Russian hackers target Beto, Cruz and Manu
SAN ANTONIO - Russian trolls have attempted to influence the Senate race between incumbent Senator Ted Cruz and his opponent, U.S. Representative Robert “Beto” O’Rourke, using fake Twitter accounts.
We discovered the tweets in a recently-released database of three million tweets associated with Russian trolling, which targeted Cruz as well as many of the state’s other congressional leaders.
Dr. Aaron Delwiche, a Trinity University social communications professor, says the messages are designed to look like they came from real people, but were instead part of a larger campaign from a foreign country injecting its voice in American affairs and politics.
“They’re based in St. Petersburg, headed by someone with close ties to Putin, and they have been engaging in acts of information warfare since 2014,” said Delwiche.
Cruz was blasted with what appeared to be tweets from left-leaning activists, but were instead Russian trolls, going by names like “KANIJJACKSON,” “HOUSTONTOPNEWS” and “LBGTUNITEDCOM.” The Russian Twitter accounts were discovered and shut down just as the Cruz vs. O'Rourke race was amping up.
The most recent tweets mentioning Cruz and O’Rourke were sent to nearly 140,000 followers, but the bulk of the tweets mentioning Cruz date back to his presidential bid.
“Beto O’Rourke is a native Texan. His first name is Robert but he's been called Beto all of his life. Ted Cruz is a Cuban-Canadian. He changed his name to sound American because he's ashamed of his heritage,” says one tweet from KANIJJACKSON.
According to the Twitter data, KANIJJACKSON had more than 16,000 followers, and the tweet, in turn, was re-tweeted several times.
“The goal of this propaganda is to affect attitudes and behavior. And I believe one of the primary objectives is to demoralize Americans,” said Delwiche.
Both Cruz and O’Rourke’s campaigns didn’t respond to our request for comment on the fake tweets.
Twitter now lists KANIJJACKSON and other suspect accounts as "suspended," but researchers believe their posts fueled division and strife in Texas’ political discourse by tweeting about Cruz, O’Rourke, Will Hurd, Lamar Smith, Joaquin Castro, Sheila Jackson Lee and other Texans in Congress.
Our research shows those Twitter handles even mentioned the city of San Antonio and its sports figures.
“What an awesome pass by Manu! San Antonio Spurs https://t.co/fb6LZOUF0P,” says the tweet from JON_UNDERWOOD_, with a link to a Vine of the play from the Spurs vs. Clippers game in 2014. In it, Manu Ginobili sends a blind pass behind his head to Danny Green, who scores a three-pointer.
The quick video is worthy of sharing, and experts say that’s why JON_UNDERWOOD_ published it. The exact same tweet originated from eight other Twitter accounts.
“It’s a leap forward in propaganda strategy,” said Delwiche. “A single propagandist can control 5, 10, 15, even 20 different identities.”
Delwiche added, “One identity might be a supporter of Bernie Sanders on the left, another identity might be a homemaker in Iowa who supports Hillary Clinton, the third identity might be someone who has a red cap who says they’re trying to make America great again. The fourth identity might be a supposed Black Lives Matter (BLM) activist.”
Other Twitter authors, like SANANTOTOPNEWS, pushed Spurs scores and highlights, along with dozens of tweets designed to incite, including mentioning Black Lives Matter.
“Thursday evening was marred by another BLM attack outside a San Antonio bar,” said ITSTIMETOSECEDE, a Twitter author whose handle is a reference to those Texans who promulgate having the state secede from the union.
“Army veteran friends were assaulted by Black Lives Matter supporters in San Antonio, Texas, Thursday Evening.” said INST_VETS.
“Trump Calls Family Of White San Antonio Police Officer Assassinated By Angry, Racist Black Trash #MAGA #tcot @Inyhbt," retweeted ONEMIGHTYFISH, another Russian troll.
“Trump Calls Family Of White San Antonio Police Officer Assassinated By Angry, Racist Black Trash #MAGA #tcot #lnyhbt,” retweeted ONEMIGHTYFISH, another Russian troll.
“All these identities, what really bothers me, is that they’re insincere,” said Delwiche.
Our investigation sourced a database of tweets created by Clemson University researchers, who pulled the messages from accounts identified by Congress during the Mueller investigation into Russian hacking of the 2016 election.
Congress said the tweets were part of an effort by Russian agencies to influence U.S. elections, and the Twitter accounts were tied directly to the Russian government’s Internet Research Agency.
Clemson researchers then shared the data with FiveThirtyEight, a data analysis site, which made the information available to the public. The tweets are designated as “left trolls” or “right trolls,” which identifies the Twitter authors who spread their stories by mimicking left and right-leaning organizations.
Dr. Delwiche and his students at Trinity University have developed a website, PropagandaCritic.com, which is designed to teach people how to dissect messages, determine if a social media message is flawed, or if a person they’re interacting with online is who they appear to be.
Experts say you should be critical of any tweets that appear divisive and seek out conversations with others that are longer than 120 characters on a social media platform.
Also, make your voices heard at the ballot box by voting.
“I think Russian propagandists, far-right nationalists, militant extremists on the far left, they all have one thing in common: and that is they are afraid of our democratic system,” said Delwiche.
Use the map above to find out more about the Russian tweets.