As the public learns more about confirmed Russian troll accounts on social media platforms over the past few years, reporters have begun digging into any ties they may have with major political or tech voices. The Daily Beast found a pretty big one on Friday, when it confirmed via Internet archives that Twitter co-founder and CEO Jack Dorsey unwittingly retweeted posts from a phony Black Lives Matter advocate.
In fact, the example Daily Beast reporter Ben Collins found was a single account, @crystal1johnson, getting two juicy retweets from Twitter's very own "@jack." The discovered posts (which are now archive-only, thanks to the account being deleted in August) date back to March 2016. Both revolve around black identity in the United States.
The first congratulated musician and actor Rihanna for winning a Humanitarian of the Year award from Harvard (dead link here, proof of its content here). The second shared a now-dead image of what may have been children of different races having fun together, with the description reading, "Nobody is born a racist. This picture is so sweet! Teach your children to judge others by the kind of person they are inside." (Archived link of Dorsey's retweet [RT], found by Collins, is here.)
Collins points out that another outlet, the non-government Russian agency RBC, identified @crystal1johnson as a Russian troll-farm account, and that his own team was currently working to independently confirm that allegation.
Should Daily Beast's search bear out, this may prove to be the most glaring example of exactly how troll-farm operations work. Their accounts often debut with an apparent political and social identity, along with a stress on link shares with unique, viral-styled descriptions and exclamations. This is perhaps done with hopes of gathering followers, "likes," and shares. Then, when it politically suits an operator, an account may start sharing politically divisive messages. In the case of the "Crystal Johnson" account, at least one of those came in May of last year, when the account posted, "Clinton's True Face.. KKK leader claims he gave $20K to Hillary Clinton campaign." That now-dead post's linked story has since been all but refuted. Otherwise, archive searches of @crystal1johnson's full account reveal posts that mostly revolve around issues of black identity and the Black Lives Matter movement.
RTs from an account as heavily followed as Dorsey's does just the trick: it allows a fake actor to attract seemingly organic connections to other users, which Twitter may look for when determining whether an account is legitimate and/or should be pushed down by its "quality filter." From there, a politically motivated actor can distribute divisive messages or target advertising at a bucket of like-minded users.
And if you think this kind of troll-farm activity is all over and kaput since such news has broken, or hews largely to national news trends like the Presidential election, then allow me to offer my own strange story from this Tuesday.
After posting my own personal thoughts about a mayoral race in my home town of Seattle, I began receiving curiously pointed responses from an account I'd never interacted with that dates back to 2009—which had, up until recently, posted a lot of stories about feminism and female politics with share-hopeful personal opinions attached. (Not to mention at least one phonetically awkward post about cooking.) More recently, it began posting about Seattle politics and sending replies to local political reporters.
I engaged the account and questioned its legitimacy, only to receive question dodges and logically unclear responses that dried up once I mentioned my work at Ars Technica. A source at an American graduate program in computer science offered an anonymous analysis of the account in question, declaring that it "exhibited patterns conducive to a political bot or highly moderated account tweeting political propaganda." Why this account would target one Seattle mayoral candidate is unclear, given that the account's complaints hinge largely on one candidate being independently wealthy—even though both candidates have significant personal wealth in common.
Even when they don't have obvious national ramifications, other seemingly organic accounts are likely still being operated with designs on striking whenever politically convenient. Any such run-ins on your end, readers?