An analysis of tweets sent from Russian state-run accounts shows that their online political agitation extended well past the 2016 election and that there were several concerted campaigns to target and pressure Maine Sen. Susan Collins over votes and actions she took last year.
An archive of almost three million tweets was made public on Tuesday by two Clemson University professors, Darren Linvill and Patrick Warren, through the news and data outlet FiveThirtyEight. The data set contains 2,973,371 now-deleted tweets from 2,848 Twitter handles associated with a Russian “troll factory,” the Internet Research Agency, which is currently being investigated by Special Counsel Robert Mueller.
The first concerted campaign came with the nomination of Betsy DeVos as Education Secretary in February of 2017. A smattering of Russian-controlled accounts suggested Collins would be a target to “vote out in 2018” [sic] if she voted against the nomination, and called her a “traitor” after she voted for DeVos in committee but opposed her nomination on the Senate floor.
Another flurry of activity came in the days after the July 27, 2017 Senate vote on repealing the Affordable Care Act. Collins along with Republican Sens. John McCain of Arizona and Lisa Murkowski of Alaska voted against the health care repeal effort and all three were targeted by hundreds of the trolls’ tweets.
The handle Justmasxtrt retweeted the right-wing account ColumbiaBugle, which wrote: “@realDonaldTrump John McCain, Susan Collins and Lisa Murkowski chose the Swamp over the Americans.”
“@SenatorCollins WAKE UP & #RepealObamacare NOW,” wrote Hollydler.
Dozens of accounts labeled Collins a traitor and even more shared a Breitbart article showing she would have a difficult time winning a Republican primary for governor in Maine.
One deleted account, Marrissatrr, which had more than 400 followers, issued more than 20 tweets between July 28 and August 5 blasting Collins and the other Republican defectors as “traitorous sellouts.”
“SenJohnMcCain SenatorCollins lisamurkowski have sold out the American ppl to the highest bidder,” wrote Marrissatrr.
Retweeting the active account @junogsp5, troll account Mayluusstr tweeted on July 30: “Pledging 2 repeal & replace #Obamacare then reneging #ULetUsDown #FromHero2Zero #Collins #Murkowski #McCain.”
Collins was targeted by the trolls a few more times before Twitter deleted their accounts, including when they urged her to support Supreme Court nominee Neil Gorsuch and castigated her for public statements opposing Trump’s ban on transgender Americans serving in the military and the campaign of Alabama Republican U.S. Senate candidate and accused child molester Roy Moore.
In one tweet, an account called CovfefeNationUS urged the “People of Maine” to call Collins to oppose “#GeorgeSoros & the deep state anti #MAGA agenda at work” by voting for Trump’s tax cut bill, which also contained a partial health care repeal. Collins voted for that legislation.
Overall, the effort reveals what FiveThirtyEight describes as a “Russian disinformation and discord campaign” that extends well beyond the 2016 election.
“I want to shout this from the rooftops,” Warren, one of the professors behind the data dump, told the outlet. “This is not just an election thing. It’s a continuing intervention in the political conversation in America.”
“They are trying to divide our country,” Linvill added.
While Russian state-run accounts tweeted about other Maine political issues, including sharing some mainstream news stories and many of Gov. Paul LePage’s most racist and divisive statements and actions, Collins was by far the Maine political figure most targeted by IRA trolls.
The Russian influence campaigns are far from over, even with the deletion of these accounts. Researchers have identified other accounts on Twitter likely linked to Russian state actors and on Tuesday Facebook announced that they had identified a group of Russian-linked pages and accounts on their network attempting to influence the midterm elections.