When a Russian troll farm was fishing for Trump supporters on Twitter, it baited the hook by targeting minority activists and public figures.
TPM has reviewed tweets and images from a pro-Trump Twitter account run by the Russian troll farm that likely purchased $100,000 worth of political ads on Facebook. Among the account’s favorite targets during the 2016 campaign season were Michelle Obama, undocumented immigrants and antiracist activist movement Black Lives Matter.
The since-suspended account, @tpartynews, had about 22,000 followers and was run out of a St. Petersburg company called the Federal News Agency (FAN), according to the authors of a report on the agency that ran in March in a major Russian business magazine, RBC. Twitter did not respond by press time to multiple requests for comment; Talking Points Memo will update this piece if they return those requests.
In a blog post about the Russians’ political ad spend on Facebook, the company’s chief security officer, Alex Stamos, observed that the ads and accounts identified as being linked to the $100,000 buy “appeared to focus on amplifying divisive social and political messages across the ideological spectrum — touching on topics from LGBT matters to race issues to immigration to gun rights.”
Twitter appears to have been a target of the same campaign, and the tenor of the @tpartynews account seems to fit with Stamos’s description.
The account promoted Donald Trump’s campaign events generically—”Massive line for #TrumpWA in #Everett!”, it tweeted on Aug. 30, 2016—but it also managed to work in anti-BLM sentiment wherever it could.
“‘Fuck this flag! Fuck this country!’ #BLM were shouting at ‘peaceful’ protests to #Trump’s rally in #Wisconsin,” the account tweeted on April 6, 2016. On June 4, the account offered some tough-on-crime grandstanding: “Crimminals [sic] commit less crime after they have been shot! That’s why I say #bluelivesmatter,” the account tweeted above a picture of a sunglasses-wearing police officer aiming a pistol at the camera.
The account also took shots at undocumented immigrants: “Illegal Immigrants today.. Democrat on welfare tomorrow!” read another.
In addition, @tpartynews offered to soothe the hurt feelings of conservatives: “People make fun of the way Melania Trump looks and speaks,” the account’s operators wrote above a meme of the first lady and her predecessor, with conservative commentator Joe Walsh’s brand affixed to it. “Do that to Michelle Obama and you’re a racist.”
The account did a credible impression of its domestic pro-Trump counterparts, as well. Like many far-right U.S. media outlets, @tpartynews tweeted out a crime blotter story about a group of seven young men—two white, five black—who allegedly shouted “black lives matter” as they assaulted seven white victims. Ohio court records show that charges against one were dismissed, another pled down to a small fine, and four other cases were transferred out of Akron criminal court. The cursory local media report that broke the story was reposted with no follow-up by Trump-stumpers from Breitbart News to The Blaze to PJ Media (the Russian troll account didn’t do follow-up reporting, either).
The Twitter account would have easily flown under the radar: Tea Party News is the screen name of a great many twitter users. But according to Andrey Zakharov, Moscow-based special reporter for RBC.ru, the @tpartynews account was run out of St. Petersburg, Russia by the same operation that tried to organize anti-immigrant rallies in a tiny town in Idaho via a Facebook account called Secured.Borders, as the Daily Beast reported Tuesday.
“Our sources … gave us inside statistics of Tea Party News,” Zakharov told TPM. “[W]ith 22,000 followers, their tweets were read by 1.6 million users.”
Zakharov and his partner, Polina Rusyaeva, reviewed screenshots and statistics provided by sources close to the troll farm; Secured.Borders, he said, had 140,000 likes and was seen more than 4 million times.
Zakharov said the troll farm’s tactics are old news in Russian politics, but its international reach is something new. “Troll farms are used by Moscow’s government,” he told TPM. “PR agencies use them, sure, but not on such scale.” Internationally, he said, he knows of “only the famous one from St. Petersburg.”
FAN is a Kremlin-aligned news agency that probably runs the now-notorious Internet Research Agency, according to Adrian Chen’s New York Times magazine profile of the group. Its head is “oligarch restaurateur” Evgeny Prigozhin, referred to in Chen’s piece as “The Kremlin’s Chef.”
Alexey Kovalev has reported in depth on troll farms and wrote a widely-circulated English-language account of Zakharov and Rusyaeva’s article for the Moscow Times. Troll farms’ operations, he said, are anything but ideological.
“I posted something angry about Moscow’s mayor (I’m in a state of permanent info war with the city hall), and literally two seconds later a typical bot, fake profile and all, pops up in the comments, praising the Dear Leader,” Kovalev recalled to TPM. “I ask him, half jokingly, ‘How much do they pay you there to suck the mayor’s dick?'”
Lots, the troll replied. “Two seconds later he DM’s me and says “Not that bad actually – 70,000 rubles on a normal month or 100 if I’m lucky, you’re interested?'” Kovalev said he applied for the job, but was rejected for being a “saboteur.”
That particular farm wasn’t affiliated with the St. Petersburg group, Kovalev said. But good command of English, he was told, was still a prerequisite for the gig.
Investigators are increasingly focused on Russian interference in the 2016 election using social media platforms; Sen. Mark Warner (D-VA), vice chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee, has said publicly that Twitter will provide a report to Congress similar to the one Facebook made last week.
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