Russia Today, the Kremlin-backed television network, spent $274,000 on more than 1,800 tweets on Twitter’s network that “definitely or potentially targeted the U.S. market” during the 2016 presidential campaign, representatives of the social media giant told congressional investigators Thursday.
When clients pay to promote their tweets, Twitter pushes them higher into the feeds of account holders.
Company officials also reported, in a briefing for members of the House and Senate Intelligence Committees, that an internal investigation found Russian operatives who opened 470 accounts on Facebook beginning in June 2015 had 201 corresponding accounts on Twitter. The company said in a web blog that it has shut down those accounts.
Twitter’s disclosures followed revelations from Facebook last week that Russians had paid $150,000 for 5,200 ads on its platform during the presidential campaign.
The disclosures are the first in what Virginia Sen. Mark Warner, the ranking Democrat on the Senate Intelligence Committee has said appears to be the “tip of the iceberg” in Russia’s use of social media to carry out a broad cyber offensive aimed at helping Donald Trump win the White House.
U.S. intelligence agencies said in a declassified report in January that Russia Today and Sputnik, another Russian broadcast outlet tied to the Kremlin, were central players in a propaganda attack aimed at damaging Trump’s heavily favored Democratic opponent, Hillary Clinton, in the race.
The House and Senate Intelligence Committees and a Justice Department Special Counsel are conducting parallel investigations into the extent of the Russian operation and whether Trump’s presidential campaign may have collaborated with it.
Colin Crowell, Twitter’s vice president of public policy, government and philanthropy, met privately with House and Senate congressional investigators to lay out what the company has been able to learn to date, a spokesman for the San Francisco-based company said.
In the lengthy blog post, Twitter said it is “sharing as much as we can at this stage, because of our commitment to be as transparent as possible.”
“With hundreds of millions of tweets globally every day, scaling these efforts continues to be a challenge. We will continue to look into these matters on an ongoing basis, and we fully anticipate having more to share as we look into further requests for information.”
While Twitter's disclosures in its blog post were aimed at quelling the growing controversy and political storm over fake news --including some from Russian outlets--in the 2016 elections, there were scant details revealing which accounts they closed and what the content pushed by those accounts actually contained.
Instead Twitter disclosed the steps it had taken in broad strokes to address concerns about fake news that had been raised by congressional investigators. Twitter's blog for instance said that of the Facebook accounts traced to a company linked to a Russian “troll” farm, “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, most for violating our prohibitions against spam.”
“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 company said. “Neither the original accounts shared by Facebook, nor the additional related accounts we identified, were registered as advertisers on Twitter.”
Mike Carpenter, a former senior Pentagon official who specialized in Russia issues during the Obama administration, called Twitter’s disclosures “underwhelming to say the least, given the hundreds if not thousands of other Russian accounts on Twitter that were deployed as part of the Kremlin's disinformation campaign during the last election.”
The U.S. intelligence agencies’ report devoted considerable space to detail how Russia Today’s U.S. arm, RT America TV, had expanded its programming highlighted by “criticism of U.S. shortcoming in democracy and civil liberties.”
The expansion and statement’s by RT’s leadership “point to the channel’s importance to the Kremlin as a messaging tool and indicate a Kremlin-directed campaign to undermine faith in the U.S. government and fuel political unrest,” the report said.
Margarita Simonyan, RT’s Moscow-based editor-in-chief, said in a tartly worded statement that Twitter had “unveiled monstrous information in Congress.”
“We spent money on our advertising campaigns, as all normal media organizations in the world do. Now we have to go further and frankly admit we also spent money on advertising in airports, in taxis, on billboards, on the Internet, on television and radio. Our commercials were even on CNN,” she said in the statement issued to another Russian news agency.“Somehow it did not occur to us that in a developed democracy, regular media advertising can turn out to be suspicious and harmful activity. By the way, similar campaigns in the Russian segment of Twitter are conducted by the American media. It is very interesting to know how much they spend on it, whom they target and for what purpose."
California Rep. Adam Schiff, the ranking Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, said following the briefing that Twitter has pledged its cooperation with the inquiries. He said, however, that “much of the information that Twitter used to identify Russian-linked accounts was derived from Facebook's own analysis, and it is clear that Twitter has significant forensic work to do to understand the depth and breadth of Russian activity during the campaign.”
“This additional analysis will require a far more robust investigation into how Russian actors used their platform as a part of their active measures campaign and whether any of the targeting on Twitter suggests the possibility of assistance or collusion with any U.S. persons.”
He emphasized that Twitter’s platform “is only one element of the story, though, and it will be necessary for the (House) committee and the public to hear from all of the relevant groups and tech companies that were used by the Kremlin to attack the United States. That is why the committee's October open hearing with these companies will be so critical.”
Schiff and House Intelligence Committee Chairman Michael Conaway, a Texas Republican, announced on Wednesday that they would seek testimony at a public hearing within a month from all the tech companies about Russia’s plot to interfere in the U.S. election. The committees also have invited representatives of Google, Inc., which owns the video network social media network Youtube, to meet with its investigators.
Peter Stone is a McClatchy special correspondent