Members of a Russian “troll army” were quoted more than 80 times across British-read media outlets before Twitter revealed their identity and banned them, a Guardian investigation has shown.
Some posts from the accounts were embedded in articles to provide apparently local reportage and pictures from the sites of disasters and crime scenes around the world. In fact, Twitter claims, all the accounts were run from the offices of the Internet Research Agency in St Petersburg, alleged to be the headquarters of Russia’s troll army.
Other accounts managed to work their way into more light-hearted coverage, quoted in roundups of Twitter jokes on topics such as “five words to ruin sex” or “make me hate you in one phrase”.
Still others were quoted as part of apparently grassroots reaction to news events such as the death of Fidel Castro or the US ban on travellers from six majority-Muslim nations.
The investigation will raise concerns about the extent of Russian penetration of the British media, which would have disseminated their messages to a much wider audience than they might get on Twitter alone.
To gauge the effectiveness of the accounts, the Guardian searched the archives of 14 British news organisations, including the Telegraph, Daily Mail and the BBC, for every usage on their websites of any name from the list of 2,752 Twitter profiles believed by the social network to have been run by the Internet Research Agency. The study also examined three US-based news media organisations – BuzzFeed, the Huffington Post and Breitbart – that have substantial British readerships.
In total, 29 different accounts were quoted across 73 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 Telegraph cited two accounts, Ten_GOP and Pamela_Moore13, four times each, in stories ranging from an evacuation of Gare du Nord in Paris to the TV host Bill Mayer using the n-word on-air.
The Metro twice quoted Ten_GOP, which claimed to represent the Republican party in Tennessee, in live coverage of incidents in Europe. It cited the account in a story about an explosion in Budapest in 2016, and quoted its claim during the London Bridge attacks this year that there had been two explosions outside the Sun’s offices.
Ten_GOP was cited 16 times in all, including once in a Guardian liveblog. Only one other account, Jenn_Abrams, managed to be cited in more than 10 stories. That account, which was quoted 12 times across the sample, was the first of the Russian accounts to be noticed to be deliberately seeking press coverage. Crowning her “Russia’s Clown Troll Princess”, the Daily Beast reported that at least 34 separate publications had featured Jenn_Abrams in one of their articles.
At times, the extent to which the Russian accounts drove the conversation on these sites was astonishing. Metro wrote a news article about a hashtag game, “#MakeMeHateYouInOnePhrase”, that was started by @WorldOfHashtags. This was a Russian account that has since been suspended by Twitter.
BuzzFeed cited the fictitious @BlackNewsOutlet in a story about a Black Lives Matter protest, but in general rarely quoted the Russian accounts in its news coverage. It frequently included their tweets in lighter stories, however. One such article, “People Are Challenging Each Other To ‘Make Sex Awkward In Five Words’ And It’s Hilarious”, was a list of 23 tweets posted in response to another hashtag game. Five of the tweets came from accounts run by Russian trolls.
One account, Warfare Worldwide (@WarfareWW), accounted for four of the Daily Mail’s seven citations and had posts embedded in Telegraph, Independent and Breitbart articles once apiece. The account, which purported to be an impartial curator of news about conflicts in the Middle East, frequently reposted pictures and analysis of military events, which news outlets embedded in their articles to provide extra imagery.
The posts provided imagery for four Mail stories about the Syrian civil war, including three stories about Russian airstrikes, and were embedded in a Telegraph story about a terror attack in St Petersburg, and an Independent story about a misfire during a helicopter demonstration.
Warfare Worldwide also managed to trick American publications: sites including Vox and the Washington Post have removed the account’s embedded tweets from their articles and noted the fact in footnotes.
SouthLoneStar, an already notorious troll account that pretended to be a US white supremacist, had posts embedded in the Metro three times and the Telegraph once. It was also quoted in the Sun and the Mail Online, but not in a manner discoverable through the Guardian’s investigation technique, and so those two uses have not been included in the total counts to ensure a fair comparison.
Many other Russian accounts were quoted only once or twice across the sample, as news websites pulled in their tweets to flesh out reporting.
One other example was found in the Guardian: a tweet from @USA_Gunslinger promoting “#heterosexualprideday”, used in an article about LGBT responses to the trending topic. That account was also quoted – approvingly – by Breitbart, one of the three times it embedded a tweet from a Russian troll account.
The Guardian investigation found no instances where the Mirror, the Times, the i or the Financial Times quoted a Russian troll account.
While the Guardian has found many examples of Russian accounts being cited in the media, it is difficult to present a comprehensive count due to differences in citation styles across the press. Some outlets publish images of tweets rather than text links.
The 2,752 accounts that Twitter named as Russian misinformation actors in a filing to the US Congress is likely to be just the tip of the iceberg, according to a Oxford University scholar, Yin Yin Lu. “Given my analysis this week, I suspect that quite a few Russian accounts are not on the list,” she said, noting that suspicious patterns of activity on the named accounts suggested a wider network.
On Monday, Theresa May refocused attention on potential election interference when she accused Russia of meddling in campaigns and planting fake stories in the media to “weaponise information” and sow discord in the west.
During an address at the lord mayor’s banquet in London, May said the scale and nature” of Russia’s actions was “threatening the international order on which we all depend”.
Additional reporting by Sabine Gurol
• This article was amended on 22 November 2017. An earlier version referred to more than 80 articles quoting Russian trolls. The correct figure is 73 articles.