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From Troll Farm to Trump

Assessing the life of Russian troll posing as a far-right American

The account

The account known as @TEN_GOP claimed to be the “unofficial Twitter of Tennessee Republicans.” It has now been suspended, but archives of its profile remain, showing that it had 129,000 followers as of July 2017.

Screenshot from archive of the @TEN_GOP account. Archived on July 4, 2017. (Source: Twitter)
Tweet from Trump replying to @10_GOP. Archived on October 18, 2017. (Source: Twitter)
Capture of tweets amplifying @TEN_GOP’s promotion of the petition. (Source: Twitter)
Instructions for participation in the online petitions platform. (Source: petitions.WhiteHouse.gov)
The page promoted by @TEN_GOP’s tweets. (Source: petitions.whitehouse.gov)
(Source: archive.is)
Diagram showing the range of accounts on Facebook (dark blue) and Twitter (light blue) created by the troll factory. (Source: rbc.ru)

Clinton, Blumenthal, and Benghazi

Much of @TEN_GOP’s commentary can be viewed as provocation or “triggering”, making aggressive comments in an apparent attempt to increase general divisions. Some was more active, such as its promotion of the petition.

“One important point has been universally acknowledged by the nine previous reports about Benghazi. The attack was almost certainly preventable. Clinton was in charge of the State Department, and it failed to protect the United States personnel and an American consulate in Libya. If the GOP wants to raise that as a talking point against her, it is legitimate.”

Very quickly, a number of apparently far-right American accounts began tweeting this sentence, but mis-attributing them to Podesta himself in order to claim that Clinton’s own staff blamed her. Most of the accounts involved have since been suspended, but they have left traces. The posts began with @Republic2016, which tweeted the fake news with an image of the text with a very characteristic pattern of highlighting.

Screenshot of the @Republic2016 tweet. Archived on October 10, 2016. (Source: Twitter)
The upload to Reddit. Note the pattern of highlighting. (Source: Reddit)
Screenshot of the tweet by “Microchip”, from a now-suspended account. Note the identical highlighting and the high number of retweets.
Retweet of the @TEN_GOP tweet, posted to Facebook, and showing the text and link to image. (Source: Facebook)
Results of Google image search for the shortened URL tweeted by @TEN_GOP; note the pattern of highlighting. (Source: Google)
Screenshot from Bellingcat article on the spread of the Clinton / Benghazi claim; note the embedded tweet from @TEN_GOP and the phrase “with this quotation”. (Source: Bellingcat)

“ ‘The attack was almost certainly preventable’ — Benghazi. ‘Clinton was in charge of the State Department, and it failed to protect the United States personnel and an American consulate in Libya’ — he meant Benghazi. ‘If the GOP wants to raise that as a talking point against her, it is legitimate.’

At the time, Trump was incorrectly accused of taking the lines from Kremlin outlet Sputnik, after it wrote an article using the same quote; the Bellingcat article, cited above, was among the first to point out that Trump could equally have taken the lines from a tweet.

Extract from article in Paste magazine, showing the attribution of the Sputnik story to @TEN_GOP. (Source: PasteMagazine.com)

Two questions

The identification of @TEN_GOP as run from the “troll factory” raises two questions. The first is: was it the source for Trump’s remarkable, and inaccurate, intervention in Pennsylvania? If so, it would mean the direct transmission of disinformation from the Russian troll factory to a presidential candidate (and future president).

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@AtlanticCouncil’s Digital Forensic Research Lab. Catalyzing a global network of digital forensic researchers, following conflicts in real time.

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@DFRLab

@AtlanticCouncil's Digital Forensic Research Lab. Catalyzing a global network of digital forensic researchers, following conflicts in real time.