The American media keep cracking down on Russian trolls

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Russian trolls posing as an American college student tweeted about divisive social, political and cultural issues using an account that has amassed thousands of followers – and has appeared in dozens of reports published by mainstream media – not later than March.

More than 50,000 people followed @wokeluisa, an account that featured a photo of a young black woman who called herself Luisa Haynes and claimed to be a political science major from New York City. Twitter has identified @wokeluisa as the work of the Internet Research Agency, a Russian troll farm, and a Kremlin-linked propaganda operation.

Trolls created the account in March 2017 and has amassed an impressive number of followers in just a year. The account, which was suspended, remained active until at least three months ago, shows a cache of tweets viewed by CNN.

Journalists helped propel the account’s remarkable growth, which continued even after Twitter and Facebook pledged to crack down on troll accounts. CNN has found more than two dozen instances in which tweets from @wokeluisa appeared in reports posted by the BBC, USA today, Time, Wired, HuffPo, BET, and others.

Topics ranged from innocuous reflections on the Super Bowl halftime show to comments on the #MeToo movement, NFL players kneeling during the national anthem and criticism of President Donald Trump. For example, a tweet in February read, “In case you missed it: Hillary Clinton is the rightfully elected President of the United States.” Period. Many of the account’s tweets have been retweeted thousands of times.

Related: How The Russians Did It

Twitter gave congressional investigators the names of some 4,000 accounts it linked to the Internet Research Agency. Democrats on the House Intelligence Committee released the names of 1,000 accounts on Tuesday, having previously released details of the other 3,000 accounts.

The problem of foreign trolls masquerading as Americans to stir up discord has received increasing attention since last fall, when the scale of the disinformation operation was exposed.

An ongoing investigation into Russian electoral interference by Special Advocate Robert Mueller led to the indictments in February of 13 Russian nationals and three Russian entities accused of conspiring to defraud the United States.

Twitter and Facebook launched aggressive efforts ahead of the midterm elections to take out trolls and avoid a repeat of 2016, when millions of Americans saw social media posts on these platforms and others created. by Russians. Yet fake accounts continue to dot social media and spread disinformation.

“The metaphor that keeps coming up is a mole,” says Kris Shaffer, senior research analyst at New Knowledge, a company that tracks the spread of disinformation online.

Although social media platforms have made it more difficult for trolls to riot online, Shaffer said state actors and the organizations behind them often find ways to bypass new deterrents — a point raised by Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg when he testified before Congress in April.

Twitter integrates

Journalists amplified the trolls’ message by incorporating tweets from @wokeluisa into their stories. Social media posts serve as modern day vox populi, and the media often includes them to create a richer, more interactive experience.

However, many publishers do not attempt to verify the authenticity of an account before embedding a tweet or post. In many cases, including that of @wokeluisa, editors may not see the need to do this because the posts are light-hearted or even humorous. But presenting such tweets and posts increases the credibility and reach of these accounts.

This helped Russian trolls, as many of the accounts they created in the run-up to the 2016 US presidential election featured a mix of harmless and politically charged material. They appeared to use harmless and often humorous comments to harness the virality of trending hashtags and memes, helping to create an audience later exposed to divisive political comments.

CNN doesn’t appear to have incorporated any tweets from @wokeluisa, but it did fall for other Russian troll accounts. In August 2016, CNN integrated a tweet of “Jenna Abrams,” an account which Twitter said was operated by the Internet Research Agency.

Keep dividing

In an effort to further polarize America ahead of the election, the Internet Research Agency has created accounts offering commentary on all aspects of the biggest social and cultural issues of the day. Some have expressed anti-Muslim sentiment, for example, while others have spoken out against racism and bigotry.

The trolls seem to continue to play on both sides. The Trolls introduced Luisa Haynes as a black anti-Trump activist in support of kneeling NFL players during the national anthem. In March, the account tweeted: “Just a reminder: Colin Kaepernick still has no job, because in this country fighting for justice will make you unemployable.”

Related: After Russia Scandal, Facebook Begins Labeling Political Ads

Another account released by House Democrats this week, which Twitter confirmed to be controlled by the Internet Research Agency, took an opposing view on the matter.

“Barbara Tracy,” who tweeted under the handle @BarbaraForTrump and featured a photo of a woman wearing a red “Make America Great Again” hat, regularly praised the president and appeared to celebrate that no player s ‘was kneeling during the national anthem at the Super Bowl.

@wokeluisa and @BarbaraForTrump appeared to be using photographs of real women. CNN could not identify them and Twitter declined to say whether it identified the women or told them their photos were used in a campaign by Russian trolls.

After House Democrats released the names of the accounts, Twitter pledged to continue its search for Russian trolls and vowed “to be transparent with our users, Congress and the general public about our efforts to combat malicious automation, abuse and misinformation, ”but would not provide more details.

CNNMoney (New York) First published on June 21, 2018: 11:30 a.m.ET

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