Pro-Russia voices attempted to steer debate over Ohio train derailments
- US News
- March 18, 2023
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WASHINGTON (AP) – Shortly after a train derailed and spilled toxic chemicals in Ohio last month, anonymous pro-Russian accounts began making misleading claims and anti-American propaganda about it on Twitter, using Elon Musk’s new verification system to verify their Reach when creating to expand the illusion of credibility.
The reports, parroting Kremlin talks on a myriad of subjects, claimed without evidence that Ohio authorities lied about the true effects of the chemical plague. The reports circulated fear-mongering posts that exploited legitimate concerns about pollution and health effects, and likened the reaction to the gaffe to America’s support for Ukraine following its invasion by Russia.
Some of the claims made by the pro-Russian reports were demonstrably false, such as claims that the news media covered up the disaster or that environmental scientists who traveled to the site were killed in a plane crash. But most were rather speculative and apparently designed to incite fear or suspicion. Examples include unconfirmed maps showing widespread pollution, posts predicting an increase in deadly cancers, and others about unconfirmed mass animal deaths.
“Biden offers Ukraine food, water, medicine, shelter, pension payments and welfare benefits! Ohio first! Offer and ship to Ohio!” posted one of the pro Moscow accounts, which has 25,000 followers and includes an anonymous location and profile photo of a dog. Twitter gave the account a blue tick in January.
Regularly circulating anti-US propaganda, the reports show how easily authoritarian states and Americans willing to spread their propaganda can use social media platforms like Twitter to direct domestic discourse.
The accounts were identified by Reset, a London-based nonprofit that studies the impact of social media on democracy, and shared with The Associated Press. Felix Kartte, senior advisor at Reset, said the report’s findings suggest Twitter is allowing Russia to use its platform like a megaphone.
“With no one at home in Twitter’s product safety department, Russia will continue to interfere in US elections and in democracies around the world,” Kartte said.
Twitter has not responded to messages requesting comment on this story.
A drone reveals parts of the derailed freight train in East Palestine, Ohio.
Gene J. Puskar via Associated Press
The derailment of 38 cars near East Palestine, Ohio released toxic chemicals into the atmosphere, prompting a national debate about railroad safety and environmental regulations while stoking fears of poisoned drinking water and air.
The disaster was a big topic on social media, with millions of mentions on platforms like Facebook and Twitter, according to analysis by San Francisco-based media intelligence firm Zignal Labs, which conducted a study on behalf of the AP.
Initially, the gaffe received little attention online, but mentions steadily increased, peaking two weeks after the incident, Zignal found, a time lag that gave pro-Russian voices time to try to frame the conversation.
The accounts identified by Reset’s researchers received an extra boost from Twitter itself in the form of a blue tick. Before Musk bought Twitter last year, the ticks denoted accounts run by verified users, often public figures, celebrities, or journalists. It was considered a mark of authenticity on a platform known for bots and spam accounts.
Musk ended that system and replaced it with Twitter Blue, which is given to users who pay $8 a month and provide a phone number. Twitter Blue users agree not to engage in deception and do not do so necessary to post a profile picture and name. But there is no rule that they use their own.
The program allows Twitter Blue users to write and send longer tweets and videos. Your replies will also get a higher priority on other posts.
The AP has reached out to several of the accounts listed in Reset’s report. In response, one of the accounts sent a two-word message before blocking the AP reporter on Twitter: “Shut up.”
As a result of a controlled detonation of part of the derailed train on February 6, a black cloud rises over eastern Palestine, Ohio.
Gene J. Puskar via Associated Press
While researchers uncovered clues that suggest some of the accounts are linked to coordinated efforts by Russian disinformation agencies, others were American, showing the Kremlin doesn’t always have to pay to get its message out.
One account known as Truth Puke is linked to a website of the same name that caters to conservatives in the United States. Truth Puke regularly reposts Russian state media; RT, formerly known as Russia Today, is one of her favorite groups for reposts, Reset found. A video posted by the account includes ex-President Donald Trump’s remarks about the train derailment, complete with Russian subtitles.
In response to questions from the AP, Truth Puke said it aims to offer a “broad range of views” and was surprised to be labeled as a disseminator of Russian propaganda, despite the account’s heavy use of such material. When asked about the video with Russian subtitles, Truth Puke said it used the Russian-language version of the Trump video for convenience.
“We can assure you that this was not done with Russian propaganda intent, we just release things as soon as we find them,” the company said.
Other accounts brag about their love for Russia. One account on Thursday published a bizarre claim that the US is stealing earthquake humanitarian supplies donated by China to Syria. The account has 60,000 followers and is known as Donbass Devushka after the region of Ukraine.
Another pro-Russian account recently attempted to start a dispute online with Ukraine’s Defense Ministry by posting photos of documents claimed to be from the Wagner Group, a private military company owned by Yevgeny Prigozhin, a important ally of Putin. Prigozhin runs troll farms that have targeted US social media users in the past. Last fall, he boasted about his efforts to meddle with American democracy.
A separate Twitter account claiming to represent Wagner actively uses the site to recruit fighters.
“Gentlemen, we interfered, we interfered and we will interfere,” Prigozhin said last fall on the eve of the 2022 US midterm elections, he said at the time.