Twitter tells Congress it took action on 200 Russia-linked accounts

Study: Junk election news spread on Twitter
Study: Junk election news spread on Twitter

Twitter has informed Congress that it found and took action on roughly 200 accounts on its service after determining they were linked to Russia and sought to interfere in American politics.

"Of the roughly 450 accounts that Facebook recently shared as a part of their review, we concluded that 22 had corresponding accounts on Twitter. All of those identified accounts had already been or immediately were suspended from Twitter for breaking our rules," Twitter announced in a blog post Thursday afternoon. "In addition, from those accounts we found an additional 179 related or linked accounts, and took action on the ones we found in violation of our rules."

The social media company met with the Senate and House intelligence committees on Thursday amid the ongoing congressional investigations into Russia's efforts to interfere with the 2016 presidential campaign, including through social media.

In that meeting, Twitter representatives informed congressional staff that they had taken action on the 200 accounts after connecting them to Facebook accounts that had been suspended because they were linked to a Russian troll farm.

As with the Facebook accounts, the Twitter accounts sought to amplify political discord by highlighting hot-button political issues like race and immigration.

Related: Exclusive: Russian-bought Black Lives Matter ad on Facebook targeted Baltimore and Ferguson

Some of the tweets from these accounts promoted anti-Hillary Clinton stories, a source with knowledge of the matter said. The US intelligence community believes one reason Russia meddled in the election was to damage Clinton's chances of winning.

In its report, Twitter also revealed how much accounts affiliated with RT (Russia Today) spent on advertising.

Three accounts -- @RT_com, @RT_America, and @ActualidadRT -- promoted 1,823 tweets that "definitely or potentially targeted the U.S. market," the company said. RT spent $274,100 for those ads.

Twitter did not disclose how many of those ads were targeted at the U.S. election, but the company said the campaigns "were directed at followers of mainstream media and primarily promoted RT tweets regarding news stories."

In 2017, the U.S. intelligence community published a report describing how RT, which is linked to the Russian government, allegedly participated in an influence campaign directed at the 2016 presidential election.

In its statement Thursday, Twitter also highlighted its efforts to combat bot behavior on the platform to help stop automated spam content.

Twitter has a variety of automated tools that identify when someone is trying to create and distribute spam content, including automatically shutting down bots before they can log in to the platform. Twitter says it stops 450,000 suspicious logins per day.

Third-party apps that violate Twitter's policies are also in its crosshairs, and it suspended more than 117,000 malicious apps since June.

A more technical challenge, Twitter says, is detecting spammy or malicious accounts run by humans that coordinate to share information widely.

"We have to approach this problem differently than we do bots and other forms of automated content," the company wrote. "It's much trickier to identify non-automated coordination, and the risks of inadvertently silencing legitimate activity are much higher."

Virginia Sen. Mark Warner, the top Democrat on the Senate intelligence committee, slammed Twitter for a presentation he said was "deeply disappointing."

"Their response was frankly inadequate on almost every level," Warner said.

Warner said Twitter shut down Russian-linked accounts only based upon work Facebook had already done to identify the users, which he said "showed an enormous lack of understanding from the Twitter team of how serious this issue is."

Twitter has not made details about the accounts public, but research from independent groups monitoring Twitter provides some insight into how Russian-linked accounts used the social media platform in an attempt to amplify America's political divisions.

The Alliance for Securing Democracy, an initiative by the public policy group German Marshall Fund, has an ongoing review of 600 Twitter accounts linked to Russia and seeking to influence U.S. politics. In the last week, the group says, one-quarter of the stories promoted by those accounts had a strong anti-American theme, while roughly 15% were anti-Hillary Clinton.

Those findings are largely consistent with what Facebook has disclosed to Congress about the Facebook ads bought by Russian-backed accounts.

On Wednesday, CNN reported that at least one of those Facebook ads referenced Black Lives Matter and was specifically targeted to reach audiences in Ferguson, Missouri and Baltimore.

Ferguson and Baltimore had gained widespread attention for the large and at times violent protests over police shootings of black men. The decision to target the ad in those two cities offers a look into how Russians used geographically targeted advertising in its effort to sow political chaos in the United States.

-- CNNMoney's Selena Larson contributed reporting.

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