Blog June 18, 2020

Dispatches from the June 2020 Twitter Inauthentic Activity Takedown

On June 12, 2020, Twitter removed 1,152 accounts attributed to Current Policy, “a media website engaging in state-backed political propaganda within Russia.” These accounts were taken down because they violated Twitter’s policy on platform manipulation. Our latest white paper analyzes their activities and motivations.
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On June 12, Twitter announced that it had taken down 32,242 accounts connected to three distinct state-linked information operations. In our previous post on the topic, we provided in depth analysis on two of those operations. The third operations included  1,152 accounts that Twitter attributed to Current Policy, “a media website engaging in state-backed political propaganda within Russia.” These accounts came down because they violated Twitter’s policy on platform manipulation, not because they espoused any particular political viewpoint. However, it is clear that there was a subset of accounts that had specific political aims, as well as subsets with commercial and PR interests. In this white paper, we look further into these groups of accounts and their apparent aims.  

Key Takeaways 

  • Twitter attributed this takedown of 1,152 accounts and 3,434,792 tweets to actors affiliated with Current Policy. The Current Policy Twitter account (@Current_policy) began tweeting in early 2013 and tweeted almost 58,000 times, gaining over 150,000 followers before it was taken down in November 2019.   

  • The politically engaged accounts in the network focused on amplifying pro-government activity and cheerleading for President Vladimir Putin and his party, United Russia. Several of the accounts purported to represent official government offices, such as the Moscow Construction Bureau and the Voronezh branch of the United Russia party. Others purported to represent United Russia politicians, including members of the State Duma and the Moscow City Duma.

  • Accounts purported to be the official Twitter accounts for Federal initiatives such as “Leaders of Russia,” a contest intended to identify “future leaders” and reinvigorate various branches of government, and Open Innovations Startup Tour, a nationwide “project aimed at developing technological entrepreneurship and discovering promising innovative projects.” Subsequent reporting and investigation has confirmed that many of these were official accounts.

  • Anti-opposition activity was additionally present in the form of caricature accounts, attacks on Navalny and the Anti-Corruption Foundation, and amplification of allegations that the opposition cheated in last year’s contentious Moscow City Duma elections. One of the accounts posed as a polling company “independently studying Russian public opinion” and used leading questions to elicit pro-government and anti-opposition responses.

  • One small cluster of accounts, which periodically retweeted influencer accounts from within the data set, additionally amplified content related to geopolitical topics of interest created by likely persona accounts on social media sites including Quora, LiveJournal, Facebook, and others. The topics these persona accounts focused on and wrote about included Ukraine, Armenia, NATO, Skripal, and MH-17, among others.

  • Another group of accounts was tied to a network of news sites aimed at several Russian cities: Ufa, Voronezh, Omsk, Krasnoyarsk, and Arkhangelsk. This network is owned and operated by the media conglomerate Hearst Shkulev Media; while some of the affiliated Twitter accounts for sites in this network were included in the takedown, others were not, and the connection between Hearst Shkulev Media and the actors behind Current Policy is presently unclear. 

  • Finally, many of the most popular accounts were involved in a commercial operation called twishop that sold retweets and tweeted links. These accounts ranged from humor accounts to photography accounts and were typically not politically engaged.

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Analysis of June 2020 Twitter takedowns linked to China, Russia and Turkey

On June 3, 2020 Twitter shared with the Stanford Internet Observatory three distinct takedown datasets from China, Turkey and Russia. In this post and in the attached white papers on the China and Turkey operations, we look at the topics and tactics of these operations.