Trolls for Trump

How Russia Dominates Your Twitter Feed to Promote Lies (And, Trump, Too)

Fake news stories from Kremlin propagandists regularly become social media trends. Here’s how Moscow does it… and what it means for America’s election 2016.

Photo Illustration by Kelly Caminero/ The Daily Beast

“Ladies and Gentlemen, We have a situation in #Turkey #Incirlik” the cry went out on Twitter last Saturday night, as news spread of the Turkish forces surrounding the U.S. airbase in Incirlik.

Thousands of armed police had reportedly surrounded the airbase amid swirling rumors of another coup attempt, according to stories tweeted within two minutes of each other on and Sputnik, the two biggest Russian state-controlled media organizations publishing in English. The stories were instantly picked up by a popular online aggregator of breaking news and prompted hours-long storm of activity from a small, vocal circle of users.

In English, the tweets soon grouped into certain patterns of similar (and sometimes identical) content. The first were panicky expressions of concern about nuclear weapons allegedly stored at Incirlik:

  • #Incirlik There r 25 underground vaults, each holds up to 4 bombs. The estimated total is 50 B61 thermonuclear bombs—1/4 of B61 stockpile.
  • Turkey is soon going to acquire some nice nuclear weapons unless Obama pulls his finger out & does something
  • #Incirlik does anybody else find it ODD that there’s a lot of dump trucks. Big enough to carry 90 nuclear warheads
  • What exactly is going on with the nuclear weapons in Turkey? And why the hell are they there, of all places?

The second group compared the situation to Benghazi.

A third group wondered aloud and repeatedly about why the media wasn’t covering the alleged activity.

  • Why is USA MSM failing to report on events in Turkey surrounding Incirlik AFB and Erdogan’s accusation that USA orchestrated the coup?
  • Hey MSM, you’ve got 10000 Muslims, steps away from a stockpile of thermonuclear weapons.
  • Nothing on #msm, no #potus, no #dem or #gop speaking out! Nuclear warheads, up to 90 at stake!

The main reason the media didn’t show up was that the story was substantially untrue. As a later statement by the Pentagon clarified, a peaceful protest had taken place involving about 1,000 people—not the 7,000 Turkish police reported by Russian news outlets or the 10,000 cited by Twitter users. Officials at the air base had been warned of the protest in advance. The base was not “surrounded,” Turkish security focused on securing the visit of U.S. Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Joe Dunford to Incirlik the next day.

The Incirlik disinformation campaign failed but demonstrates the unique way in which Russia can influence foreign audiences. Incirlik stories on RT and Sputnik news were rapidly promulgated by a curious group of English speakers on Twitter.

One of the first English tweets promoting the Incirlik story came from a Twitter user under the name Marcel Sardo—an account previously identified for instigating pro-Russian campaigns. From this initial tweet, a cascade of Twitter accounts rebroadcast RT and Sputnik Incirlik articles adding commentary and hashtags. Accounts initially broadcasting the #Incirlik story from seemingly different locales and online communities quickly merged in the first 90 minutes after release of the RT and Sputnik news story. An increasingly common social media pattern over the past two years as Russia has become more aggressive both on the ground and online as tensions ratchet in a renewed Cold War with the West.

The evolving pattern of retweets reveal a close-knit network and circular information flow where key amplifiers re-broadcast the base #Incirlik story adding commentary and fomenting fears. And here’s the odd part: many members of this network seem to be Trump fans.

Some of the top hashtags attached to tweets broadcasting #Incirlik #Turkey were #nato, #coup, #benghazi, #trumppence16. Each of these add-on hashtags pointed to recently hot button issues in the U.S. presidential contest. Bios of these English speaking accounts retweeting the #Incirlik story commonly included the words “god,” “country,” “family,” “conservative,” “Christian,” “America,” “constitution,” and “military.”

Two or three tweets called for prayers for U.S. service members potentially in harms way, suggesting Americans were again being overrun in another Benghazi type scenario. More than 10 percent of English speakers citing #Incirlik contained the word “Trump” in their user profile information. From the public view, it’s difficult to determine which of these English accounts are real Americans supporting the Trump campaign or instead manufactured accounts inciting support for the Trump campaign and fomenting dissent amongst the U.S. electorate.

This melding of Russian-friendly accounts and Trumpkins has been going on for some time.

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I created this list of Russian trolls,” writer Adrian Chen told the Longform podcast in December 2015. “And I check on it once in a while, still. And a lot of them have turned into conservative accounts, like fake conservatives. I don’t know what’s going on, but they’re all tweeting about Donald Trump and stuff.”

The Incirlik story, despite failing to endure more than a couple hours before losing credibility, provoked a reaction from Turkey and the U.S. Both countries publicly responded to a non-event seeking to maintain public confidence overseas and at home. More importantly, the propaganda effort comes alongside accusations of Russia meddling in the U.S. election on behalf of Trump. Most sources implicate Russia for hacking the Democratic National Committee’s emails and subsequently releasing them on the eve of the DNC convention. Donald Trump’s pro-Russia, anti-Ukraine, anti-NATO policy positions have been repeatedly questioned over the past two weeks. Trump’s top aide lied about the campaign’s changes to the RNC platform limiting support to Ukraine to only defensive weapons.

In a sense, this is the return of an old game. From the 1950s through the Soviet Union’s collapse, the Soviet Union sought to use “the force of politics rather than the politics of force” to disrupt and defeat their adversaries from the inside out. As explained by the 1992 U.S. Information Agency report to Congress, “Active measures seek to use slogans, arguments, disinformation and selected true information to influence the attitudes and actions of foreign publics and governments.” Soviet propaganda pushed stories regarding the flaws of democracy, collapse of the world economy, environmental catastrophe, and global calamities like nuclear war.

Conduct of Soviet and Russian “Active Measures” before the internet proved challenging, particularly in the West. Soviet agents and paid communist supporters would need to reside in the countries they sought to influence, create a print or radio media outlet or gain a job working at an established platform and evade the scrutiny of Western counterintelligence. But these days, it’s as easy as setting up a Twitter account. Russia influence operations in social media represents a far more effective and efficient return to their “Active Measures” campaign of the Cold War.

And when combined with the alleged hacks of political actors, the promotion of these Incirlik-style stories through overt Russian media outlets and “grey” English speaking propagandists could make for a powerful one-two punch to disrupt the American election. The synchronization of hacking and social media information operations not only has the ability to promote a favored candidate, like Trump, but also has the potential to incite unrest amongst American communities.

Since Incirlik, Trump and Russian media have simultaneously pushed a new theme: the illegitimacy of U.S. elections. The Incirlik disinformation campaign, while a failure, raises the question of Russia’s ability to use social media “Active Measures” to destabilize the American public. #Incirlik wasn’t the first Russian influence effort on social media and it most certainly won’t be the last. To date, there’s been no public U.S. response to alleged Russian hacking or social media information operations. How much longer can the U.S. wait?