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A Look At The Efforts To Monitor A Network Of Twitter Accounts Tied To Russia


The Russian campaign to influence Americans did not end with the 2016 elections. A network of social media accounts with ties to Russia constantly posts and retweets information from a Kremlin-friendly point of view. A group called the Alliance for Securing Democracy tracks about 600 of those Twitter accounts. The group's dashboard lets people monitor what those users are talking about. And Bret Schafer is the organization's social media analyst. Welcome to the studio.

BRET SCHAFER: Thanks for having me.

SHAPIRO: First, describe what these 600 accounts are and how they connect to Russia.

SCHAFER: It's a complicated network, actually, because some of them are these social media bots that you hear a lot about that automatically retweet other accounts. Some are - we think we have a high degree of confidence - linked to Russian intelligence and some are in a third category of, let's say, like-minded users online. So the Russians would use the term useful idiot, but let's just call them fellow travelers that frequently engage with Russian media or these accounts that we suspect are linked to Russian intelligence.

SHAPIRO: When you look at how they responded to yesterday's summit in Helsinki, what were the big headlines?

SCHAFER: So the response within our network in general was praising Trump and Putin and also criticizing critics of the president. So we see that quite often, not just criticizing the general message and saying that, you know, we should be supporting measures for peace but also criticizing the individual specifically. So we saw a lot of attacks go after John McCain because he came out very forcefully against the president. We saw some attacks against Bill Browder, who, of course, Putin mentioned in the press conference.

SHAPIRO: This is one of the surprising things. When I look at the dashboard that your organization has, Bill Browder, a name that most Americans had not heard before yesterday and many Americans still may not be familiar with who this is, he's all over this dashboard.

SCHAFER: Yes, he is.

SHAPIRO: Explain.

SCHAFER: So Bill Browder has been a thorn in Putin's side for a decade. Bill Browder was a hedge fund manager in Russia in the late '90s, early 2000s. He ran afoul of the Putin regime. His attorney, who he hired to defend him in Russia, ended up in a Russian prison and was beaten, tortured and died while in custody. So Bill Browder has made it his mission over the past decade to go after Putin. So he has been the driving force behind the Magnitsky Act, which is in the U.S. but also in many other countries. So for the past several years, Putin has gone after Bill Browder specifically.

SHAPIRO: And in yesterday's summit in Helsinki, Putin mentioned Bill Browder to try to undermine the claim that Russia has interfered in U.S. elections.

SCHAFER: Correct.

SHAPIRO: So what does it mean that your dashboard has Bill Browder all over it?

SCHAFER: I mean, Putin is kind of the dog whistle for this network. So when he gives a talking point, the network amplifies it. So we see Bill Browder. We also see that claim of $400 million on the dashboard that he claims somehow U.S. intelligence had funneled into the Clinton campaign.

SHAPIRO: The top trending hashtag right now is #impeachtrump. Why would pro-Russia accounts be using an impeachment hashtag?

SCHAFER: That's a good question. It's being used sarcastically. So if you actually dive into the individual accounts, they're using a hashtag that probably started with the critics of the president and using the hashtag to undermine that position. So they're using the same hashtag to draw the same viewers, but they're actually saying that this is a ridiculous position that the president is promoting peace, et cetera, et cetera.

SHAPIRO: You started tracking these accounts shortly after the 2016 election. Has the activity stayed roughly the same since then or gone up or down?

SCHAFER: Roughly the same. So Twitter has done a better job of actually knocking down the bot activity. So these automated accounts that were set up and are just used to retweet other accounts, they have minimized that activity. But in general, the activity within the network has stayed at about the same level for the past year. So it's still very, very active.

SHAPIRO: That's Bret Schafer with the Alliance for Securing Democracy talking with us about Russia's disinformation on Twitter after yesterday's meeting between Presidents Trump and Putin. Thanks so much.

SCHAFER: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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