At the height of the 2016 American presidential campaign, Russian propagandists used Twitter accounts to spread conspiracy theories, misinformation, and political division. That and other shady online activity led Robert Mueller, the special counsel investigating foreign interference in the election, to indict 13 Russian nationals.
Before the campaign though, these fake accounts eased into their digital personas by tweeting stereotypically “American” content: Nirvana lyrics, Bible verses, uplifting platitudes, comments about pizza.
This transition in tone from vapid to vociferously political is common across the universe of Russian troll tweets, according to our survey of 200,000 tweets released this week by NBC. The banal early tweets could be part of an effort to make the accounts seem like they belong to real people.
A good example is the Twitter user “evagreen69,” now known to be part of the network of Russian accounts. In July 2014, it tweeted, “I am in Love with LOVE!” A few months later, the user announced, “Oh, that I had wings like a dove!”—chapter 55, verse 6 of the Book of Psalms. The next month there was a quote from the Stoic philosopher Seneca: “The most onerous slavery is to be a slave to oneself.” In the same month it tweeted, “What I tend to do when it comes to you,” a line from a song by Shakira (feat. Rihanna).
None of the quotes were attributed.
Then, in 2015, evagreen69 started to get political. “It’s not a secret that Obama grew up in a Muslim family,” it claimed in February of that year. In March, “All of those protesters in Ferguson, your hand [sic] are covered with blood!” Later in the year, “#GOPDebate Together we can make America great again.” Much later, in August 2016: “Please sign and share my petition #WakeUpAmerica #NeverHillary #ImNotWithHer.” That one was retweeted over 800 times.
“Eva Green’s” initial penchant for song lyrics, scripture, and inspirational quotes is shared across the troll network.
In 2014, the user “heyits_toby” had a Benjamin Franklin quote, a line from a song by the Finnish rock band Rasmus, and an English translation of a Russian proverb. The account “patriotraphael,” delivered yet another Seneca quote, yet another Russian proverb, and this line from the rap-rock band Hollywood Undead: “I got the speakers pumpin’ straight bangin’ the thong song #RAPCORE.”
Let’s look at another example. Why not. Twitter user “judelambertusa” had these three quotes:
- “The limits of my language mean the limits of my world.” —Ludwig Wittgenstein
- “A happy marriage is the union of two good forgivers.” —Ruth Bell Graham
- “Know that I don’t make music for niggas who don’t get pussy so those are the ones I count on to diss me or overlook me.” —Drake (this one was attributed)
There is much more like this.
From the 200,000 tweets collected by NBC, the pattern looks like this: A new troll account is set up. It populates its feed with non-political tweets, presumably drawing from databases of quotes, song lyrics, platitudes, and, it seems, Russian proverbs. Then the account gets going with political messages. Those messages lean pro-Trump, but they can go the other way, too.
The goal here seems to be to make the accounts look like those of regular Americans. If they only tweeted controversial political messages, it would be more obvious that they were not genuine. That’s also probably why they have names like “patriotraphael” and “judelambertusa.” In his indictment, Mueller accused the Russian propagandists of impersonating Americans on social media.
The Russian trolls seem to have a sense of humor. There is some irony in turning a Benjamin Franklin quote into a weapon aimed at the United States. But Lil’ Wayne (yes, he’s in there) just seems sloppy. Perhaps they were taking the advice of Steven Tyler, via the troll user “micparrish”: “If it is worth doing, it is worth overdoing.”