WASHINGTON ― How does it feel to have played some small part in a Kremlin-directed influence operation aimed at the heart of American democracy?
“Wow,” Bill Swales Sr., a 65-year old retiree who lives in Michigan, wrote to HuffPost in a direct message on Twitter. “I’m Amazed I never would have realized that was influenced by Russia.”
He added: “Oh boy I guess that means I colluded with Russia don’t tell MUELLER ? Lol.”
On Aug. 18, Swales bashed out a reply to a tweet from a “Lila Hernandez,” tweeting under the handle @lilaastrs. By outward appearances, Hernandez was a full-lipped model type with a taste for polka dots and extreme conservative politics. But according to Twitter, she was really the creation of the Internet Research Agency, a troll farm working on behalf of the Russian government.
Every day, millions of people are mad online, screaming their opinions about politics, sports, race and celebrities at strangers on Twitter. Many of those people are real people, and they really are mad. But some of those people, it turns out, have assumed a false identity solely in the interest of making and keeping people mad. This was the apparent aim of the Internet Research Agency during the 2016 election.
On Wednesday, the Democrats of the House Intelligence Committee released a list of nearly 3,000 Twitter accounts that Twitter identified as having links to the St. Petersburg-based troll farm — including @lilaastrs.
Most of the false accounts appear to be operated by real people taking on a false identity online, a practice known as “sockpuppeting.” Some took on the identity of conservatives who loved guns, God and Donald Trump. Some posed as liberals, sharing memes of Democratic candidates Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton. There were Russian-linked Twitter accounts posing as prominent Black Lives Matters activists ― and others portraying the group as cop-killers. Some of the trolls preached tolerance for immigrants and minorities ― others warned about encroaching Sharia law.
It appears that a large number of these accounts simply shared links and retweeted more well-known accounts, but others obtained larger followings and actually interacted with people on Twitter. The president has personally thanked one of the Russian-linked accounts, and his former national security adviser followed and retweeted several of the sock puppets. Several media outlets, including this one, wrote stories based on tweets from Russia-linked Twitter accounts.
In a series of hearings this week, Twitter representatives told lawmakers that they had taken the matter seriously, and had aggressively shut down accounts operated out of the Russian troll farm. Twitter’s efforts to clean up its platform have not been without error. Already, we know that one account Twitter identified as a creation of Russian trolls belonged to an American who is he who claimed to be online.
HuffPost searched hundreds of the alleged troll accounts and reached out to several dozen Twitter users who shared, retweeted, liked or interacted with tweets sent by the Russian sock puppet accounts. Most of the people who responded said they had no idea they had been swept up in a foreign influence operation until HuffPost notified them.
In a series of direct messages with us, Swales, who tweets under the handle @westlandwilly, seemed bemused. It’s easy to see how he might’ve seen Hernandez as something of a kindred spirit. Swales lists #StandWithTrump, #MAGA, and #DRAINTHEDEEPSTATE in his Twitter bio. The sock puppet was, per her bio, a “Proud Texas Deplorable#MAGA New to Twitter to support President Trump.”
“The Hypocrites R coming out of the walls like cockroaches we need 2 SMASH THEM like the BUGS THEY R RAID #MAGA #IStandWithTrump& ALWAYS WILL,” Swales tweeted in response to a now-unavailable tweet by Hernandez on Aug. 18. He told HuffPost, “I believe that was a response 2 leaks coming out of the White House at that Time!”
Swales didn’t think he was at all influenced by the Russian trolls, and didn’t think Russia had affected the election at all. “The only ones this might affect is the millennials,” he told HuffPost. “They might believe some of the propaganda anyone else that’s been around awhile knows Russia has been trying to interfere with us for 50 plus YEARS NOTHING NEW.”
He did, however, concede that the Hernandez tweet “did catch my eye Enuff that I had 2 comment about it BUT it never influenced me in anyway 2 believe R POTUS colluded with Russia.”
(How can we be sure that Swales himself is not a sock puppet? We can’t! But Swales provided his name, age and place of residence, all of which matched public records. Not every Twitter user contacted by HuffPost was willing to disclose identifying information.)
@MatriarchAthena, a Twitter user who shares LGBTQ rights content, told HuffPost, “A lot of bots are easy to spot, but some are a lot more convincing. I’ve been duped by some and so have many others and it is frustrating.”
@MatriarchAthena responded to a pro-LGBTQ rights account named @LGBTuni in August 2016. The New York Times named that account a fake in an early October story, and it was included on the intelligence committee’s list.
“This is what happens when someone tries to infiltrate or pose as a certain group and people start following and retweeting that account because the things they post seem to resonate with the group they are targeting,” said @MatriarchAthena, who declined to provide a real name.
Matt Manzella, a 34-year old caregiver in Illinois, took part in the #IfIWereACop hashtag campaign that a sock puppet account called @worldofhashtags originally started. RT, a Russian state-owned media outlet, wrote about the hashtag in a story titled “Twitter uses #IfIWereACop hashtag to take jabs at law enforcement.”
“I remember that hashtag,” Manzella told HuffPost. “It’s the type of thing you’d think would have started from a Black Lives Matter account.” He said that it’s easier to spot trolls when “it’s just a single account. … A trending hashtag, however, much harder to suss out.”
Manzella, who identifies as politically progressive, said it was “hard to come to grips” with getting caught up in the Russian influence campaign. “It does kind of piss me off,” he said in a phone interview.
Like Swales, most of the people HuffPost communicated with didn’t think that they were personally influenced or affected by their interactions with the fake accounts.
“I’m Black and was not influenced by the trolls,” @Jax6655, a Twitter user who shared posts from @gloed_up and two other fake Black Lives Matter accounts, @4mysquad and @nj_blacknews, told HuffPost. “Those who started spouting anti-Dem or anti-Hillary I muted or blocked. I figured they were getting paid so f―- them.”
Even those who are concerned about Russia’s interference in last year’s presidential election say they did not fall for the ploy.
“Oh wow, that’s really crazy! Russian involvement in the 2016 election is definitely undeniable!!” @princ3sska3 told HuffPost in a direct message. Asked if she was influenced by the fake accounts, she said, “I don’t think so, I don’t even remeber interacting with that bot.”
Twitter user @Trill_Kontrol, who identified himself as Mitchell Marcel, was surprised when HuffPost informed him that he had interacted with the fake @gloed_up account.
“Wow thats crazy,” @Trill_Kontrol wrote in a direct message. “You can kind of tell bots sometimes by there ridiculous ass names they have but i definitely didnt think gloed_up was a bot. Its all honestly wild to me.”
When asked if he thought the fake accounts like @gloed_up had any influence in the election or otherwise, @Trill_Kontrol said, “honestly i wouldnt necessarily say influence more like rile up and frustrate.”
The Russian influence operation was boosted by targets who were already primed to get mad online and jump at the bait they offered.
“I think people be too into socials, like i was, and thats what the trolls want is those people so they’ll reply and fuel the flame,” @Trill_Kontrol said. “Its all just a game to trolls. Say the most offensive shit you can so they can get a response. The sooner people just ignore it, thats when niggas win. Well not win but, ya know.”