Hundreds of thousands of tweets attributed to Russian internet trolls deleted by Twitter have been recovered by NBCNews and published online, offering new insight into the weaponization of social media amid ongoing concerns raised by Moscow’s involvement in the 2016 U.S. presidential race.
NBC News on Wednesday published a database containing more than 200,000 deleted tweets originally posted by Twitter accounts linked to the Internet Research Agency, a St. Petersburg-based “troll farm” accused of waging offensive social media operations on behalf of the Russian government, including activities conducted in tandem with the alleged state-sponsored interference campaign waged against the last White House race.
While the extent of the Russia’s alleged involvement in the 2016 race is well documented, Twitter purged its platform last year of accounts tied to related “malicious activity,” leaving few examples in place of the Internet Research Agency’s operations until now.
Three individuals familiar with Twitter’s data systems cross-referenced a partial list of Internet Research Agency handles released by Congress last year to successfully recover more than 200,000 deleted tweets contained in the partial database released Wednesday, NBC News reported.
“NBC News decided to make this data public and downloadable so other news outlets could use them for their own reporting and so Americans can have access to all of this information,” the network said in a press release.
A cursory search of the newly recovered tweets quickly yielded previously unreported details involving the alleged troll farm’s activities and their research. A recovered tweet attributed to fictional Twitter user Tracy Brooks, for example, was cited in a mundane 2016 article published by Voice of America, a U.S.-government funded media operation, titled “Twitter Users Discuss ‘Survival Guide to Thanksgiving.’”
Another recovered tweet credited to a different fictional Twitter user, Leroy Barton, was subsequently cited in six separate news articles published by outlets owned by the Russian-government, but nowhere else.
The Russian government interfered in the 2016 race to help boost Republican candidate Donald Trump over Democratic opponent Hillary Clinton, utilizing tactics ranging from cyberattacks waged against the Clinton campaign, to social media trolling campaigns meant to sow discord, according to U.S. intelligence officials.
“Moscow’s influence campaign followed a Russian messaging strategy that blends covert intelligence operations — such as cyber activity — with overt efforts by Russian Government agencies, state-funded media, third-party intermediaries and paid social media users or ‘trolls,’” the U.S. Office of the Director of National Intelligence concluded in a January assessment.
Twitter accounts associated with the Internet Research Agency repeatedly posted politically charged content echoed during the 2016 campaign by members of Mr. Trump’s presidential campaign, according to previous reporting. Last month, meanwhile, Twittersaid it notified some 1.4 million accounts who had either followed, liked or retweeted content created by 3,814 troll accounts during the last White House race.
Testifying Tuesday on Capitol Hill, the director of the Office of National Intelligence said Russia has anything but abandoned using the internet to meddle in American affairs.
“There should be no doubt that Russia perceives its past efforts as successful and views the 2018 U.S. midterm elections as a potential target for Russian influence operations,” Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats told the Senate Intelligence Committee.
“The Russians utilize this tool because it’s relatively cheap, it’s low risk, it offers what they perceive as plausible deniability and it’s proven to be effective at sowing division,” Mr. Coats said. “We expect Russia to continue using propaganda, social media, false flag personas, sympathetic spokesmen, and other means of influence to try to build on its wide range of operations and exacerbate social and political fissures in the United States.”
Russia has denied meddling in the 2016 race.