WASHINGTON — The effort by a Russian internet deception factory to manipulate American public opinion during the 2016 election was better planned and executed — and also more lucrative — than previously understood, according to a new analysis of nearly 10 million tweets by a leading cybersecurity firm.
The operation by the St. Petersburg-based Internet Research Agency amounted to “a vast, coordinated campaign that was incredibly successful at pushing out and amplifying its messages,” according to Symantec, which conducted an in-depth analysts of nearly 4,000 Twitter accounts involved in what U.S. intelligence agencies assess was a Russian-government–sponsored propaganda operation designed in part to help Donald Trump get elected president.
Some of the accounts were set up months in advance. And some of the trolls used their fake accounts to make money on the side, the researchers found, with one potentially generating nearly $1 million.
“While this propaganda campaign has often been referred to as the work of trolls, the release of the dataset makes it obvious that it was far more than that,” Symantec researcher Gillian Cleary wrote in a blog post, calling it “a vast disinformation network.”
“The sheer scale and impact of this propaganda campaign is obviously of deep concern to voters in all countries, who may fear a repeat of what happened in the lead-up to the U.S. presidential election in 2016.”
The IRA’s disinformation campaign was described in the final report by special counsel Robert Mueller, and in his indictment of multiple Russian nationals. U.S intelligence agencies assessed that the social media manipulation was part of a Russian intelligence operation designed to undermine American democracy by exacerbating divisions, hurt Democrat Hillary Clinton and help Trump. Experts say the U.S. government and American social media companies have yet to develop a strategy to prevent such manipulation from happening again. Just last week, a different cybersecurity firm exposed an Iranian effort to manipulate U.S. social media with fake accounts.
The IRA’s basic strategy, Symantec found, was to use a small core of Twitter accounts to push out new content. And they harnessed a wider pool of automated accounts to amplify those messages.
The operation was carefully planned, with accounts often registered months before they were used — well in advance of the 2016 U.S. presidential election, Symantec found. The average time between account creation and first tweet was 177 days.