Thousands of Russian trolls targeted national events during the 2016 U.S. presidential election to infiltrate the online conversations of millions of Americans, according to a new analysis of a database of recovered troll tweets by NBC News.
The records show how digital communications tools invented by U.S. companies, such as Twitter and Facebook, were instead exploited by the Kremlin-backed agents to promote autocracy and fear.
Twitter has identified 2,752 accounts as being linked to the Kremlin. In November, Congress released the list of account names.
NBC News took those names and cross-referenced it against data held by three sources familiar with Twitter’s API, an online system that allows software developers to work user data, generated a database of 202,973 tweets sent by known Russian trolls. The sources asked that their names be withheld to avoid being identified as possibly violating Twitter’s developer policy.
The resulting database from 454 of the identified accounts is “one of the largest” known repositories of deleted Russian Twitter troll activity to date, according to Jonathan Albright, research director at Columbia University’s Tow Center for Digital Journalism.
Those tweets from accounts impersonating real Americans earned 2.1 million retweets and nearly 1.9 million favorites from their duped followers.
While no single tweet from a fake account threw the race, the matrix of Russian troll activity reveals the shape of a sophisticated, researched and targeted effort by a foreign adversary to subvert the conversations and opinions of Americans as they chose their next president.
“Thinking about this in a binary of ‘did it cause someone to change their vote?’ is overly narrow,” said Laura Rosenberger, director of the Alliance for Securing Democracy. “It’s about influence over time.”