Accounts spreading Kremlin propaganda use Twitter’s new paid verification system to appear more prominently on the global platform. It is another sign that Elon Musk’s takeover is accelerating the spread of politically charged misinformation, a nonprofit research group has found.
The accounts claim to be based outside Russia, so they can pay for verification without violating U.S. sanctions. But they pass along public media articles, statements from Russian officials and lies about Ukraine from Kremlin allies, according to the research group Reset, which shared its findings with The Washington Post.
One of the accounts describes itself in English as “No woke. No BLM. No gender pronouns… Just anti-imperialism. Claiming to be based in San Francisco, its profile picture shows a blonde woman wearing a fur hat with a hammer and sickle badge. Another of the account’s biographical states that it is “Doing my part to stop Western support for the Ukrainian war machine, one taxpayer at a time.” He regularly tweets videos that he says show Russians killing Ukrainian soldiers.
Most of the dozen such accounts identified by Reset were created last year during the first phase of Russia’s war in Ukraine. Archived web pages show that the accounts needed blue check marks recently after new owner Elon Musk introduced a pay-to-play model. He said he would phase out legacy checks that identified politicians, journalists and other notable figures and weed out imposters.
Musk said that in the future, tweets and replies from these paid subscribers would appear even more prominently in Twitter’s news feed and search. But some of the accounts have already gotten more views in recent weeks.
Musk revived one of the accounts by replying to his tweets, including one spreading a lie that thousands of NATO troops had died in Ukraine.
Twitter allows anonymous accounts to buy verification
Reset said the outbreak showed a significant problem with a system that allows anonymous accounts to buy verification, giving them better placement in searches, mentions and replies. The accounts it discovered are “openly sharing Russian state media content, Kremlin-aligned disinformation about the conflict in Ukraine and outright war propaganda,” the group wrote.
Twitter labels the primary subscriber of the three million RT account “Russian State Affiliated Media” and carries a blue check inherited to be notable and not an impostor. Newly verified accounts do not have such a label.
Former employees and disinformation researchers have previously blamed the company for firing numerous regional experts evaluating influence operations, disbanding a security advisory board and bringing back accounts banned for hate speech and spreading lies.
At least two prominent members of the Afghan Taliban regime also paid $8 or $11 a month for blue checks until the media reported it last month. Their checks were removed after the reports.
Twitter’s treatment of Russia under scrutiny
Twitter’s treatment of Russia has been scrutinized, as Musk has a complex but critical role in the Ukrainian conflict. His company SpaceX has been crucial to Ukraine’s defense, providing thousands of Starlink satellite communication terminals that have allowed Ukraine to maintain Internet service despite Russian attacks on infrastructure. But he also said Starlink should not be used for offensive military purposes. He tweeted a proposal to resolve the war that Russia welcomed.
Although Russia requires its Internet service providers to block access to Twitter, the platform has remained a place where Russians can share news and debate anonymously. People in Russia can access the service via virtual private networks or proxy systems while growing ranks of expatriates contribute freely.
Russian troll factories on Twitter
Russian activity on platforms outside the country has been controversial since shortly after the 2016 presidential election when the Russian Internet Research Agency was revealed to be behind polarizing content on Twitter and Facebook to influence the election in favor of Donald Trump. As with some of the new accounts, the “troll factory” operatives generally claimed to be patriotic Americans.
Last week, sanctioned oligarch Yevgeniy Prigozhin, a close ally of Putin and the owner of the infamous private military group “Wagner”, said he created, funded the Internet Research Agency, and directed it.
He said he had also interfered in those U.S. contests just before the November midterms.
Yoel Roth, Twitter’s chief trust and security officer until November, told two allies that he stayed on Twitter after Musk’s takeover to fight such deceptive foreign influence on the election. He resigned immediately and testified before the Senate this month that thousands of automated Russian propaganda accounts are still on the platform.
Musk’s sweeping job cuts and resignations have drastically reduced the number of employees dedicated to combating influence campaigns. According to two people who worked with the person, the platform’s last Russian expert recently left.
Twitter’s similar loss of Chinese expertise has made it harder for exiled critics to overcome suspensions or inappropriate search bans, the victims said in interviews. They sent The Post screenshots of dozens of accounts not appearing in search results or being banned for spamming behavior, actions that lasted for weeks. Spam also overwhelmed reports from Chinese cities last fall about dramatic protests against coronavirus blockades.
Neither Twitter’s new head of trust and security nor Musk responded to emails Tuesday seeking comment.
The verified pro-Russian accounts identified by Reset take a variety of approaches. Some present themselves as independent media outlets. Another, called @LogKa11, created in February 2022, primarily shares pro-Russian war content in English with its more than 30,000 followers, including stories of war correspondents embedded with Russian troops and videos of successful attacks. He has repeatedly linked Ukrainians to Nazis, writing in December that “modern Ukraine has had a strange obsession with Nazism.” This echoes one of President Vladimir Putin’s main justifications for the invasion.
One, called @PutinDirect, publishes videos of comments by the Russian leader with English captions and links to full speeches.
Russian disinformation on Twitter by @runews
Among the most popular is @Runews, which existed for over a decade before getting a blue check. Describing itself as a “citizen journalist,” it reaches 260,000 subscribers with sometimes blunt propaganda, such as its recent repeated suggestions that Ohio “should declare itself part of Ukraine in hopes of receiving help from the Biden administration.” (The statement omitted the word “the,” which is a common mistake among native Russian speakers.)
The account “regularly interacts with content from Russian state media such as RT International @RT_com or editor-in-chief Margarita Simonyan @m_simonyan. He also shares videos from Russian media or other pro-Russian channels with content mocking the EU, NATO, Ukraine, the West as a whole and supporting Russia’s actions in the war,” Reset wrote. “It also produces content geared toward the American Republican Twitterverse.”
Runews received a blue check in mid-January. On Feb. 6, Musk boosted the account’s profile by responding to its claim that 157,000 Ukrainian and 2,458 NATO troops died in the war with the comment, “A tragic loss of life.”
Another response from Musk to the same account brought it up in the “For You” display of a Post test account that did not follow Runews. NATO has not deployed troops to Ukraine, though Russia has called Ukraine a puppet of the U.S.-EU alliance.
Tweet impressions of the @runews account have surpassed 10 million and remain much higher than before, according to a Post analysis of public data.
Troll accounts are still suspended, according to a researcher who supports jailed Putin critic Alexei Navalny and tweets as @Antibot4Navalny. But that takes time, while new accounts are constantly being uploaded.
The researcher, who lives in Russia and agreed to speak on condition of anonymity to protect his safety, told the Post that until September, he had never counted more than 500 simultaneously active Russian allied accounts on Twitter. Still, lately, he has seen more than 800. Most have few followers, but they can overwhelm discussions on tweets with replies favoring Putin’s positions.
He worries about what lies ahead, with a gutted trust and security team, reduced access for researchers, and blue ticks to sell to government allies who might put more energy into hiding their purpose.
In addition to human-powered troll accounts, automated accounts have pushed pro-Russian disinformation, according to longtime researcher Marc Owen Jones, a professor at Hamad Bin Khalifa University in Qatar.
Disinformation tweets synchronized amplification
Jones found that a key group of influencers was promoting a conspiracy theory that the United States caused the earthquake in Turkey as punishment for the country’s opposition to NATO expansion and that their tweets were amplified by thousands of accounts, including hundreds of accounts created simultaneously in a few days last October and April.
To remain a trustworthy platform, Twitter must reinvent an algorithm to ban accounts that spread apparent disinformation, propaganda, fake news, and war-mongering.