Russia's Divisive Twitter Campaign Took A Rare Consistent Stance: Pro-Gun
MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:
All right, earlier this year, special counsel Robert Mueller indicted a Russian troll farm known as the Internet Research Agency. We are now learning more about Russia's influence campaign on social media against the United States, and specifically we're learning how supportive it was of guns and the National Rifle Association.
Usually this Russian troll campaign would try to cause chaos by supporting both extremes of any political issue - not with guns, though. And joining us to talk about why that might be is NPR's Tim Mak. Hi there again Tim.
TIM MAK, BYLINE: Hi there.
KELLY: First off, reporting on Russian troll farms is hard - to try to figure out what they're up to. Tell me how you've been able to reach these conclusions about the social media messaging.
MAK: So we started with a big question. How did the Internet Research Agency talk about guns and the NRA? Last year, Twitter identified thousands of accounts that were linked to this Russian troll farm. But they quickly deleted that content. But two professors at Clemson realized that one of their research labs had accidentally saved all the tweets in the world over that timeframe, allowing them to save a record of Russian information operations on Twitter. So we worked with Clemson to find the tweets that related to guns, about 30,000 posts.
KELLY: And what did you find in these 30,000 posts?
MAK: So from - on every issue from race to health care, women's rights to police brutality, accounts associated with this Russian troll farm promoted extreme views on both the left and on the right except with guns and the NRA. Seventy-seven percent of the troll farm's content was pro-gun, pro-NRA, and only 11 percent was against.
You also saw that the pro-gun tweets had almost five times the reach as the anti-gun tweets. You'd also have accounts that were supposed to mimic, for example, a real American on the left. That account would push out content on, say, Black Lives Matter. But they'd also be pro-gun. There was no other issue where the Russian accounts acted like this.
KELLY: Fascinating. OK, give me an example of an account that you - that talked about gun rights and how it talked about them.
MAK: Right. So the NRA and the Russian troll farm were often talking about the same things. Both of them stressed how unsafe they said America was due to violent threats. They especially promoted the idea that gun-free zones and areas with strict gun laws were actually dangerous for the public. We even found cases where the troll farm accounts copied verbatim the social media accounts of the NRA. There was one case, for example, where they plagiarized the NRA's description of DNC official Keith Ellison. We also found 90 cases where the NRA and the Russian accounts were saying essentially the same thing or promoting the same message.
KELLY: All right, here's my question. We know from the indictments the Internet Research Agency was Russians working in Russia. But it sounds like what you found was cases of troll farms targeting very local gun legislation in America. How would they even know to target that?
MAK: You know, that's one big mystery of this case. One possibility might lie in what happens with Maria Butina. We spoke about her earlier this week. She's the woman who's been charged with being a covert Russian agent who tried to infiltrate American conservative groups and the National Rifle Association. We found that the person that's been identified as her alleged handler, the Russian government official, had talked on Twitter to the troll farm. So we'll be really watching closely - her legal process as it continues towards a trial.
KELLY: As it works its way through the courts - all right, that's NPR's Tim Mak. Thank you, Tim.
MAK: Thanks a lot.
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