account takeover. Had one follower as recently as last week. Used to exclusively retweet another scrubbed account.” 

    Natalie Martinez and Freedom Murphy conducted the research documented in this post.