During the 2016 election, members and associates of President Donald Trump's campaign shared social media posts from a source that was reportedly a fake account created by Russian propagandists to spread disinformation.
During the 2016 presidential election, a Twitter account that billed itself as an unofficial platform for Tennessee Republicans racked up over 100,000 followers. The social media account operated from November 2015 until it was shut down on Aug. 23, 2017. Twitter officials permanently banned the account when presented with evidence that it was a front created by the Internet Research Agency, a social media farm associated with the Russian government, The Daily Beast reports.
The so-called Tennessee Republicans' account had repeatedly blasted former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton during the presidential race and shared unverified stories from Russian media that were unflattering to her campaign. Following Trump's election, the account pivoted to stumping for far-right French presidential candidate Marine Le Pen, who reportedly was supported by the Russian government.
On May 1, an anonymous Twitter user called AltCyberCommand filmed himself hacking into the Tennessee Republicans' account and found that the account was actually operated by someone with a phone number area code of Russian origin. The prominent social media account was listed as a Russian-operated propaganda account during an investigative report by Russian media on Oct. 17.
"It was in no way affiliated with our office," communications director Candice Dawkins of the Tennessee Republican Party told BuzzFeed News. "It was very misleading."
Dawkins added that the Tennessee GOP had reported the fake account account to Twitter administrators three separate times from September 2016 to August 2017.
During the 2016 presidential race, several prominent associates of the Trump campaign shared social media posts and stories from the phony Tennessee Republicans account. Missives from the account were shared by the Trump campaign manager, current White House counsel Kellyanne Conway, former Trump campaign digital director Brad Parscale, former White House National Security Adviser Michael Flynn, Trump associate Roger Stone and the president's son, Donald Trump Jr.
Former FBI counterterrorism agent Clint Watts said that fake accounts like the Tennessee Republicans are effective foreign propaganda tools because they are "made to look organic."
"If you take rumors, false information, plants, and just repeat them, you're doing the job of a foreign country," Watts said. "They are seeding out information or narratives they know candidates or partisans will use. They were so effective, they had the very top people in the campaign using it. Basically, Russia loaded the gun. The Trump team fired."
Mike Hasson, chief strategist of the GOP data analytics firm Red Metrics, recalled that he was aware of the account during the presidential race and became suspicious about its origins following the 2016 election.
"For it to jump from Tennessee-related stuff and national stuff to Le Pen, that was probably the trigger point -- like: 'OK, maybe there is something here that's a lot worse,'" Hasson said. "At that point, it was much more than just suspicion. That was more of a confirmation."
Conservative social media activist Jack Posobiec was a fan of the fake account and was surprised when he learned of its origins.
"Fascinating," Posobiec said. "We have to learn more about their operations. It's been their tactic since the KGB in the '70s to turn Americans against one another."
There are ongoing congressional and federal investigations into the Russian government's role during the 2016 election. U.S. national security officials have asserted that the Kremlin used hacking and disinformation to help damage the Clinton campaign. Research director Jonathan Albright of Columbia University's Tow Center for Digital Journalism noted that social media was a particularly useful tool for Russian actors to sow chaos during the election.
"This is cultural hacking," Albright told The New York Times. "They are using systems that were already set up by these platforms to increase engagement. They're feeding outrage -- and it's easy to do, because outrage and emotion is how people share."