Russian propagandists said to buy Twitter blue-check verifications

A keyboard is placed in front of a displayed Twitter logo in this illustration taken February 21, 2023. REUTERS/Dado Ruvic/Illustration (Dado Ruvic / reuters)
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SAN FRANCSICO - Accounts pushing Kremlin propaganda are using Twitter's new paid verification system to appear more prominently on the global platform, another sign that Elon Musk's takeover is accelerating the spread of politically charged misinformation, a nonprofit research group has found.

The accounts claim to be based outside of Russia, so they can pay for verification without running afoul of U.S. sanctions. But they pass along articles from state-run media, statements by Russian officials, and lies about Ukraine from Kremlin allies, according to the research group Reset, which shared its findings with The Washington Post.

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One of the accounts describes itself in English as "No woke. No BLM. No gender pronouns ... Just Anti-Imperialism." Purporting to be based in San Francisco, its profile picture shows a blond woman wearing a fur hat with a hammer and sickle badge. Another account's biographical blurb says it is "Doing my part to stop Western support for the Ukrainian war machine, one taxpayer at a time." It regularly tweets videos it says show Russians killing Ukrainian soldiers.

Most of the dozen such accounts identified by Reset were created last year during the first phase of the war in Ukraine. Archived webpages show the accounts lacked blue check marks until recently, after new owner Elon Musk introduced a pay-to-play model and said he would phase out the legacy verifications that have identified politicians, journalists and other notable figures and weeded out impostors.

Musk has said that in the future, tweets and replies from such paid subscribers will be featured even more prominently in Twitter's news feed and search. But some of the accounts have already been getting more views in recent weeks.

Musk has boosted one of the accounts by replying to its tweets, including one spreading a lie that thousands of NATO troops had died in Ukraine.

Reset said the surge showed a major problem with a system that allows anonymous accounts to buy verification, giving them better placement in searches, mentions and replies. The accounts it turned up are "openly sharing content from Russian state media, Kremlin-aligned disinformation about the conflict in Ukraine and outright war propaganda," the group wrote. Twitter labels the main three-million follower RT account "Russia state-affiliated media," and it carries a legacy blue check for being notable and not an impostor. The newly verified accounts carry no such label.

Former employees and disinformation researchers have previously faulted the company for firing many regional experts assessing influence operations, disbanding a safety advisory board, and bringing back accounts that had been banned for hate speech and spreading lies.

At least two prominent members of Afghanistan's Taliban regime also paid $8 or $11 monthly for blue checks until the media reported it last month. Their verifications were removed after the reports.

Twitter's treatment of Russia has come under special scrutiny because Musk has a complex but critical role in the Ukraine conflict. His company SpaceX has been essential to Ukraine's defense, providing thousands of Starlink satellite communication terminals that allowed Ukraine to maintain internet service despite Russian attacks on infrastructure. But he also has said Starlink should not be used for offensive military purposes, and he tweeted a proposal for resolving the war that Russia welcomed.

Although Russia requires its internet providers to block access to Twitter, the platform has remained a place for Russians to share anonymous news and debate. People in Russia can reach the service through virtual private networks or proxy systems, while the swelling ranks of expatriates contribute freely.

Russian activity on platforms outside the country has been controversial since shortly after the 2016 presidential election, when the Russian internet Research Agency was exposed as driving polarizing content on Twitter and Facebook to influence the election in Donald Trump's favor. As with some of the new accounts, the "troll factory" operatives usually pretended to be patriotic Americans.

Last week, sanctioned oligarch Yevgeniy Prigozhin said he not only had financed the internet Research Agency, but also created and ran it.

Just before November's midterms, he said, he had interfered in those U.S. contests as well.

Yoel Roth, who was Twitter's head of trust and safety until November, told two allies that he stayed at Twitter past Musk's takeover to fight such deceptive foreign influence on the elections. He resigned just afterward, and testified to the Senate this month that thousands of automated Russian propaganda accounts are still on the platform.

Musk's sweeping job cuts and resignations have drastically reduced the number of employees dedicated to fighting influence campaigns, and the platform's last Russia expert recently left, according to two people who worked with the person.

Twitter's similar loss of Chinese expertise has made it harder for exiled critics to overcome improper suspensions or search bans, victims said in interviews. They sent The Post screenshots of dozens of accounts not appearing in search results or being banned for spammy behavior, actions that lasted for weeks. Spam also overwhelmed reports from Chinese cities last fall about dramatic protests against coronavirus lockdowns.

Neither Twitter's new head of trust and safety nor Musk responded to emails Tuesday seeking comment.

The verified pro-Russian accounts identified by Reset take a variety of approaches. Some style themselves as independent media outlets. Another, called @LogKa11, created in February 2022, shares mainly pro-Russian war content in English to its more than 30,000 followers, including stories from war correspondents embedded with Russian troops and videos of successful attacks. It has repeatedly linked Ukrainians to Nazis, writing in December that "Modern Ukraine has had a strange obsession with Nazism." That echoes one of President Vladimir Putin's primary justifications for the invasion.

One, called @PutinDirect, posts videos of comments from the Russian leader with English captions and links to full speeches.

Among the most popular is @Runews, which was around for over a decade before getting a blue check. Describing itself as a "citizen journalist," it reaches 260,000 followers with sometimes heavy-handed propaganda, such as its repeated recent suggestions that Ohio "should really declare itself part of Ukraine in hopes of receiving aid from Biden administration." (The statement omitted the word "the," which is a common mistake by native Russian speakers.)

The account "is regularly engaging with content coming from Russian state media such as RT International @RT_com or editor in chief Margarita Simonyan @m_simonyan. It is also sharing videos from Russian media or other pro-Russian channels with content deriding the E.U., NATO, Ukraine, the West as a whole and clearly supporting Russia's actions in the war," Reset wrote. "It also produces content geared toward the U.S. Republican Twitterverse."

Runews got a blue check in mid-January. On Feb. 6, Musk boosted the account's profile by responding to its claim that 157,000 Ukrainian soldiers and 2,458 NATO soldiers have died in the war with the comment: "A tragic loss of life."

Another Musk reply to the same account made it appear in the "For You" display of a Post test account that did not follow Runews. NATO has not deployed soldiers to Ukraine, though Russia has characterized Ukraine as a puppet of the U.S.-European alliance.

Tweet impressions from the @runews account soared past 10 million and remain much higher than before, according to a Post analysis of public data.

Troll accounts are still being suspended, according to a researcher who supports imprisoned Putin critic Alexei Navalny and tweets as @Antibot4Navalny. But it takes time, while new accounts are constantly coming online.

The researcher, who lives in Russia and agreed to speak on the condition of anonymity to protect his safety, told The Post that through September he'd never counted more than 500 Russian-allied accounts simultaneously active on Twitter, but that lately he has been seeing more than 800. Most have few followers, but they can overwhelm tweet discussions with replies favoring Putin's positions.

He worries about what lies ahead, with an eviscerated trust and safety team, reduced access for researchers, and blue check marks for sale to government allies who might put more energy into concealing their purpose.

In addition to human-powered troll accounts, automated accounts have been pushing pro-Russian disinformation, according to longtime researcher Marc Owen Jones, a professor at Hamad Bin Khalifa University in Qatar.

Jones found that a key group of influencers promoted a conspiracy theory that the United States caused the Turkish earthquake as punishment for the country's opposition to expanding NATO, and that their tweets were amplified by thousands of accounts, including hundreds of accounts that were created simultaneously over a few days in October and last April.

Nearly 1,000 of those amplifiers have also tweeted that Ukrainian leader Volodymyr Zelensky is a war criminal, Jones told The Post.

"This subset was predominantly MAGA accounts," he said, referring to those with that acronym or other keywords favored by strong Trump supporters in their biographies. "What made this group interesting is that they were created in a short space of time, which looks anomalous, i.e. potentially propaganda accounts."

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Jeremy B. Merrill contributed to this report.


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