- The Washington Times - Friday, July 13, 2018

Russian internet trolls accused of spreading disinformation and sowing discord during the 2016 U.S. presidential race simultaneously operated dozens of Twitter accounts that posed as legitimate news sources geared toward American audiences in cities throughout the country, a report said Thursday.

A review of Twitter accounts linked to the Internet Research Agency, the St. Petersburg-based “troll farm” implicated in Russia’s alleged attack on the 2016 election, found 48 accounts with handles like @MilwaukeeVoice and @Seattle_Post that shared actual, localized news items, “serving as sleeper accounts building trust and readership for some future, unforeseen effort,” NPR reported.

“A not-insignificant amount of those had some sort of variation on what appeared to be a homegrown local news site,” said Bret Schafer, a social media analyst for the Alliance for Securing Democracy, a group that monitors Russian internet activity. “And if at any given moment, they wanted to operationalize this network of what seemed to be local American news handles, they can significantly influence the narrative on a breaking news story,” he told NPR.

The purported news sources appeared on a list of 1,100 suspended accounts Twitter identified as likely operated by the Internet Research Agency released last month by the House Intelligence Committee as part of its investigation into Russian election meddling.

At least two tweets attributed to the Russian accounts were ultimately cited in articles published by legitimate news outlets, El Paso Times reported Friday.

“The Russians are playing a long game,” said Rep. Adam Schiff of California, the committee’s top Democrat. “They’ve developed a presence on social media. They’ve created these fictitious persons and fictitious organizations that have built up over a period of time a certain trustworthiness among people that follow them,” he told NPR.

Russia interfered in the 2016 race by using state-sponsored trolls, hackers and propagandists to attack the election and particularly Hillary Clinton, President Trump’s Democratic opponent, according to U.S. officials.

Separate from spreading legitimate news items through accounts like @CamdenCityNews, @DailyNewsDenver, @ElPasoTopNews and @JacksonCityPost, Internet Research Agency employees spread disinformation disruptive to the race and Clinton campaign, U.S. officials previously concluded, including polarizing content subsequently shared by Trump administration officials ranging from Kellyanne Conway, the president’s campaign counselor, to Gen. Michael Flynn, his ousted former national security adviser.

The Daily Beast first reported last year that several accounts likely ran by the Internet Research Agency appeared to be named to resemble actual news outlets.

The Department of Justice announced criminals charges related to the Internet Research Agency’s operations in February against 13 Russians accused of interfering in the 2016 election. More recently, Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein on Friday announced separate charges against 12 Russian military intelligence officers accused of hacking Democratic targets during the race.

Twitter said earlier this month that it recently purged its platform more than 70 million accounts accused of suspicious or malicious activity.

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