Back in March, Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham talked about Russian meddling in the U.S. presidential election at a CNN town hall, and he had a message for members of his party.
“I promise you, we could be next.
On Monday, a report from the Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Lab claimed that Russia-backed bots and influencers were doing just that: targeting prominent members of the GOP.
They’ve been using two hashtags to do it. One, #ResignPaulRyan, went after the speaker of the House of Representatives, who has always had an uneasy relationship with President Donald Trump. The other, #FireMcMaster, went after National Security Advisor H. R. McMaster, who got the job when Trump was forced to boot Michael Flynn (an alt-right favorite) after the press got wind of Flynn’s ties to foreign governments.
The hashtags were boosted by pro-Russia influencers and bots, and members of the alt-right. In fact, the report said the #FireMcMaster effort on Twitter was “the most well-organized campaign in the history of the alt-right.”
Twitter users sent more than 136,000 #FireMcMaster tweets from Aug. 3-6, and plenty of anti-McMaster articles went up on alt-right media sites such as Infowars and Breitbart.
“#FireMcMaster on Twitter appears to have been the most well-organized campaign in the history of the alt-right.”
And, as the authors of the report wrote in Medium, the campaign also got a boost from Lee Stranahan, who co-hosts a program on the Russian government media outlet Sputnik. (He once told The Atlantic, “Im on the Russian payroll now, when you work at Sputnik youre being paid by the Russians.”)
He devoted a good part of his early August online presence to #FireMcMaster. He sent tweets, sure, but he also made videos “urging his subscribers to call the White House and ask for McMaster to be fired.”
The report described Stranahan’s efforts as more “effective” than the efforts of influential alt-right accounts.
Several of the other most prolific accounts pushing #FireMcMaster were identified as probable bots, based in part on the volume of tweets and the high number of retweets.
Overall, looking at a sample of 6,064 #FireMcMaster tweets sent between Aug. 3-6, the study found that 8 percent of accounts were responsible for 20 percent of the hashtag’s traffic.
But it’s not always easy to identify which accounts are bots, which ones are partially automated, and which ones are solely run by an actual human. That fact came into sharp focus on Aug. 5, when the president retweeted a pro-Trump account called @ProTrump45, which soon disappeared after violating Twitter’s terms by offering to sell the account.
Many assumed that @ProTrump45 with its 146,000 followers was a bot. And although those followers turned out to be mostly fake, The Daily Beast tracked down the person behind the actual account.
She wasn’t a bot, but, like many of the operators of such accounts, there was definitely something shady about the operation.