Yesterday, I received exciting news! A piece that I had written with Chris Wells for Columbia Journalism Review was cited in the Mueller Report, which was released a day ago.
The piece that we wrote for CJR focused on news organizations that embedded tweets by Internet Research Agency (IRA) handles into their news stories. We’ve increased the number of outlets analyzed since the CJR piece (it was about 40 when we started, but over 100 now), and our finding still holds: a majority of news organizations cited an IRA account in at least one story.
Contrary to popular opinion, these IRA accounts were not sharing “fake news” (as in: false information). Instead, IRA tweets were often quoted for their salient, often hyper-partisan opinions. For example, one tweet advocated for a Heterosexual Pride Day as a way of inciting LGBTQ activists. Another called refugees, “rapefugees”. These accounts would often portray themselves as American people (e.g., @JennAbrams portrayed herself as a “typical” American girl, as shown by research done by my colleague Yiping Xia), or as groups (like @ten_gop, an IRA account pretending to be Tennessee GOP members, and @blacktivist, an IRA account pretending to be BlackLivesMatter organizers).
This has important implications, and speaks to Muller’s earlier indictment of the IRA, which noted that Russia’s campaign goal was “spread[ing] distrust towards the candidates and the political system in general” (p. 6). Ironically, the discovery of the IRA campaign in the summer/fall of 2017 probably fed into this distrust (especially since news organization were as likely to be “duped” as American citizens).
The (underacted) part where we are referenced focuses on this specific issue—journalists embedded these tweets thinking they reflected the opinions of U.S. citizens. This is incredibly problematic, and something that both academics and journalists want to find solutions for. Following our publication in early of 2018, several news organizations reached out to us regarding the specific articles i which they had unintentionally quoted IRA tweets. The research team was particularly excited by these exchanges because it shows that journalists care, and want to avoid doing this in the future.