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Blacklisted Russian propagandists thrive on right-wing apps Gab and Truth Social, study finds

Blocked on Twitter and Facebook, these propagandists have resurrected on under-moderated social media apps designed for conservatives, according to research from Stanford University and Graphika.
A business center in St. Petersburg, Russia, that is believed to house an Internet Research Agency "troll factory" in 2018.
A business center in St. Petersburg, Russia, that is believed to house an Internet Research Agency "troll factory" in 2018.Dmitri Lovetsky / AP file

Some of Russia’s most notorious propagandists, largely blocked on Twitter and Facebook, have resurrected on under-moderated social media apps designed for conservatives, according to new research from Stanford University.

A report published Tuesday by the Stanford Internet Observatory and the social media analytics firm Graphika indicates that some of the same people tied to Russia’s Internet Research Agency are active on the four major platforms launched in recent years to target those who deem mainstream social media companies too liberal: Gab, Gettr, Parler, and former President Donald Trump’s service, Truth Social.

Some of the most effective content from the Russia-tied accounts came by mimicking fan pages for Kid Rock, the rock-rap persona of 51-year-old Robert James Richie, whose career found a second life as a high-profile supporter of former President Donald Trump.

In an emailed statement, Gettr CEO Jason Miller said the company “takes a robust and proactive approach to moderation.” Emails to Gab’s address for press inquiries bounced back. Parler and Truth Social didn’t respond to a request for comment.

The IRA, a “troll farm” founded by Yevgeny Prigozhin, a close ally of Russian President Vladimir Putin, effectively infiltrated Facebook and Twitter in 2016 by hiring mostly Russians to pose as Americans online and create politically extreme accounts to polarize discourse in the U.S. In 2018, former FBI Director Robert Mueller, then a special counsel for the Justice Department, indicted the IRA, Prigozhin and 12 others involved in its operations. Prigozhin remains on an FBI wanted list and said in November he planned to continue to interfere in American elections.

It’s unclear to what degree the IRA still exists as an organization under that name. Since the indictment, Facebook and Twitter have periodically purged accounts from their platforms that they tie to the same operators, and those accounts rarely gain much from users.

However, those propagandists appeared more successful on the conservative apps. Though they don’t have major reach, they have thousands of seemingly authentic followers on each platform, the Stanford and Graphika researchers said. Many of those users follow multiple accounts from the same propagandists. Such sites have become the first place a small but dedicated number of conservatives go for news, and conservative influencers sometimes mine them for content to share on other platforms.

The Russian-backed channels’ most viral moment came in June, when Trump’s son Donald Trump Jr. posted a screengrab from one of the propagandists’ fake Kid Rock pages on Gettr to his Instagram account, where the younger Trump has more than 6 million followers. The screengrab indicated a false claim about coronavirus treatments and was flagged by Instagram as “missing context.”

Trump Jr. aide Andy Surabia did not respond to a request for comment. 

Representatives for Richie did not respond to requests for comment either.

The research also found an incident, posted on the propagandists’ channels on all four platforms, that appeared to be orchestrated in real life. Each of the channels posted multiple, seemingly original, photos of a man in New York City handing out toilet paper with President Joe Biden’s face on it.

Mueller’s indictment accused the IRA of helping Trump supporters organize rallies ahead of the 2016 election.

Graphika’s director of investigations, Tyler Williams, said the IRA-style activity on the conservative platforms reflects the same style previously used. The difference is that the content simply isn’t moderated as much on the conservative platforms.

“The tactics are exactly what we’ve come to expect from these actors since 2016. They use fake personas to imitate, infiltrate and attempt to influence a specific online community,” said Williams.

“These personas then coordinate across multiple platforms to amplify division and exacerbate existing tensions,” he added. “This is precisely the behavior that gets them caught on Facebook and YouTube, but on alt-tech platforms they appear to enjoy relatively free rein.”