How Russian & Alt-Right Twitter Accounts Worked Together to Skew the Narrative About Berkeley

Caroline Orr, Ph.D on 2017-08-27

#Antifa and #Berkeley were hot topics last weekend in America — and in Russia

Social media has an important role in shaping perceptions of current events, as well as influencing mainstream news coverage of those events. Platforms like Twitter provide real-time access to events going on around the world, allowing anyone to get a front-row seat for breaking news. But as much as it has opened up new channels of information, social media has also opened up new avenues for manipulating perceptions of reality. Misinformation and disinformation often spread faster than the truth, and by the time the narrative is corrected, social media has already moved on to the next “big thing.”

The narrative surrounding last weekend’s protests in Berkeley took shape on social media and was picked up, at least in part, by mainstream news outlets. The result was a skewed presentation of events that was almost entirely devoid of the context in which they took place. Even more troubling: that narrative was influenced by pro-Russian social media networks, including state-sponsored propaganda outlets, botnets, cyborgs, and individual users.

In the case study below, I describe how the narrative surrounding Berkeley was picked up and shaped by Russian-linked influence networks, which saw a chance to drive a wedge in American society and ran with it. Next, I look at the individual accounts and users that were identified as top influencers on Twitter, and explore what they were posting, how they worked together to craft a narrative, and the methods they used to amplify their message. Finally, I look at how news coverage of the events in Berkeley was shaped by the skewed narrative that emerged on social media.

This is just a single case study in a larger story, but it serves as an important reminder that Russia is still exploiting social media to harm U.S. interests — and that plenty of Americans are willing to join in on the effort.

The Russian Connection

Russian-linked influence networks and propaganda arms quickly took interest in the Berkeley protests last weekend. On Sunday afternoon, the top story on the front page of Russian propaganda outlet RT was about the events in Berkeley. (Note that this was the main landing page — not the “America” section).

A screenshot from Sunday, Aug. 27 shows that the protests in Berkeley were featured as the top story on the front page of Russian propaganda outlet RT.

RT tweeted stories about the protests throughout the day Sunday (and some on Saturday), posting dramatic images and using trending hashtags to maximize their reach. Many of these tweets were retweeted by the semi-automated pro-Kremlin account @TeamTrumpRussia (aka Дepлorabлe Рuссian), which spent much of the day amplifying the hashtags #Berkeley and #Antifa.

Russian propaganda site RT used dramatic images from the protests in Berkeley to spread messages about unrest and divisions in American society.

On Twitter, the hashtag #Berkeley was amplified by Russian-linked influence networks, as evidenced by the output of the Hamilton 68 dashboard, a project of the Alliance for Securing Democracy, which tracks the activity of 600 Twitter accounts linked to Russian influence operations. These include state-sponsored propaganda outlets like Sputnik and RT, as well as individual users, automated accounts (“bots”), and cyborgs (accounts that produce automated content some of the time, but are human-controlled at other times) that actively and frequently amplify Kremlin propaganda (knowingly, and in some cases, potentially unknowingly).

Between the hours of 4pm EST and 8pm EST on Sunday, #Berkeley soared to the top spot among the most frequently used hashtags on Hamilton 68’s dashboard. The number of times the hashtag #Berkeley was used increased by a staggering 27,600% during that time period.

At 4pm EST, #Berkeley was not even in the top ten hashtags, though the related hashtag #Antifa was in ninth place.

But in a span of just four hours, the number of times the hashtag #Berkeley was used within the Russian-linked influence network increased by a staggering 27,600%, making it the top hashtag (measured by the number of times it was used) and the top trending hashtag (measured by the percentage increase in the frequency of use). As #Berkeley shot up to the top spot, the hashtag #Antifa also climbed the charts. Within the same four-hour window (4pm-8pm), #Antifa went from ninth place to sixth place among the most frequently used hashtags within the sample of 600 accounts linked to Russian influence campaigns.

Three of the top 10 most frequently shared URLs within the Russian-linked influence network were related to Antifa or the Berkeley protests

Looking further, three of the top 10 most frequently shared URLs were related to Antifa or the Berkeley protests, as were two of the top ten trending URLs on the Hamilton 68 dashboard. Two of these were news articles; one was a periscope video made by Irma Hinojosa, a far-right pro-Trump activist.

URLs linking to content related to Berkeley and Antifa were shared heavily within the Russian-linked influence network identified by Securing Democracy’s Hamilton 68 project.

As noted by the researchers who run Hamilton 68, these trends show that users in the network of Russian-linked influence operations wanted to exploit unrest in the U.S. and “amplify alt-right alarmism about the left-wing Antifa (short for anti-fascist) movement.” For several consecutive days this week, the most-tweeted link in the network was a whitehouse.gov petition seeking to declare Antifa a terrorist group.

In addition to promoting hashtags and a direct link to the whitehouse.gov site, stories about the petition were the most retweeted by two different Twitter accounts for Russian propaganda outlet RT. Ruptly, an RT-affiliated account, also heavily pushed a video clip showing footage of a fight between neo-Nazis and Antifa activists in Berlin, according to Hamilton 68.

The Alt-Right Propagandasphere

To get a better idea of who was pushing the hashtags and spreading content (information, misinformation, and disinformation) about the protests, I explored the top contributors to the hashtags #Berkeley and #Antifa.

#Berkeley: First, I searched for users tweeting about #Berkeley. As seen below, the top contributors (measured by engagement) included a mix of individual Twitter users (on the left and the right/‘alt-right’), as well as several local reporters and one local news agency. ‘Alt-right’/far-right Trump supporters comprised the largest group of top contributors.

Top influencers (by level of engagement) for the hashtag #Berkeley (via Keyhole)

In a second search of more recent tweets (late afternoon on Sunday [approx. 5pm EST]), ‘alt-right’/far-right Trump supporters made up a larger proportion of users tweeting with the hashtag #Berkeley — indicating that they likely started tweeting and retweeting more as the protests turned violent.

For the sake of comparison, I performed a similar search on the hashtag #Berkeley on a different platform, and with a slightly more restricted time range (to capture the most recent tweets only, as of about 5pm EST). The sample for this search was smaller (due to the more restrictive search criteria), but the results were largely in line with the first search. Top contributors included political activists (left and right/‘alt-right’), along with media figures and reporters. However, compared to the initial search, ‘alt-right’/far-right Trump supporters made up a larger proportion of the top contributors to the sample of more recent #Berkeley tweets, indicating that they likely started tweeting and retweeting more as the protests turned violent.

Top contributors to the hashtag #Berkeley, later in the day on 8/27/17 (via Social Bearing)

Once it started trending, the ‘alt-right’ made a concerted effort to flood the hashtag #Berkeley with negative posts about #Antifa in an attempt to saturate the hashtag, as well as to mix in some misinformation and disinformation to muddy the waters. The purpose was to create and then establish control of the narrative, skew perceptions of the event and those involved in it, and influence mainstream media coverage by boosting the visibility of certain content.

Twitter users were instructed to flood the trending #Berkeley hashtag with negative, inflammatory, and often false claims about Antifa protesters.

#Antifa: While contributors to the #Berkeley hashtag were a mix of a progressive/liberal activists, journalists and news outlets, as well as ‘alt-right’/far-right Trump supporters, the hashtag #Antifa looked quite different. Nearly all of the top influencers were ‘alt-right’/far-right Trump supporters, including Mike Cernovich, Paul Joseph Watson, Irma Hinojosa, Mike Tokes, Nick Short, Bill Mitchell, and Dinesh DSouza.

Only two of the top 30 influencers were not part of this ‘alt-right’/far-right group (myself, and investigative journalist Shane Bauer, who has extensively covered right-wing extremist movements, as well as the protest-related clashes instigated by far-right agitators).

Notably, a fake Julian Assange account was the most influential contributor to the #Antifa hashtag (as measured by engagement), and both Roger Stone (bottom row, far left) and Nigel Farage were also among the top influencers (bottom row, last on the right). Interestingly, Alan Dershowitz was another top influencer (top row, fourth from the left) for the hashtag #Antifa, while Fox News was the only media organization in the top 30 influencers.

A final noteworthy observation: The third most influential contributor to the #Antifa hashtag was one of the many fake Antifa accounts (BevHillsAntifa) created in the spring and summer of 2017.

The most influential contributors to the #Antifa hashtag were nearly all ‘alt-right’/far-right Trump supporters.

Crafting a Narrative

So what were these accounts tweeting about? And what kind of narrative were they trying to create?

To find out, I looked at the tweets from some of the top influencers (seen above), as well as some of the top accounts they were retweeting and that were retweeting them. Many of the top influencers, particularly under the hashtag #Antifa, were amplifying their message by retweeting each other, and by sharing the same content repeatedly.

Below is a random sample of tweets using the hashtag #Antifa. As you can see, the hashtag was dominated by negative and inflammatory tweets about #Antifa, with several accounts trying to label #Antifa as a terrorist organization. (I’ll expand on this in another article, but Antifa is not an organization. Antifa is short for anti-fascist, so the term describes an ideological position, as well the broad activist movement driven by it. Encompassed within this larger movement are individuals and loosely connected groups — but “Antifa” is not a group). Other dominant themes included a concerted effort to connect Antifa to the Democratic party and to smear the name of Black Lives Matter, as well as to shift the focus from the surge of right-wing extremist violence to the individual actions of “leftist” protesters. Notably, in this random sample of tweets, all of those tweeting about #Antifa were doing so in a negative manner — showing how an orchestrated effort can really saturate a hashtag and skew the related sentiment, content, and narrative.

A random sample of tweets using the hashtag #Antifa on Sunday, Aug. 27 (tweets obtained via Social Bearing).

Looking at tweets from some of the top influencers as well as those amplifying them (below), you can see the narrative surrounding #Antifa really start to take shape. The dominant themes all involved presenting an exaggerated threat and promoting right-wing alarmism about that threat. These themes included labeling Antifa as a terrorist organization, trying to link Antifa to George Soros, presenting Antifa as the aggressor and far-right extremists as the victims, and trying to portray Antifa as the “real” fascists. Both-siderism was also a common tactic used, often in attempt to equate hate groups like the Ku Klux Klan with Antifa and Black Lives Matter.

Tweets by some of the top influencers under the hashtags #Antifa and #Berkeley promoted a skewed narrative of chaos, destruction, and terror at the hands of Antifa (without mentioning the role of right-wing agitators or the recent events in Charlottesville).

The narrative pushed by these accounts mirrored the content pushed by Russian propaganda outlets RT and Sputnik. While there was certainly unrest in Berkeley, the “alt-right”/far-right narrative presented a skewed, almost cartoonish image of utter destruction, chaos, and disorder.

To amplify their message, many of the top influencers shared the same content repeatedly — like this clip by Nick Short, a blogger and social media director for the newly-formed right-wing Security Studies Group, which is run by a group of men who are best known for their conspiracy theories about Muslims.

“Alt-right”/far-right influencers crafted and then amplified a skewed narrative about #Antifa using methods such as repetition, which is a key element involved in successfully disseminating propaganda.

Repetition is one of the most important elements of successful propaganda dissemination. Even when information is not true, being exposed to it repeatedly and from multiple sources boosts its credibility and increases the likelihood that an audience will internalize and believe the message. Repetition also increases the likelihood that any given person will be exposed to the message, while simultaneously drowning out alternative messages and perspectives.

There is also an important social normative element involved: When people see that other individuals with similar ideological viewpoints are propagating a certain message or position, they’re more likely to adopt that perspective themselves. Additionally, perceptions of widespread support can make extreme ideas seem more acceptable and “mainstream” —a key step in the process of normalization. These social normative factors make social media ripe for manipulation, as it’s easy to create false impressions of support using automated accounts (“bots”), cyborgs, and orchestrated hashtag campaigns.

The methods used by these “alt-right”/far-right figures to shape the narrative surrounding #Antifa and #Berkeley may look familiar, as they mirror the methods used by authoritarian states to manipulate public opinion and skew perceptions of reality. RAND detailed many of these methods in an extensive report on Russia’s “Firehose of Falsehood” propaganda model:

The experimental psychology literature suggests that, all other things being equal, messages received in greater volume and from more sources will be more persuasive. Quantity does indeed have a quality all its own. High volume can deliver other benefits that are relevant in the Russian propaganda context. First, high volume can consume the attention and other available bandwidth of potential audiences, drowning out competing messages. Second, high volume can overwhelm competing messages in a flood of disagreement. Third, multiple channels increase the chances that target audiences are exposed to the message. Fourth, receiving a message via multiple modes and from multiple sources increases the message’s perceived credibility, especially if a disseminating source is one with which an audience member identifies.

A Lesson For the Media

What was missing from the skewed narrative described above was context. By focusing on the isolated fights and outbursts by individual actors, a handful of Twitter accounts (amplified by bots & cyberborgs) shifted the focus away from the widespread, ongoing, and orchestrated activities of groups like the Proud Boys and their “military division” known as the Fraternal Order of Alt-Knights (FOAK), as well as provocateurs and instigators like Kyle Chapman, (aka “Based Stickman”, leader of FOAK), Gavin McGinnes (leader of the Proud Boys), Nathan Damigo (leader of the white supremacist group Identity Evropa), Joey Gibson (leader of Patriot Prayer, and the organizer of Saturday’s canceled rally in San Francisco), Mike Peinovich (aka Mike Enoch, founder of the racist and anti-Semitic website “The Right Stuff”), Milo Yiannopoulos, Tim “Treadstone” Gionet (aka “Baked Alaska”, former Buzzfeed editor and current “Internet personality” who manged the speaking tour of Yiannopoulos), Jack Posobiec (formerly of Rebel Media), and “alt-right” leader Richard Spencer, among others.

For months, these “alt-right” and far-right extremists have been traveling to liberal cities and showing up at rallies wearing helmets, goggles, and body armor, and often carrying shields, flagpoles, and weighted sticks. While they’ve gotten (somewhat) more discreet in recent months, their plans for violence — including directions for making weapons to get past security, instructions for making improvised explosive devices, and discussions about the best gear for battle — are often made out in the open, reflecting just how emboldened these groups have become. (Back in April, I documented some of this on Twitter and compiled it here). They carry this out under the guise of buzzwords like “free speech” or “patriotism”, but their intent is clear: They want to provoke violence.

They use these so-called “free speech” rallies as recruitment events to increase their membership, and they know violence sells. They also know that increasing their size and consolidating power requires more mainstream support, and a quick way to get that support is by portraying themselves as brave martyrs fighting against a supposed uprising of “violent leftists” — represented by Antifa, Black Lives Matter, and anyone else they can fool the media into demonizing. By traveling to liberal cities where they know they’ll encounter resistance, they can then frame their violence as a defense against “intolerant leftists” trying to “shut down free speech.” This, in turn, gives mainstream conservatives and right-wing figures a reason (or, in some cases, an excuse) to support their cause.

By saturating social media, they also hijack the mainstream media narrative and distract from the growing threat of organized right-wing extremism and white supremacist violence. Violence sells. Mainstream news outlets know this, too, which is why they often prioritize sensationalism over context. As Shane Bauer warned in his account of the events in Berkeley, “reporters shouldn’t lose sight of the big picture: Fascists and other far-right extremist groups in America are visible and organized in a way that they haven’t been in decades.” Only this time, they’re harnessing the power of social media to increase their visibility — and Russia is helping them do it.