More than 1,000 now-deleted Twitter accounts attributed by the company to a Kremlin-connected troll farm are now in the hands of legislators investigating Russian interference in the 2016 elections. For the second time in three months, it’s unclear if the public will know if the inflammatory strangers they—and potentially members of the Trump campaign—retweeted and liked were actually Russian imposters.
Twitter revealed late last Friday that it had found 1,062 new accounts controlled or created by St. Petersburg’s infamous Internet Research Agency. That brings the total imposter Twitter accounts discovered by the company thus far up to 3,814.
Revealing the identities of the 1,062 accounts could shine light on how significant Russia’s influence campaign was in the run-up to Donald Trump’s victory in the 2016 election.
Without the first disclosure of 2,753 Twitter accounts by the House Intelligence Committee, Americans would not have been made aware of what election-related Russian propaganda looked like—or how pervasive it had become.
Specifically, The Daily Beast has learned, the handles are in the custody of the House and Senate intelligence committees and the Senate judiciary committee. The senior Democrats on the House and Senate intelligence committees say that, for their part, they’re willing to release the accounts.
“Much like the last list of Twitter handles connected to the Internet Research Agency, it’s our intention to release this list of newly discovered handles that the company turned over to the Committee last week,” Rep. Adam Schiff (D-CA) told The Daily Beast.
“The first list has proven invaluable to researchers, academics and news organizations to uncover ways that Russia used our social media platforms to amplify, sow division and propagate fake news during the 2016 election—this is analysis and expertise that the Committee cannot easily replicate on its own.”
The accounts’ reach was two orders of magnitude greater than their number. Twitter said it had notified more than 677,000 people that they had followed or retweeted the IRA accounts or liked one of the accounts’ tweets. And that may be an undercount, since it’s likely more people viewed and engaged with the IRA tweets than followed them, once they showed up in feeds of followers of those 677,000 people.
But that’s in lieu of actually disclosing the specific accounts. Twitter’s position is those accounts are now in the hands of congressional investigators, so it’s up to them to make the IRA imposter handles public.
“Senator Warner has generally been an advocate for sharing as much information as possible with the American people regarding the scale and scope of the Russian disinformation campaign,” Warner spokeswoman Rachel Cohen told The Daily Beast.
The Republicans leading the Russia inquiries in the intelligence committees, Sen. Richard Burr of North Carolina and Rep. Mike Conaway of Texas, did not respond to The Daily Beast’s inquiries. Neither did the bipartisan leadership of the Senate Judiciary Committee, Republican Chuck Grassley of Iowa and Democrat Dianne Feinstein of California.
The House’s initial document drop revealed that messages from Kremlin troll farm accounts like @TEN_GOP were pushed by Donald Trump Jr., Trump campaign manager Kellyanne Conway, and now-indicted Trump national security advisor Michael Flynn days before the election.
That document also confirmed that Kremlin-created accounts like @Jenn_Abrams made their way out of Twitter and into American dialogue through media outlets. “Jenna Abrams,” a made-up concoction of the troll farm, had her tweets cited by dozens of high-profile publications, from The New York Times to Fox News.
The release of more than 1,000 more accounts could reveal new information about which issues the Kremlin wanted to be amplified in America. It would also reveal which Americans were pushing that propaganda, including members of the Trump campaign, even if those tweets were boosted inadvertently.
Democrats on the House intelligence committee have been here before. In November, they released the handles of more than 2,700 Russian-propaganda Twitter accounts, seemingly without the support of the committee Republicans.
But it’s not clear if they are going to have another opportunity for a reprise. The November disclosure came during an open hearing with Twitter, Facebook and Google executives. The House intelligence committee, riven with partisanship, has not held a public hearing related to the Russia inquiry since. A committee aide said that the Democrats plan to request panel Republicans, who are in charge, to make the list public.
Twitter has now identified 3,814 IRA-sponsored imposter accounts. And that’s on top of more than 50,000 bots the company said it had “identified as Russian-linked and Tweeting election-related content during the election period.” Unlike the imposter accounts manned by people, Twitter has not turned over the handles of those bots to congressional committees, which have apparently not asked for the automated accounts.
These 53,000 Russian-controlled imposter and automated accounts are unlikely to be the sum total of laundered Kremlin activity on Twitter, or even just the amount Russia exhibited during the 2016 election. The company’s internal inquiry continues.
— with additional reporting by Andrew Desiderio