SCOTT SIMON, HOST:
Last week, federal prosecutors unsealed a criminal complaint which described efforts by the Russian-backed Internet Research Agency to use Twitter bots to influence Americans on a wide variety of controversial topics, including issues raised in sports. Andrew Beaton, a sports reporter for The Wall Street Journal, has written about the impact that Russian trolls have had on the controversy over players who kneel during the playing of the national anthem. Mr. Beaton joins us from New York. Thanks so much for being with us.
ANDREW BEATON: Thanks so much for having me on.
SIMON: Why was this Internet Research Agency interested in whether football players took a knee or not during the playing of the anthem?
BEATON: Well, at first glance, it seems a little strange, right? We have them talking about these weighty, weighty issues like health care, like the Second Amendment - issues that are directly related to politics. But then when you think about it, what their efforts were aimed at were sowing discord. This issue with players kneeling during the national anthem, which started in 2016 to draw attention to social issues, racial inequality, this issue has been pretty much as divisive as it gets.
But it's not just people that are weighing in on this. It's a topic that reached the president of the United States. Last year, President Donald Trump weighed in on the topic regularly, whether that was in stump speeches, whether that was on Twitter. So it's not just a big social, cultural issue. This was an issue that reached the top of the food chain.
SIMON: What did you find when you dug into the Twitter accounts that are connected to the Internet Research Agency?
BEATON: Well, what we found was these tweets had begun all the way dating back to 2014. But when Colin Kaepernick began the movement then we saw these issues sparked to life. And then in September of 2017, President Trump gives a speech in Alabama that really attacks the players using crude language. It became a big cultural moment. And then the Twitter trolls spring to life even more. And so that's one of the first things.
One of the second things you look at when you start to parse through the data is which angle they were coming from. So of the partisan tweets, 87 percent were from what the researchers at Clemson University, who helped provide us with this data, 87 percent they identified as right-wing conservative. Those are the people who would be assailing the players for the kneeling, calling them unpatriotic. Thirteen percent were supporting Colin Kaepernick, supporting the players. So it's interesting to look at that breakdown and wonder how that influenced the conversation.
SIMON: So it wasn't directed to achieving a certain result, just to stir things up, apparently?
BEATON: Yeah. And the word we hear over and over when it comes to politics and what they were trying to do on social media is sow discord. And this is, in some ways, just the perfect issue to do that because it is a fraught, contentious issue, and also you want people to pay attention to what you're doing. When you want something to go viral, football is the most popular sport in America. They chose some pretty red meat, some pretty rabid fans to try and attract this debate.
SIMON: I gather a lot of these accounts have been closed, right?
BEATON: Yeah. So the accounts from this study have been closed. But, you know, what we see with these, it sometimes seems to be a game of whack-a-mole. One's closed down, new ones pop up. And one of the interesting notes that the Clemson professors had was that these are closed, but they are monitoring new ones that they suspect to be connected to the same operations. And they're continuing to weigh in on controversial sporting topics, such as a month ago, we saw the new Nike campaign with Colin Kaepernick, which, again, became a charged moment. And then that's the type of things where they would continue to weigh in.
SIMON: Andrew Beaton of The Wall Street Journal, thanks so much for being with us.
BEATON: Thanks so much for having me on.
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