Pro-Moscow voices tried to shape debate over Ohio train disaster
Shortly after a train derailed and spilled toxic chemicals in Ohio last month, anonymous pro-Russian accounts began spreading misleading claims and anti-American propaganda about it on Twitter, using Elon Musk’s new verification system to extend their reach while creating the illusion of credibility.
The accounts, which replicated Kremlin talking points on a myriad of topics, claimed without evidence that Ohio authorities were lying about the true impact of the chemical spill. The stories spread alarmist messages that drew on legitimate concerns about pollution and health effects and compared the response to the derailment with US support for Ukraine after it was invaded by Russia.
Some of the claims pushed by pro-Russian accounts were verifiably false, such as the suggestion that the media had covered up the disaster or that environmental scientists visiting the site had been killed in a plane crash. But most were more speculative, seemingly designed to stir up fear or mistrust. Examples include unverified maps showing widespread pollution, posts predicting an increase in deadly cancers, and others about unconfirmed mass animal deaths.
“Biden offers food, water, medicine, shelter, pension payments and social services to Ukraine! Ohio first! Offer and deliver in Ohio! posted one of the pro-Moscow accounts, which has 25,000 followers and features an anonymous location and a profile picture of a dog. Twitter gave the account a blue check in January.
Social accounts spread propaganda
Regularly delivering anti-American propaganda, the stories show how easily authoritarian states and Americans willing to spread their propaganda can exploit social media platforms like Twitter to shape national discourse.
The accounts were identified by Reset, a London-based nonprofit that studies the impact of social media on democracy, and shared with The Associated Press. Felix Kartte, senior adviser at Reset, said the report’s findings indicate that Twitter is allowing Russia to use its platform as a mouthpiece.
“With no one at home in Twitter’s product security department, Russia will continue to meddle in US elections and democracies around the world,” Kartte said.
Twitter did not respond to messages seeking comment on this story.
The derailment of 38 railcars near East Palestine, Ohio released toxic chemicals into the atmosphere, sparking a national debate over rail safety and environmental regulations while raising fears of poisoned drinking water and air.
The disaster was a major topic on social media, with millions of mentions on platforms including Facebook and Twitter, according to analysis by San Francisco-based media intelligence firm Zignal Labs, which conducted a study on behalf of the PA.
Online comments attempt to affect opinions
At first, the derailment received little attention online, but mentions rose steadily, peaking two weeks after the incident, Zignal found, a shift that gave pro-Russian voices time to try. to shape the conversation.
Accounts identified by Reset researchers received an extra boost from Twitter itself, in the form of a blue tick. Before Musk bought Twitter last year, its checkmarks designated accounts run by verified users, often public figures, celebrities or journalists. It was considered a mark of authenticity on a platform known for bots and spam accounts.
Musk ended that system and replaced it with Twitter Blue, which is available to users who pay $8 a month and provide a phone number. Twitter Blue users agree not to engage in deception and are required to post a profile picture and name. But there is no rule that they use theirs.
Under the program, Twitter Blue users can write and send longer tweets and videos. Their answers are also given priority in other messages.
The AP contacted several of the accounts listed in Reset’s report. In response, one of the accounts sent a two-word message before blocking the AP reporter on Twitter: “Shut up.”
While the researchers spotted clues suggesting some of the accounts are linked to the coordinated efforts of Russian disinformation agencies, others were American, showing that the Kremlin doesn’t always have to pay to get its message across.
One account, known as Truth Puke, is connected to a website of the same name aimed at conservatives in the United States. Truth Puke regularly reposts Russian state media; RT, formerly known as Russia Today, is one of his favorite groups to repost, Reset found. A video posted by the account features former President Donald Trump’s remarks about the train derailment, with Russian subtitles.
In response to questions from the AP, Truth Puke said he aimed to provide a “wide range of viewpoints” and was surprised to be called a broadcaster of Russian propaganda, despite the heavy use of such material by account. Asked about the Russian-captioned video, Truth Puke said he used the Russian-language version of Trump’s video for expediency.
“We can assure you that this was not done with any Russian propaganda intent in mind, we just like to release things as quickly as we find them,” the company said.
Other accounts boast of their love for Russia. On Thursday, an account reposted a bizarre claim that the US was stealing earthquake relief humanitarian supplies donated to Syria by China. The account has 60,000 followers and is known as Donbass Devushka, after the region of Ukraine.
Another pro-Russian account recently attempted to argue with Ukraine’s Defense Department online, posting photos of documents it said were from the Wagner Group, a private military company owned by key ally Yevgeny Prigozhin. of Putin. Prigozhin operates troll farms that have targeted American social media users in the past. Last fall, he bragged about his efforts to meddle with American democracy.
A separate Twitter account claiming to represent Wagner actively uses the site to recruit fighters.
“Gentlemen, we interfered, interfered and interfered,” Prigozhin said last fall on the eve of the 2022 midterm elections in the United States. “Carefully, precisely, surgically and in our own way, as we know how to do”.