Russian Trolls Spread Baseless Conspiracy Theories Like Pizzagate And QAnon After The Election
Less than two weeks after the first "Q" post appeared on 4chan, a Russia-backed troll account began amplifying the conspiracy theory on Twitter.
Long after President Trump's election victory in 2016, Russian trolls continued to sow discord among Americans by promoting a host of baseless conspiracy theories on social media, according to a BuzzFeed News analysis of nearly 3 million tweets published in an online archive.
The cache of tweets from the Kremlin-backed Internet Research Agency show that the Russians attempted to mimic extremist voices to push a menu of debunked conspiracy theories ranging from Pizzagate and chemtrails to Obama's birth and FEMA camps. At least one of the accounts latched on to the conspiracy du jour of QAnon, pushing for months the nonsensical theory that Trump was appointed president by the military to save the nation from a pedophilia ring before it would eventually make its way to President Trump's rallies and into the mainstream media.
The nearly 3 million tweets offer a glimpse into how Russian trolls helped perpetuate a flow of misinformation online that not only blurred the lines between fake and real, but sought to deepen political divisions in the US with disproved conspiracy theories that have continued to spread from the internet to the real world.
One such account, @CovfefeNationUS, which posed as a Trump supporter, aggressively pushed the QAnon conspiracy theory less than two weeks after the first "Q" post was made on 4chan, bringing it out of the dark corners of the internet and into mainstream social media view.
Using hashtags like #thestorm and #followthewhiterabbit, the account picked up on the conspiracy on Nov. 10, 2017, well before signs with the letter Q began to appear at Trump's rallies. Over the course of a month, the account posted about 800 QAnon-themed messages, including more than 90 on Dec. 9, 2017.
The following day, the account went dark.
The tweets from known Russian trolls, which were gathered by professors Darren Linvill and Patrick Warren of Clemson University in South Carolina and published last month by FiveThirtyEight, reveal an array of conspiracy theories made up a significant amount of content from the accounts.
"At the deepest level, the goal is to make our political differences and debates seem more extreme and insoluble than they really are," Warren told BuzzFeed News. "If they could make this about QAnon against Black Lives Matter, then they win."
Their study of the social media posts so far has shown that those behind the accounts tried to mimic people on the ideological fringes of both the right and left of American politics. Pushing conspiracy theories toward the mainstream appears to have been part of that effort, even long after the 2016 election.
"Conspiracies, they go hand-in-hand with extremism," Warren said.
The Internet Research Agency, or IRA, ran a coordinated campaign with about 400 employees from St. Petersburg to disrupt American politics. The 2,848 troll accounts, which were identified by the House Intelligence Committee, are believed to be only a sliver of the accounts deployed by the Russian government as part of their effort to disrupt the 2016 election.
The tweets linked to the Russian agency have since been removed, but FiveThirtyEight published copies from Warren and Linvill.
Among the conspiracy theories pushed by the accounts was the baseless claim that Seth Rich, an employee of the Democratic National Committee, was murdered in July 2016 because he had been WikiLeaks' source for the leaked DNC emails. Several US intelligence agencies have determined the Russian government was in fact behind the hack of Democratic emails.
But from July 29, 2016, to Feb. 18, 2018, multiple Russian troll accounts promoted the conspiracy theory that Rich had been murdered because of his role in the email leak, suggesting that DNC officials had been behind the killing.
"The man who brought the #DNCleak to Wikileaks," said @USA_gunslinger, which posed as a Wisconsin woman, in September 2016. "He was murdered two weeks later. Seth Rich!"
The troll accounts aggressively pushed the Rich narrative with more than 650 tweets and retweets, trying to link the murdered staffer to the email dump.
The accounts also amplified other quickly evolving conspiracies and misinformation.
One user, @AmelieBaldwin, which posed as a blonde American woman who described herself as a "Wife, Mother, Patriot, Friend," claimed in one tweet that the Pope had converted to Islam and warned, "The parishioners better clean up this mess before the cancer spreads throughout their church."
The account also pushed "Pizzagate," the bizarre and debunked theory claiming Democrats used a Washington pizza parlor as a center for child sex trafficking.
From November 2016 to February 2018, the troll accounts posted some 600 times with the word "Pizzagate." Another 269 tweets with the hashtag #Pedogate, used in an attempt to try to link Democrats to child sex trafficking conspiracies, were posted during the same time period.
When the Pizzagate theory led a man to storm the restaurant with an assault rifle, the troll accounts @AmelieBaldwin and @CassIsHere posted tweets claiming the incident was a "psy-op" and that the gunman was an actor — all part of a plot to discredit those who were trying to uncover the pedophile ring.
"Certainly they were seeing what works," said Warren, the researcher.
Other conspiracy theories that have persisted over the years were also echoed by the Russian accounts.
"Have we been tricked by the Rothschild family, was this all part of their Master Plan? https://t.co/fs95xz77oV #nwo #illuminati #conspiracy," read one tweet from @Aldrich420, which posed as a retired conservative American man.
Claims that Rothschild institutions control the world's banking system, and that they are somehow behind a "New World Order" plot of global domination, has been a recurrent conspiracy theory over the years, with its roots in anti-Semitism.
"#AllWentWrongWhen the Rothschilds took over," read a tweet from the IRA's @andyhashtagger on Sept. 20, 2015.
The accounts all seem to have learned, and shifted their strategies when certain tactics fell flat, Warren observed.
For example, just before Thanksgiving 2015, many of the accounts tweeted about a fake salmonella outbreak that was supposedly linked to a turkey farm. That conspiracy theory, Warren noted, appeared to have been sparked by the Russian accounts themselves.
"And what should we do now!? #KochFArms #Turkey #Walmart #USDA," one account with the handle @sherman_cn tweeted on Thanksgiving that year.
The attempt fell flat and the accounts appeared to change strategy by early 2016. Instead of creating their own crisis or conspiracy, he said, the accounts began to latch on to and amplify theories that already existed in the fringes of the internet.
"They went from trying to set the agenda to trying to set the agenda by emphasizing voices that were already there and making them seem sensible and salient," Warren said.
Others, such as @clydedaws0n and @colinsneverland, posted links to stories of old, mainstay conspiracy theories like "chemtrails" — the debunked belief that chemicals are sprayed in the air from planes as a form of population control.
"#CCOT The United Nations Admits #Chemtrails Are Real https://t.co/gs6BplksS6 #PJnet#Tcot," one post read.
More than 250 tweets espousing chemtrail conspiracies were found in the database, while more than 50 others speculated that the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) was planning to force people into camps as a plot to imprison Americans.
Dozens of other tweets speculated that real events, including a shooting at a Florida airport in January 2017 and a gas attack in Syria in April 2017, were "false flags," or staged events that were meant to be a distraction.
As the accounts switched tactics, Warren said, they appeared to retweet other users more often in an effort apparently aimed at increasing visibility and to diversify followers.
"Then they go from trying to build followers as the primary task, to using all of those followers now to bring voices that they want to be central to the conversation," he said. "They don't want their trolls to be the people who are being quoted all the time because they were going to get caught that way. They wanted someone who can go on NBC, or wherever, to talk."
A spokesperson for Twitter told BuzzFeed News the company has shared full details of the identified Russian accounts with members of Congress. Since then, Twitter has created teams to analyze 3,814 IRA-linked accounts and their behaviors and patterns in order to identify and suspend new accounts.
Twitter said it is also working with the House and Senate Intelligence Committees, the Department of Homeland Security, local law enforcement agencies, and other social media companies to identify other possible troll accounts.
“America is under attack,” Linvill, the researcher, told BuzzFeed News. "I would assume that there’s a whole lot out there right now that Twitter doesn’t know about."