The Senate Intelligence Committee is investigating 45 additional suspicious Twitter accounts with strong links to Russian bots that were uncovered by BuzzFeed News, a source said.
The accounts were not included in previous submissions by Twitter to congressional investigators looking into Russian interference in the 2016 election.
Twitter suspended the 45 accounts last week after BuzzFeed News uncovered the network of bots, which tweeted propaganda about President Donald Trump, Brexit, and German Chancellor Angela Merkel in 2016. BuzzFeed News discovered the accounts using a simple analysis of interactions with the Russian accounts Twitter previously flagged to Congress. Experts said the revelation raises questions about whether the social media giant is taking the issue seriously enough.
Following the report, the Senate Intelligence Committee contacted Twitter — which testified alongside Facebook and Google in open hearings to Congress earlier this month — about the accounts, according to a source familiar with the matter. The source said Twitter’s response to the recent request was “brief and insufficient.” The committee, the source said, is asking for a list of the handles of the new, now-suspended Twitter accounts and information associated with them.
The Senate Intelligence Committee is awaiting responses to that request as well as written questions senators submitted to Twitter, Facebook, and Google following the public hearing. The degree to which the social media companies answer those questions will determine whether they are taking the threat of Russian interference and the investigation as seriously as their representatives claimed in the public hearing, the source said.
A spokesperson for Sen. Richard Burr, the committee chairman, declined to comment on specifics, but said “the committee continues to engage with Twitter and other social media platforms.”
A source from the House Intelligence Committee, which is also investigating Russian election interference, said it is interested in the 45 suspicious accounts as well. "We plan to follow up with Twitter on it," the source said.
Twitter has previously told Congress it found 200 Russian accounts that overlapped with those identified by Facebook in early September. The Facebook accounts were connected to a Russian troll operation called the Internet Research Agency, which has strong links to the Kremlin.
At the time, Sen. Mark Warner, the vice chair of the committee, blasted Twitter for not doing more to find and disable Twitter accounts linked to Russian interference in US elections. “The notion that their work was basically derivative based upon accounts that Facebook had identified showed an enormous lack of understanding from the Twitter team of how serious this issue is, the threat it poses to democratic institutions, and again begs many more questions than they offered,” Warner said. “Their response was frankly inadequate on almost every level.”
He later said he believed social media companies were beginning to recognize the threat, but grilled their representatives about what they were doing to combat it, alongside committee chairman Richard Burr, at the Nov. 1 public hearing.
The 45 suspicious Twitter accounts tweeted about Trump — whom the Russian government sought to boost during the election, according to the US intelligence community — 198 times in 2016, a BuzzFeed News analysis found.
“This BuzzFeed investigation clearly calls into question the evidence that Twitter provided to the US Senate Judiciary and Intelligence Committees and demonstrates that whatever process the company undertook to identify Russian-backed fake accounts was simply not rigorous enough,” Damian Collins, the chair of a UK parliamentary committee that is investigating fake news and online propaganda, told BuzzFeed News last week. “The findings of this report raise serious questions about the methodology used by Twitter to identify fake content on their platform, and how seriously they are taking investigations by governments and parliaments around the world.”
The Senate Judiciary Committee, another panel investigating Russian election interference, did not immediately respond to questions about whether it, too, has requested information from Twitter about the accounts BuzzFeed News uncovered.
Twitter did not immediately return a request for comment.