On the March 23 anniversary of the Affordable Care Act becoming law, Democrats attacked Republicans for trying to sabotage the health law and praised the embattled legislation.
So did Russian trolls.
“8 years ago today, President Obama signed the Affordable Care Act into law. Millions of Americans have gained access to health care. Thank you, Mr. President!” said a tweet linked to the Internet Research Agency, a Russian company engaged in an online influence campaign that typically seeks to pit one side against the other on controversial issues.
A newly identified group of nearly 10,000 tweets shows that while Russian trolls often focus on such hot-button issues as Hillary Clinton’s email or athletes kneeling during the national anthem, they also target substantive and divisive policy areas like health care.
Nearly 600 IRA-linked accounts posted to Twitter about the ACA and health policy from 2014 through this past May, with the most prolific ones tweeting hundreds of times, the new data show. One account, called TEN_GOP, rocketed from fewer than 1,000 followers to more than 138,000 in two years, sending 60 tweets that potentially reached followers more than four million times.
Researchers at Clemson University provided The Wall Street Journal with the set of about 9,800 tweets involving health policy and the ACA that the IRA posted over that period. An analysis by the Journal found that 80% of the tweets had conservative-leaning political messages, often disparaging the health law.
The accounts have been shut down by Twitter as congressional investigators unearthed their origin, but intelligence experts say the assault is continuing through similar accounts and channels. The tweets provide a snapshot of a continuing strategy, one that is likely now aimed at November’s midterm elections in which health care is playing a dominant role, experts said.
Tweeting by the IRA accounts peaked in spring 2017 and again that summer, when congressional Republicans mounted failed efforts to repeal the health law.
The IRA, based in St. Petersburg, seeks to use divisions over the health law to mobilize voters, pressure Congress and target specific lawmakers, the tweets suggest. The organization is seen by U.S. intelligence officials as a sophisticated, Kremlin-backed group that ran a surreptitious operation to influence the 2016 elections with a budget in the tens of millions of dollars.
The IRA is the focus of several federal and congressional investigations as it becomes increasingly clear how Russian propagandists have used social media to stoke tensions in the U.S.
A Twitter spokesman declined to comment for this article. Previously, Twitter has said it would improve communications with the political parties before the midterms and move rapidly to curb spam and abuse.