Information operations · Information Warfare · Russia

Most major outlets have used Russian tweets as sources for partisan opinion: study

By Josephine Lukito and Chris Wells

MARCH 8, 20181419 WORDS

THE NEW YORK TIMES’S BARI WEISS was in the news again yesterday, this time for citing a hoax Twitter account as an example of liberal intolerance. Just how often do such Twitter accounts make it into mainstream media, as @OfficialAntifa did in Weiss’s column?

While it is well-established that Russians have imitated US citizens on social media, and that they bought thousands of dollars’ worth of social media advertising, the impact of those attempts is not well understood. Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s indictment of 13 Russian agents last month suggests that the agents saw themselves as conducting “information warfare” against the United States to delegitimize the American political process and “sow discord” online.

In a new study at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, we look at how often, and in what context, Twitter accounts from the Internet Research Agency—a St. Petersburg-based organization directed by individuals with close ties to Vladimir Putin, and subject to Mueller’s scrutiny—successfully made their way from social media into respected journalistic media.

We searched the content of 33 major American news outlets for references to the 100 most-retweeted accounts among those Twitter identified as controlled by the IRA, from the beginning of 2015 through September 2017. We found at least one tweet from an IRA account embedded in 32 of the 33 outlets—a total of 116 articles—including in articles published by institutions with longstanding reputations, like The Washington Post, NPR, and the Detroit Free Press, as well as in more recent, digitally native outlets such as BuzzFeed, Salon, and Mic (the outlet without IRA-linked tweets was Vice).

This past fall, Recode, with the aid of the media-intelligence firm Meltwater, found that stories with IRA tweets appeared even in mainstream news. Our study confirms and extends this research, focusing on major mainstream and partisan outlets, and analyzing how IRA tweets were used in stories.

Below is an overview, taken from our study, of the outlets in which IRA tweets appeared:

Outlets and number of articles with IRA-linked tweets

Outlet Number of articles (Percent of all articles in sample)
HuffPost 16 (13.79%)
Daily Caller 15 (12.93%)
The Blaze 11 (9.48%)
USA Today 9 (7.75%)
Elite Daily 7 (6.03%)
mlive 7 (6.03%)
Russia Today 7 (6.03%) 5 (4.31%)
Washington Post 5 (4.31%)
Independent 4 (3.44%)
Mashable 3 (2.58%)
Salon 3 (2.58%)
Fox News 2 (1.72%)
Mic 2 (1.72%) 2 (1.72%)
sfgate 2 (1.72%)
BuzzFeed 1 (0.86%)
Conservative Treehouse 1 (0.86%)
Daily Beast 1 (0.86%)
Daily Mail 1 (0.86%)
Detroit Free Press 1 (0.86%)
LA Time 1 (0.86%)
New York Times 1 (0.86%)
NPR 1 (0.86%)
NY Daily 1 (0.86%)
Slate 1 (0.86%)
The Guardian 1 (0.86%)
Time 1 (0.86%)
Upworthy 1 (0.86%)
US News 1 (0.86%)
Vox 1 (0.86%) 1 (0.86%)

A note on our method: We used open-source database MediaCloudto conduct our search, which ran from the beginning of 2015 until the accounts were suspended by Twitter in September 2017. A team of researchers coded 29 variables about each article.

The outlet without any IRA-linked tweets was Vice.  One LA Timesnews story contained two IRA-linked tweets, from @pamela_moore13 and @ten_gop.  The one New York Times news story we identified was from 2015, and contained an IRA-linked account tweeting in Russian about Russian-Turkish relations.

IRA-created content was widespread in news, in the sense that many different outlets reproduced IRA content, but by no means was it common (notably, some of these outlets published thousands of articles during our search period).

Our research revealed several notable trends.

Twitter as convenient “public opinion”

The bulk of IRA embeds in our study occurred after, not during, the election; in fact, only 5 percent of the stories with IRA embeds were about the election. Instead, most of the stories covered hot-button social and political issues, such as racism and healthcare—a finding consistent with analyses showing the Russian campaign’s interest in sowing discord in the US.

IRA accounts typically made their way into articles when news outlets wanted to illustrate “current opinion” by quoting tweets: Nearly 70 percent of the time, the information contained in the reproduced tweets were opinions about ongoing events.

IRA accounts typically made their way into articles when news outlets wanted to illustrate “current opinion” by quoting tweets

For example, in August 2017, USA Today covered a verbal disagreement over immigration policy between White House adviser Stephen Miller and CNN reporter Jim Acosta. The article begins with a typical account of a back-and-forth in the White House briefing room, but then turns to how the exchange was viewed on Twitter. Here, the author includes a tweet from now-notorious IRA account @TEN_GOP among other, legitimate ones (in the screenshot from USA Today below, @TEN_GOP’s tweet looks different than the others because Twitter has deleted the handle, and the tweet no longer fully embeds on the page):

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