Categories: Exclusive

How a Russian Outlet Sought to Reach American Voters on Twitter

RT tried to take over politically charged accounts.

Before Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton had even wrapped up their respective bids to secure the nomination for president, Kremlin-funded media outlet RT was plotting to promote its election coverage in the United States, Foreign Policy has learned.

RT hoped to take over at least two Twitter accounts or handles for its media coverage: @NotHillary and @NotTrump. Their goal, RT told Twitter’s advertising department, was to use the accounts to push their 2016 election coverage, but neither handle or username has any identifying information tracing the owner back to the Russian government-funded media organization.

Twitter denied the request. The company declined to comment on the record on the specific accounts “for privacy and security reasons.”

RT says that the company’s interest in the dormant accounts was part of an ultimately doomed project to take advantage of a unique moment in American political history.

“Trump and Clinton both were entering the election with some of the highest ‘unfavorable’ ratings for presumptive nominees,” wrote Anna Belkina, RT’s head of communications, in an email to FP.

“RT wanted to explore this subject deeper by engaging into a conversation with the people who were neither in favor of Clinton, nor in favor of Trump, which is the opposite of ‘expressing a clear preference’ for either candidate. As part of this idea, we were considering ways how to adapt it to Twitter, however, we discontinued the concept and did not pursue handle ownership.”

Russian influence on social media and the election overall has been a subject of intense focus for investigators in Congress, the Department of Justice, and the intelligence community since the summer of 2016.

In the unclassified summary of its investigation into Kremlin-directed interference in the elections, the Office of the Director of National Intelligence concluded RT, formerly known as Russia Today, serves as “the Kremlin’s principal international propaganda outlet” and “actively collaborated with WikiLeaks” during the election to release damaging information about Hillary Clinton.

“Russia used trolls as well as RT as part of its influence efforts to denigrate Secretary Clinton,” the report says.

It’s unclear what RT was planning to do with the accounts; some prominent commentators who have shows on RT America were in fact critical of Trump, including Chris Hedges, host of On Contact.

However, RT’s main site was a regular source of anti-Clinton stories or content, including one video accusing her of being a candidate for the illuminati. RT ultimately took down the video, claiming it was a joke.

“For RT, they focus on dissemination through social media,” Clint Watts, a former FBI agent and fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute, told FP in an interview.

YouTube and other forms of social media give Russian outlets “influence in the U.S. in a way they would not be able to get through broadcasting,” he said. Watts has testified before Congress about the influence of fake Russian accounts on Twitter. “It hides the Russian propaganda hand.”

By going after two Twitter accounts on the right and left sides of American politics, the Russians would have “options” for a “gray effort,” Watts said, meaning something in between direct messaging and covert influence. The Twitter accounts could be used later, whether promoting content against one candidate or silencing negative content against another.

“It’s about undermining democracy …,” he said, “it’s not necessarily about one candidate or another.”

It’s unclear who created the handles — @NotHillary hasn’t tweeted since May 2014, and @NotTrump has been dormant since April 2011. The @NotTrump account only tweeted five times, linking to news articles questioning Trump’s status as a Republican and his record of bankruptcies.

One tweet references a broken link to a site that appears to have belonged to Adam Kokesh, a veteran and activist who has called for the “orderly dissolution of the federal government.” The @NotHillary account tweeted just seven times, including messages blasting “liberals” and a threat against Twitter’s legal department.

Both accounts were loosely dedicated to speaking out against their namesakes, but whoever first registered them appeared to be squatting during the election. It appears RT was attempting to take advantage of Twitter’s policy allowing media outlets and companies to request to take over an inactive account after a certain period of time for their own use.

In this case, Twitter turned RT down, because it violated their advertising policies. The “name” field of an account is designed to allow a company or media outlet to provide a more detailed description of their title or offering, but the name “must be relevant” to the product or service being offered. 

It’s unclear if RT created its own accounts with similar-sounding “handles” — Twitter wouldn’t have had to approve those, as long as they didn’t want to buy ads to promote their stories.  

Photo Credit: YURI KOCHETKOV/Getty Images

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