Twitter finds hundreds of accounts tied to Russian operatives

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WASHINGTON – Twitter has shut down 201 accounts that were tied to the same Russian operatives who posted thousands of political ads on Facebook, the company told congressional investigators Thursday and revealed in a blog in the afternoon.

The company also found three Russian Today accounts – which it said it believes are linked to the Kremlin – that spent $274,100 in ads on Twitter’s platform in 2016.

The meeting between the company and Congressional investigators is part of a widening government probe into how Russian operatives used Facebook, Google, Twitter and other social media platforms to sow division and disinformation during the 2016 campaign. Those companies are under increasing pressure from Capitol Hill to investigate Russian meddling on their platforms and are facing the possibility of new regulations that could impact their massive advertising businesses.

The Twitter accounts, which were taken down over the last month, were associated with 470 accounts and pages that Facebook last month said came from the International Research Agency, a Russia-connect troll farm. Twitter said the groups on Facebook had 22 corresponding Twitter accounts. Twitter then found an additional 179 accounts linked to those 22.

One congressional investigator has said that the Facebook accounts from the International Research Agency are likely just the “tip of the iceberg.”

“There’s plenty of evidence that Russian intelligence services have been on Twitter for years and have used Twitter to amplify messages and inserted lines of attack in ways that got amplified by mainstream and partisan media,” said Alex Howard, deputy director of the Sunlight Foundation. “We need to think very carefully about what role we want these companies to have in our debate – and, since these platforms largely regulate themselves, what kind of accountability we want them to have.”

Silicon Valley has long enjoyed a hands off approach from Washington, and has become a major lobbying force in Washington in order to keep things that way. But that attitude appears to be shifting quickly.

Last week Sens. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., and Mark Warner, D-Va., urged colleagues Thursday to support a bill that would create new transparency requirements for platforms that run political ads online akin to those already in place for TV stations, according to a letter obtained by The Washington Post. Lawmakers from across the political spectrum – from Sen. Cory Booker, D-N.J., to Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas – have called for more scrutiny into the market power of technology companies over the last few months.

Facebook has faced the greatest scrutiny. The company has said it will provide 3,000 political ads, in addition to payment information and data about who those ads targeted, to Congress in the coming days.

In a Facebook post on Wednesday, Mark Zuckerberg apologized for calling the idea that fake news could have influenced the U.S. election “pretty crazy.”

“Calling that crazy was dismissive and I regret it. This is too important an issue to be dismissive,” he wrote. He then emphasized that the role Facebook played in spurring authentic debate and sustaining democratic ideals was much greater than any exploitation.

“The data we have has always shown that our broader impact – from giving people a voice to enabling candidates to communicate directly to helping millions of people vote – played a far bigger role in this election,” he said.

Google, the largest online advertising company in the world, has also been asked to provide information to Congressional investigators and to testify before Congress, but has not said whether it will do so. The company has said it will cooperate with any investigation and has “seen no evidence” of a Russian-promoted ad campaign.

In many ways, Twitter has been the most vulnerable to exploitation of all the social media companies. The company officially says the 5 percent of accounts on Twitter are automated bots, but outside researchers say the number could be as high as 15 percent.

It’s very easy to buy fake accounts on Twitter, making it hard for Twitter to discern the extent of the Russian meddling, analysts said.

“Anyone can create an account anonymously on Twitter and hide its origin, said Clint Watts, senior fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute.