A popular, divisive Twitter account, purporting to be the work of Tennessee Republicans but allegedly the creation of Russian trolls to sow division in the US, was repeatedly cited in multiple articles by many prominent US news sites.
The Tennessee Republican Party flagged the account, @TEN_GOP, to Twitter, saying it was a fake, but it wasn't until 11 months after the first notification that the social media company "permanently suspended" the account.
By then, however, the site's inflammatory tweets had reached not only its more than 136,000 followers, but thousands of other people through retweets and references by some of the most prominent sites and personalities on the internet. They included BuzzFeed News, which mentioned the site's tweets in posts debunking some of the site's claims.
The account's purported Russian roots were revealed this week by Russia's RBC news outlet in an investigation that identified @TEN_GOP as one of dozens of accounts created by the Internet Research Agency, a St. Petersburg-based “troll farm” whose work was aimed at sowing division online.
A BuzzFeed News survey of major American news sites showed just how wildly successful the account had been in injecting a divisive voice into US media, even after the 2016 election.
@TEN_GOP's tweets were used by Fox News to illustrate conservative reaction to minor news events, including the controversy that a writer for Saturday Night Live created when she referred on Twitter to Donald Trump's youngest son, Barron, as "this country's first homeschool shooter." Fox News Insider wrote that conservatives were outraged by the joke, citing five tweets, including that of @TEN_GOP.
The writer, Katie Mary Rich, later apologized and was fired by SNL.
In other cases, outlets seemed to base entire articles around sentiments expressed by @TEN_GOP. In March, Breitbart wrote about purported bias at Politico in an examination of that publication's description of the process by which Trump and Barack Obama had selected federal judges. It embedded an @TEN_GOP tweet to bolster its case.
All told, the account was quoted dozens of times across conservative news outlets. Fox News quoted an @TEN_GOP tweet in at least three stories, including one syndicated by the Daily Caller. The Daily Caller itself quoted it in six stories. Breitbart mentioned it in seven; Infowars in four; RedState in eight.
The Gateway Pundit, another conservative outlet, cited the Russian account in 19 different stories, ranging from one about a motorcyclist who drove through an anti-Trump protest, for which he was arrested, to a story about how it was unfair that banks had stopped lending money to French nationalist presidential candidate Marine Le Pen.
The account's tweets often derided African-Americans, Muslims, and immigrants.
Ron Nehring, the former communications director for Sen. Ted Cruz's Republican presidential campaign, bemoaned the account's apparent success at helping to drive a wedge into American political discourse.
“The Russian strategy is to push some conservatives to the extremes. And they want liberals to see all conservatives and the country as a whole as inherently and hopelessly racist,” Nehring told BuzzFeed News.
“The fact that these guys set up accounts to deliberately imitate conservatives and Republicans, earn their trust with some normal content, and then steer the conversation into division and hatred should be offensive to every single Republican and conservative in the country,” he said.
And it wasn't just conservative sites. Other outlets used the site as an example of the thinking of Trump supporters and the far right.
The Washington Post, writing in January about a conservative movement to boycott Starbucks because it promised to hire refugees, quoted the account. The Huffington Post cited the account when rounding up conservative reaction to an Iranian man winning an Oscar. Daily Kos wrote about @TEN_GOP's call to fire Kerry O’Grady, a Secret Service agent quoted as saying she wouldn’t take a bullet for Trump. She was reportedly later removed as an agent.
NBC News, in a story about a handful of reports of voting machines changing votes in Pennsylvania, treated @TEN_GOP as a legitimate source.
BuzzFeed News, too, cited the account, calling it out for spreading fake stories. In a roundup of conspiracy theorists’ insistence that Syrian President Bashar Assad’s chemical attacks against civilians was an elaborate hoax, despite an investigation from the World Health Organization, BuzzFeed News included a tweet from @TEN_GOP that urged Trump not to oppose Assad, one of Russia’s closest allies in the Middle East.
The account became so prominent that a Daily Beast investigation found that some of the highest profile members of Trump's campaign endorsed it.
Campaign manager Kellyanne Conway, Trump digital director Brad Parscale, and Trump son Donald Jr. all retweeted @TEN_GOP in the weeks leading up to the election.
Longtime Trump friend Roger Stone also retweeted the account, as did Michael Flynn, who briefly served as Trump's national security adviser before resigning amid reports he'd lied about his contacts with Russian ambassador Sergey Kislyak.
Kevin Collier is a cybersecurity correspondent for BuzzFeed News and is based in New York.
Contact Kevin Collier at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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