Twitter's release of 10 million Russian, Iranian influence campaign tweets shows US vulnerability

Twitter released on Wednesday an archive of more than 10 million tweets originating in Russia and Iran, demonstrating efforts to capitalize on existing American vulnerabilities by targeting both ends of the political spectrum and sowing division.

In a post announcing the release of the data, which covers all the accounts and content associated with influence operations discovered since 2016, the company said: "We are making this data available with the goal of encouraging open research and investigation of these behaviors from researchers and academics around the world."

The datasets, which also include more than 2 million images, GIFs, videos and Periscope broadcasts, comprise 3,841 accounts affiliated with the Internet Research Agency (IRA), originating in Russia, and 770 other accounts, potentially with origins in Iran.

The Atlantic Council's Digital Forensic Research Lab, which is working with Twitter, analyzed the archive in advance and took away several key lessons.

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"Content spread from the troll farm accounts was designed to capitalize on, and corrupt, genuine political activism. The trolls encapsulated the twin challenges of online anonymity — since they were able to operate under false personas — and online “filter bubbles,” using positive feedback loops to make their audiences ever more radical," the Digital Forensic Research Lab said in a Medium post.

About one-third of the Iranian tweets contained links to AWD News, which is part of a group of sites exposed by FireEye as being part of Iranian government-sponsored outlets.

The Russian operation, according to Digital Forensic Research Lab, was aimed at dividing already polarized Americans online, garnering support for Russia's interests, breaking down trust in U.S. institutions and preventing Hillary Clinton's victory in the presidential election.

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The trolls from Russia tried to sow division along lines of race, creed, politics and sexual orientation, often pushing both sides of a given issue--and opportunistic, utilizing elections and terrorist attacks as entry points to interfere in local politics. They also made a point of using the same techniques that drive legitimate online activism and engagement.

Even so, the Digital Forensic Research Lab, which had published a guide to spotting bots online, said the trolls were "less effective than may have been feared" and that many "achieved little or no impact."

The report's authors conclude: "Identifying future foreign influence operations, and reducing their impact, will demand awareness and resilience from the activist communities targeted, not just the platforms and the open source community."