Russian intelligence weaponized Twitter in its successful attempt to catapult Donald Trump directly into the oval office. And now, it’s believed it did the same with the Brexit vote. Interestingly, according to research from The Guardian, these accounts were so convincing, they were even quoted in at least eighty articles published in a variety of mainstream print and digital titles.
The Guardian pored through the archives of fourteen different publications — including The Telegraph, Buzzfeed, The Daily Mail, and The Independent — and crosschecked every article against a list of 2,752 Twitter profiles believed by the microblogging service to be fronts for Russian propaganda.
Per The Guardian: “In total, 29 different accounts were quoted across more than 80 different news stories. The Telegraph embedded posts from the Russian accounts 15 times, followed by BuzzFeed, which quoted 13 accounts over 10 news stories, and the Metro, which quoted eight accounts across a total of 11 news stories.”
The most troubling take-out from this is that Russian Twitter propaganda was inadvertently amplified through the traditional media. These posts escaped the “air gap” of Twitter and found themselves on respected publications, underneath some respected bylines.
It’s not really a surprise. The fourth estate loves Twitter because it (rightly) perceives it to offer access to “on the ground” perspectives they otherwise wouldn’t get from the comfort of the newsrooom. Reporters can get “man-on-the-street” commentary without having to deal with bad weather, public transport, or the anxiety of walking up to absolute strangers. And speaking personally as a technology journalist, I like that I can source expert commentary from industry leaders and embed it in my piece in seconds.
But this love affair caused several respected publications to inadvertently amplify Kremlin propaganda. I’d argue that what made Russia’s legion of sock puppets so effective was how faithfully they were able to ape the rhetoric and online mannerisms of Brexit and Trump supporters, making them almost indistinguishable from the genuine article.
These bots are so attractive to reporters because they represented the most extreme, vocal, opinionated, and ideologically pure form of an argument. Those used to bolster the candidacy of Donald Trump were unwavering in their support for him, were loud, and used the correct terminology and hashtags. The same is true of those used to advocate for the Leave side in the Brexit referendum, and Marine Le Pen’s abortive campaign for the French presidency.
However, it should raise some serious questions about how journalists use Twitter. Reporters should be more cautious when using the service to source quotes. In fact, I’d argue that they should only use Twitter as a last resort — and then only to amplify expert opinion from users which can be definitively vetted.
In a media landscape dominated by a thirst for clicks and a taste for the sensational, it makes sense why reporters found themselves embedding and quoting Russian propaganda. But this does a major disservice to readers. Angry, inflammatory tweets seldom represent the best, most coherent form of an argument. In a world where fake news and partisanship dominate, now is the time for cooler heads to prevail.
You could argue that Journalism’s addiction to the vox pop has lead reporters into the trap of reporting the conversation, and not the actual news. And the conversation is seldom what actually matters.
In the long run, perhaps this is a good thing. As the Guardian’s researched showed, a great many reporters got burned. But fire can also be cleansing and cauterizing. If this incident nudges the industry away from elevating voices merely because they are outrageous and entertaining, then journalism will be all the better for it.