Twitter exec says 'hundreds of thousands' of Russian disinformation accounts still active on Twitter
Twitter's former head of Trust and Safety told Congress that "counterfeit" Russian accounts targeting the US are still active as part of an "ongoing campaign."
Hidden in the middle of this week’s House Oversight Committee hearing was a startling admission from a former Twitter executive that has been overlooked by almost everyone. The hearing was focused on the ongoing Hunter Biden laptop saga, but the real revelation came during a brief exchange between Rep. Jamie Raskin (D-MD) and Yoel Roth, Twitter’s former head of Trust and Safety, during which Roth confirmed that “thousands or hundreds of thousands” of Russian Twitter accounts targeting the U.S. are still active on the platform as part of an ongoing campaign.
Roth led the team at Twitter that uncovered Russia’s 2016 interference campaign targeting the U.S. presidential election — an experience he described in his written remarks on Wednesday.
“I still remember the rage I felt when I saw accounts with names like ‘Pamela Moore’ and ‘Crystal Johnson’ — accounts purporting to be real Americans, from Wisconsin and New York, but with phone numbers tracing back to St Petersburg, Russia,” Roth recounted. “These accounts were operated by agents of a foreign government, and their mission was to stoke culture war issues on social media to try to further divide Americans.”
He went on to describe the huge networks of Russian accounts that his team discovered and removed from the platform, using this as an example to demonstrate the national security implications of Twitter’s content moderation decisions.
“The kinds of attacks that we saw go far beyond fake Americans with Russian phone numbers. The actors targeting American elections are well-funded and increasingly sophisticated, and have continuously gotten better at covering their tracks,” Roth warned.
A short time later, Rep. Raskin took the floor and questioned Roth about Russian activity on the platform.
“Did I hear you correctly to say that there were thousands or even hundreds of thousands of counterfeit Twitter accounts set up by Russian propaganda and disinformation [actors]?” Raskin asked.
“That’s right sir,” Roth said, “and that’s not just past tense. Those accounts are still active on social media today. This is an ongoing campaign.”
“Those accounts are still active on social media today. This is an ongoing campaign.” -Yoel Roth, former head of Trust and Safety at Twitter.
And there you have it: The former head of Trust and Safety at Twitter just confirmed — under oath — that there are thousands, and potentially even hundreds of thousands, of Russian Twitter accounts targeting Americans in an active campaign of disinformation and deception.
This is the first we’ve heard of an ongoing campaign involving such a large number of accounts, perhaps because identifying and countering foreign disinformation is not a priority under Elon Musk’s leadership — and that’s an understatement. Not only has Musk taken the unprecedented step of leaking internal Twitter communications to undermine the integrity of the work done by people like Roth, but he has also dismantled the teams tasked with spotting and stopping foreign influence. According to Roth, there were “dozens of teams working on election security” prior to Musk’s acquisition of Twitter, but “those teams no longer exist under Mr. Musk.”
Roth also warned that Russia isn’t the only country using social media to interfere in U.S. politics, adding: “There’s now a playbook for how election interference works, and it’s all too cheap and all too easy for countries to try to carry this out.”
Even worse, domestic accounts have now picked up the tactics of foreign influence accounts and are using them to shape discourse in the U.S. and other democratic societies, making it harder to tell the difference between legitimate acts of free speech and manipulative, illegal acts of foreign interference.
Foreign influence accounts like the ones Roth warned about can be found engaging in nearly any popular debate or trending topic on social media, including even apolitical issues like entertainment content. We also know Russia and other nation-level disinformation actors like China continue to be involved in pushing COVID disinformation and polarizing the vaccine debate by disseminating toxic hyperpartisan vaccine disinformation, much of which has made its way into American social media groups and networks. As I recently reported, Russia is also known to target domestic protest movements via social media and other channels, and there’s evidence that Russian influence activities heavily targeted the truck convoy last year in Canada.
Whether it’s thousands of accounts or hundreds of thousands of accounts, the implications are clear: Russia and other hostile foreign powers are exploiting social media as part of a multifaceted assault on western democracies, and our best defenses are both inadequate and ineffective. And yet, instead of holding hearings focused on this pressing national security threat, the GOP House Oversight Committee is spending their time trying to convince Americans that the real problem is that Twitter tried to mitigate this threat by refusing to participate in what looked like a hack-and-leak operation involving Hunter Biden’s laptop. Meanwhile, the current owner of the platform and his team of on-call, “unpaid” journalists have taken it upon themselves to rewrite the history of Russia’s asymmetric attack on U.S. society by waging a disingenuous war against anyone or anything that may prove useful in documenting or fighting foreign interference, while also trying to turn Twitter into some new variation of WikiLeaks — and in the process, creating an entirely new, extremely large attack surface for our adversaries to exploit.
If Roth’s testimony is accurate, as I expect it is, then we should be preparing ourselves for an information warfare campaign on an even larger scale than we’ve seen before — a scale with the potential to mass-manipulate reality while drowning out the beacons of truth that we rely on to understand the world around us and establish the shared truths upon which our society is founded. This, after all, is the goal of asymmetric warfare, which seeks to overwhelm you and break you down by subjecting you to an ever-shifting state of reality and undermining your perceptions of the world so you never really know what is happening, or at least can’t be confident about what you think you know. These goals become much more attainable with the assistance of thousands of artificial accounts spreading targeted disinformation and encouraging online behavior that divides and fractures communities, discredits experts, and makes enemies out of friends.
Yet we aren’t helpless, even in the face of threats at an unprecedented scale. In fact, one of most effective counter-strategies is also one of the most simple and is something that we can all do: Acknowledge that the threat exists. This is a battle for control of your mind, and the success of those waging war in the cognitive domain depends largely on the ability to deny that such a battle is even taking place. It becomes much harder to deny this when we can point to several thousand information weapons in the form of malign influence accounts as proof of the ongoing war. Maybe one day we’ll even have hearings on this evolving threat — not as it appeared in 2016 or 2018, but as it exists today. Because despite the claims of those who are trying so very hard to obfuscate and ultimately erase this evidence from our collective memory, the battle for your mind is real — and weaponized denial is very much part of it.
I reached out to Mr. Roth for further details about his testimony, and asked Rep. Raskin’s office if he is planning to follow up on this revelation, but haven’t received a response yet. I will update if/when I hear back from either one.