“WE CONTINUE TO SEE a pervasive messaging campaign by Russia to try to weaken and divide the United States,” Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats said at a White House briefing Thursday. AP PHOTO / EVAN VUCCI

“WE CONTINUE TO SEE a pervasive messaging campaign by Russia to try to weaken and divide the United States,” Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats said at a White House briefing Thursday. AP PHOTO / EVAN VUCCI

Russian-controlled troll accounts swarming Twitter with divisive political messages have targeted several Maine politicians, particularly Sen. Susan Collins.

A recently released database of nearly 3 million tweets from accounts orchestrated by a state agency in Russia included messages aimed at Collins (261 tweets), Gov. Paul LePage (44 tweets) and Sen. Angus King (23,) according to an analysis by the Portland Press Herald.

“This effort by the Russians goes beyond one campaign or one candidate or even one country,” Collins said Thursday. “It’s an attempt to undermine public confidence in elected officials and, more importantly, in our democratic institutions. It’s an attempt to undermine Western democracies.”

The news came as White House officials announced a “vast, government-wide” effort to fend off Russian interference in U.S. elections, including efforts to influence voters, such as disinformation campaigns on social media.

“We continue to see a pervasive messaging campaign by Russia to try to weaken and divide the United States,” said Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats.

Most messages for Collins — designed to look like real people but revealed to be an orchestrated effort by a foreign power to meddle in American politics — blasted her for her stance on the Affordable Care Act, or her vote on presidential nominations.


“Traitor Susan Collins Thinks She’s President, Issues Orders to Congress,” read one tweet. “@Senator- Collins @lisamurkowski U should b ashamed 4 not nom. Betsy Devos. U put $ from teachers unions over what’s good 4 kids. Both RINOs,” read another.

The number of tweets aimed at Collins spiked during the ACA debate and vote, with almost 200 tweets in August 2017 compared with only a handful of tweets in other months.

Collins, a key moderate in a Senate where Republicans hold a slim 51-49 majority, has been under close scrutiny on several key issues — the tax reform debate, her vote against the Republicans’

Affordable Care Act repeal and on certain Trump nominations, such as opposing Betsy DeVos for secretary of education and Scott Pruitt as head of the Environmental Protection Agency. Collins also has had a front-row seat to the ongoing investigation of Russian disinformation campaigns aimed at influencing U.S. voters as a member of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence.

She said it didn’t surprise her to be targeted by the Russian troll accounts.

“It is illegal for a foreign government to try to influence our elections, and that is happening,” Collins said. “But something far deeper is happening: The Russians are trying to shake the very foundations of our democratic society, and they particularly want to go after people like me who try to urge people to seek common ground.”


Russia’s long-term strategic goals

The database was initially created by Clemson University researchers who pulled all the social media messages since May 2015 from accounts identified by Congress as having been created by Russian agencies to negatively influence election cycles. The researchers started with an initial list of more than 2,700 troll accounts that Twitter provided to Congress late in 2017, then added messages from 1,100 new troll accounts released by the House Intelligence Committee in June.

Troll accounts differ from “bot” accounts in that trolls have human operators, while bot accounts are computer generated.

The point behind the accounts, experts say, is to divide people, amplify extreme or even absurd political positions, and provoke anger and dissension.

“I think (the Russian state agencies behind the accounts) have long-term strategic goals, which include weakening Western institutions and faith in democracy and traditional sources of information and authority,” said John Kelly, founder and chief executive officer of Graphika, a social media analysis company in New York. “Then they have a lot of near short-term tactical goals, things like injecting hacked information to sway a particular event or election, and they’re doing that activity all around their periphery and now (in the United States).”

Kelly testified Wednesday before the Senate Intelligence Committee about Russian efforts to influence Americans through social media.


Although the Clemson database is limited to certain Twitter accounts tied directly to the Russian government’s Internet Research Agency, the scope of disinformation is much larger, experts say.

In testimony to Congress last fall, Facebook officials said they had found Russian accounts that generated content that had been seen by at least 126 million people — and they expected to find more as they continued to research.

‘Left Trolls’ and ‘Right Trolls’

The Clemson researchers shared the data with FiveThirtyEight, the data analysis site, which posted it on Github this week, making it available to the public. A searchable database of Maine-related tweets is on the Press Herald website.

“National efforts to use media to influence foreign citizens is not new; Japan broadcasted to U.S. troops throughout World War II, and Voice of America has for decades been a global mouthpiece of the U.S. government. However, Russia’s work on social media has taken agenda-building efforts by nations into a new context,” researchers Darren L. Linvill and Patrick Warren wrote in an academic paper posted online that is still under peer review.

Linvill is an associate professor in communications and Warren is an economics professor.


They found that the tweets broke down into general categories — “left trolls” or “right trolls” or “fearmongers,” who spread news of a fabricated crisis such as people being poisoned by Thanksgiving turkeys and then tie that fabricated event to a political party. Other accounts, called “news feeds,” were purportedly local news aggregators, such as “@KansasDailyNews,” but were in fact orchestrated by Russia.

Left trolls, they found, mimicked left-wing organizations, but “seemed intentionally divisive” with messages such as “never trust a cop.” Right trolls, they said, promoted “nativist” messages and “uniformly supported (Trump’s) candidacy and his presidency.”

“These handles’ themes were distinct from mainstream Republicanism,” they wrote. “They rarely broadcast traditionally important Republican themes, such as taxes, abortion and regulation, but often sent divisive messages about mainstream and moderate Republicans.”

Almost all of the tweets targeting Collins came from “right troll” accounts in the database.

Collins said she’s noticed “more and more extreme” comments tweeted at her, and the overall Russia effort is working, to some extent.

“It is making people less civil in their discourse and more extreme in their viewpoints,” Collins said. “And I think it’s dangerous for our democracy and corrosive for the fabric of society.”


‘Democracy is in the crosshairs’

At the White House briefing Thursday, Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen said: “Our democracy is in the crosshairs.” At a cybersecurity summit this week, she said the cyberthreat now exceeds the danger of a physical attack against the U.S. by a hostile foreign group.

Most of the Russianbacked tweets about LePage are not attacks, but matterof fact restatements of his positions, such as “#politics Maine Gov. Paul LePage endorses Trump for president,” and “Donald Trump lauds Maine Gov. Paul LePage’s weight loss.”

There is a jump — to six tweets — in January 2016, when LePage sparked national controversy for a racially charged comment about out-of-state drug dealers with names like “DMoney, Smoothie, Shifty — these types of guys” and how “half the time they impregnate a young, white girl before they leave.”

The King tweets are fewer, but more repetitive. Six different accounts all shot out the same tweet, “Angus King calls Donald Trump’s lack of interest in Russian hacking ‘very disturbing,’” just minutes apart. Collectively, all the King tweets reached more than 15,000 followers of the various accounts, according to the Clemson researchers.

There were no tweets regarding Rep Chellie Pingree, D-1st District, in the data and only one for Rep. Bruce Poliquin, R-2nd District, when he voted for the ACA repeal.

“The bottom line is people should be very wary of the content that they see on social media platforms,” Collins said.

Noel K. Gallagher can be contacted at (207) 791-6387 or [email protected] Twitter: noelinmaine

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