- The Washington Times - Wednesday, June 5, 2019

Russian internet trolls accused of meddling in the 2016 U.S. presidential race may have made a “substantial” profit on the side by monetizing the same Twitter accounts used to sow discord on social media, Symantec reported Wednesday.

A study by the cybersecurity firm of Twitter accounts formerly operated by the Internet Research Agency, a St. Petersburg-based “troll farm” funded by Russian oligarch Yevgeny Prigozhin, found that some used third-party link shortening services to try to profit off their posts.

“These services usually make their money by displaying an ad before redirecting the user. A fee is then paid to the person who created the link,” explained Symantec senior software engineer Gillian Cleary.

By scouring data released last year by Twitter pertaining to 3,836 accounts traced to the Internet Research Agency, or IRA, Symantec assessed that at least one may have generated a “substantial income” through Shorte.st, a link shortening service that claims users can earn upwards of $14 for linking to an ad clicked 1,000 times.

Symantec initially reported that the account in question could have generated an income of almost $1 million using the link shortening service, but the company walked back that figure later Wednesday after its methodology was called into question.

“The figures were intended to be an estimate of the max earning potential as part of a broader analysis of the campaign,” Symantec said in a statement. “This doesn’t change any of the other findings in our research.”

The particular Twitter account cited by Symantec was among 13 identified by the cybersecurity firm as having used a link shortening service. It was not named by Twitter when the company released a trove of IRA data in October because it was followed by fewer than 5,000 accounts, but Symantec described it as a political account that shared content supportive of President Trump.

“None of the 12 other accounts who used monetized link shorteners were as prolific, sending between one and 1,192 tweets using monetized services,” Ms. Cleary wrote.

“We are unsure whether the use of monetized URL shorteners was official policy,” she continued. “However, the fact that such services were only used by a minority of accounts suggests that some employees may have been trying to make some money on the side.”

The IRA interfered in the 2016 elections by mounting “a social media campaign designed to provoke and amplify political and social discord in the United States,” special counsel Robert Mueller wrote in his 448-page report summarizing his investigation into Russian election meddling and related matters.

Russian military officers separately conducted cyberattacks during the race against election infrastructure and Democratic targets, stealing sensitive documents from the latter subsequently leaked online, the U.S. has concluded.

Both the IRA and Mr. Prigozhin, an associate of Russian President Vladimir Putin, were indicted in 2018 as a result of the special counsel’s investigation. They have pleaded not guilty.

Twitter suspended the thousands of accounts prior to releasing the dataset.

“Our singular focus is to improve the health of the public conversation on our platform, and protecting the integrity of elections is an important aspect of that mission,” a Twitter spokesperson told The Washington Times. “We’ve made significant strides since 2016 to counter manipulation of our service, which includes our release of data last fall related to previously disclosed activities to enable further independent academic research and investigation.”

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