CNN highlights how Russian Twitter bots spread pro-Trump messages throughout the 2016 election

Drew Griffin: “Automated accounts” originating in Russia “played a powerful role in determining the flow of information”

From the September 20 edition of CNN's Erin Burnett OutFront

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DREW GRIFFIN: Twitter is saying it is not in the business of policing political thought or messaging, and that's whether it's coming from Republicans, Democrats, or Vladimir Putin. And while Twitter will not confirm Russian actors were using its platform to meddle in the 2016 U.S. election, the proof it happened is adding up. 

This Twitter account, @TeaPartyNews, had a following of more than 22,000. It blasted the Twitter world with pro-Trump, conservative, anti-immigrant stories and rhetoric throughout the campaign, and among its followers was the now-fired member of the Trump administration, Sebastian Gorka.

What Gorka and other followers of @TeaPartyNews may be surprised to learn is the account has been outed by Russian journalists as being a part of Russian propaganda campaigning. The account has been linked to the Internet Research Agency, which a report by U.S. intelligence officials says, is a shadowy company tied to the Kremlin, all part of the Russian government's attempts to meddle in the U.S. presidential race. Twitter accounts created as part of the Russian propaganda campaign helped the Russians form an entire army of automated Twitter bots and trolls that overwhelmingly supported one U.S. candidate. 


SAMUEL WOOLLEY: Most of the accounts are made to look like Trump supporters, but actually begin and end in Russia. 


GRIFFIN: Samuel Woolley, with Oxford University's internet research group, analyzed over 17 million tweets and found networks of automated accounts that retweet each other and played a powerful role in determining the flow of information in the 2016 election. Some by foreign governments, attacking the U.S. through fake news. 


GRIFFIN: This is literally manufacturing interest in a tweet by rapid-fire, repeating these retweets. 

WOOLLEY: That's right. People like to tell me, “propaganda has been around forever,” but what I say to them is when you computationally enhance propaganda, you have a much more difficult time parsing information and understanding actually what's going on. 

GRIFFIN: Is “weaponize” a word that you would use?

WOOLLEY: They are absolutely weaponized. 


GRIFFIN: @TeaPartyNews has been shut down by Twitter, the company won't say why. But according to Russian investigative journalist Andrey Zakharov, the end of @TeaPartyNews came just at the Russian media began exposing it. 


ANDREY ZAKHAROV: They stopped to operate it exactly after our investigation. The last tweet was on the same day or one day before. 


GRIFFIN: Zakharov tells CNN the account was one of 50 such accounts with more than 600,000 Twitter followers, including at least one member of Donald Trump's administration. Contacted by email, Sebastian Gorka now seems to indicate he knew all along @TeaPartyNews was a Russian propaganda site, telling CNN he followed the site for the “same reason I follow CNN,” he wrote, “to know what the enemies of truth are doing.” Samuel Woolley says getting important followers to a Russian propaganda account was an important part of Putin's disinformation campaign. 


WOOLLEY: The hope of the bot, and the hope of the creator of the bot, actually more pertinently, is that someone picks it up and tweets it out, and then lots of other people make it viral. All of those sorts of things were started as small trends pushed out by bots, and then picked up by the mainstream news media and politicians.



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