Infamous fake Twitter account prompted social media giant to re-evaluate policies

The Tennessee Republican Party saw volumes of Twitter traffic go to an impostor.

ByABC News
November 2, 2017, 3:19 PM

— -- A Russian-backed Twitter account now infamous for luring voters and Trump campaign officials into spreading divisive messages prompted the social media giant to re-evaluate its broader response to suspected Russian election interference, Twitter’s acting general counsel Sean Edgett told lawmakers this week.

The Tennessee Republican Party saw volumes of traffic on Twitter siphoned off to an impostor. The authentic Tennessee GOP Twitter feed is @TNGOP, while a Russian-backed effort shared content via @TEN_GOP. At its peak, the fake account had amassed more than 154,000 followers, while the real account collected just 13,000.

Officials from the real Tennessee Republican Party reported the fake account to Twitter multiple times, but as first reported by Buzzfeed, it took 11 months for the company to shut the fake account down. Asked by Rep. Jackie Speier, D-Calif., whether Twitter had acted swiftly enough to remove the account after being notified of the fraud, Edgett acknowledged the company’s sluggish reaction.

"Absolutely and that example alone caused us to re-look at our policies and procedures and I can say today that had we been reached out on that account today by the real Tennessee GOP, we would’ve taken it down much, much faster,” Edgett said.

Congressional hearings this week aired out scores of examples of fake Russian posts that found their way onto Twitter, Facebook and Google. One ad reportedly targeted African American women, telling them to vote from home on Election Day and providing numbers where they could text their choice. Others pushed anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim messages.

Edgett told lawmakers that Twitter has traced 2,752 accounts to the Russia-based troll factory, the Internet Research Agency, and found that Russian accounts tweeted 1.4 million times in a span of just over two months. Asked if he had addressed the full scope of the problem, Edgett told senators Wednesday, “We’re still working on it.”

“We want to catch bad activity all over Twitter,” Edgett said. “Having automatic account and malicious actors on Twitter is a bad experience for our users. … The challenge is, as we get better, these actors get better. So it’s a constant game of one-ups-manship. But we are committed that every single day we are removing those actors from our platform.”

The true authorship behind the imposter Tennessee Twitter handle was first revealed by the Russian publication RBC last week, but according to Candace Dawkins, a Tennessee GOP spokeswoman, constituents knew something was amiss for much longer than that.

“We would get a lot of complaints about things this fake account was tweeting,” Dawkins told ABC News. “It was very frustrating.”

Sen. Mark Warner, a Virginia Democrat, said in an interview that he was stunned to see the hard evidence of how the bogus Tennessee GOP accounts managed to draw in unsuspecting followers in droves.

Warner told ABC News he found it “particularly disturbing” that Twitter failed to discover or remove the fraudulent account for so long, even after real Tennessee party officials reported it. Dawkins confirmed her office notified Twitter three times of the problem.

“We reported the account as brand infringement,” Dawkins said, adding that the trolls created several back-up accounts to try and grab the attention of its followers when the fake site was first removed.

Democrats at this week’s hearings said they had seen evidence that several top Trump campaign officials re-tweeted divisive messages from the false Tennessee account. Senator Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) said the troll account was retweeted by Kellyanne Conway and Donald Trump Jr. A Daily Beast report found repeated examples of Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn re-tweeting the Russian version of the Tennessee feed.

And as recently reported by ThinkProgress, dozens of major media outlets, including ABC News, cited the account in their reporting or embedded tweets in their articles. ABC News updated the story that cited the fraudulent account and removed the tweet.

Dawkins, meanwhile, said she hopes to see her party’s followers migrating back to the genuine account.

“We took a lot of time to make sure we had good, quality content,” she said.

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