@tpartynews looked as American as could be. A Twitter account, its profile photo on the site was a “Tea Party” teapot in the colors of the American flag. Its cover photo was an image of the U.S. Constitution.
In the lead-up to the 2016 presidential election, @tpartynews posted pro-Trump, conservative and anti-immigrant messages. It regularly retweeted Fox News, Ann Coulter and other conservative Twitter accounts. And 22,000 accounts followed it – one of them former White House advisor Sebastian Gorka’s.
But @tpartynews wasn’t American. It was part of a Russian propaganda operation, according to Russian journalists who discovered the link.
Those journalists discovered that @tpartynews was linked to Russia’s Internet Research Agency, a shadowy news service with ties to the Kremlin – one of up to 50 such twitter accounts which collectively had more than 600,000 followers. The Internet Research Agency was also the group linked to $100,000 worth of politically-themed ads purchased on Facebook during the 2016 election, the existence of which Facebook disclosed to Congress and the public earlier this month.
As with Facebook, there is growing evidence that foreign governments, including Russia, used Twitter to try and influence public opinion during the 2016 U.S. election.
Part of the Russian propaganda campaign during the election involved the creation of an entire army of trolls and automated “bots” on Twitter, which together overwhelmingly supported one candidate, according to two reports by US intelligence agencies.
Most of these accounts were “made to look like Trump supporters, but actually begin and end in Russia,” says Samuel Woolley, the director of the Computational Propaganda project at the Oxford Internet Institute.
Woolley and his team tracked suspected bot accounts during the 2016 campaign.
Bots played a “powerful role in determining the flow of information among users” during the election campaign, Woolley’s team concluded.
Bots “amplify someone’s position,” Woolley told CNN. “So people like to tell me, ‘propaganda has been around forever.’ But what I say to this is, ‘when you computationally enhance propaganda, you have a much more difficult time parsing information and understanding actually what’s going on.”
The Russian campaign created an illusion of support, says Woolley, that was manufactured by people or institutions creating automated twitter accounts.
After reviewing 17 million tweets, the Oxford Internet Institute found that the automated accounts “supported Trump much more than Clinton..” and concluded there was a “… possibility that bots were a key player in allowing social media activity to influence the election in Trump’s favour.”
@tpartynews is no longer active. The account has been shut down by Twitter, though the company won’t say why. According to Zakharov, the account ended just as Russian media began to expose it.
Evidence of Russian Twitter use is emerging as Facebook faces scrutiny following its disclosure of the ads purchased by Russians on that network during the election.
But there is a glaring difference in how the two social media companies are reacting to the news. While Facebook says it is working to prevent future misuse of its platform, Twitter says its plan is to let its open forum service fix itself. The company encourages users who see falsehoods being posted to counter that message with the truth. Twitter says it will not screen accounts based on political content – though it does shut down accounts tied to terrorism, hate-related violence, and child pornography.
The company will not answer questions about specific accounts, and that includes @tpartynews.
When asked about specific policy, Twitter directed CNN to a June blog post written by its vice president of public policy, Colin Crowell.
“Twitter’s open and real-time nature is a powerful antidote to the spreading of all types of false information. This is important because we cannot distinguish whether every single Tweet from every person is truthful or not. We, as a company, should not be the arbiter of truth,” Crowell wrote.
Instead, Crowell said, it is up to “journalists, experts and engaged citizens” to correct misinformation.
Which brings us back to @tpartynews and one of its most prominent followers.
Woolley says getting influential social media users to follow Russian propaganda accounts was an important part of the disinformation campaign.
“The hope of the bot and the hope of the creator of the bot… is that someone picks it up and tweets it out, and then lots of other people make it viral.”
Sebastian Gorka has that kind of influence and he was following @tpartynews. From January until he was pushed out in August, Gorka served as a deputy assistant to President Trump. He was a frequent guest on television and talk radio, and an avid Twitter user.
CNN contacted Gorka by e-mail to ask him if he knew he was following a potential Russian propaganda account, and if so why he would do that. In his response, he seemed to indicate that he did, saying that he followed it for the “same reason I follow CNN: … to know what the Enemies of Truth are doing.”
Correction: The original version of this story misspelled Samuel Woolley's last name.