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By Ben Collins and Joe Murphy
A new batch of troll accounts identified by Twitter as having ties to Russia’s propaganda operation revealed an emphasis on promoting far-right conspiracy theories such as Qanon to Americans.
Twitter announced Thursday the removal of 418 accounts tied to the Kremlin-backed Internet Research Agency, the disinformation group whose employees were indicted by special counsel Robert Mueller last February for attempted election interference.
The accounts’ tweets featured the hashtag #MAGA, usually in support of President Donald Trump, almost 38,000 times — the most of any hashtag. #ReleaseTheMemo, a social media campaign pushed by allies of the president last year that aimed to discredit some members of the FBI, was tweeted 37,583 times.
In all, the 400-some accounts tweeted more than 900,000 tweets.
At the time, close allies of Trump brushed off suggestions that #ReleaseTheMemo, which trended on Twitter, was boosted by Russian influence. “Russian trolls have nothing to do with releasing the memo. That was a vote of the intelligence committee,” counselor to the president Kellyanne Conway said last February.
Some now-purged users spammed Twitter with tweets repeating the hashtag “#ReleaseTheMemo.”
When removing the spam-style messages that included multiple hashtags, the second-most tweeted topic for the Russian troll accounts was #Qanon, a baseless conspiracy theory that claims Mueller and Trump are secretly working together to take down a global pedophile ring run by celebrities and Democratic politicians.
#GreatAwakening and #FollowTheWhiteRabbit, which are catchphrases for #Qanon followers, also featured prominently in the Russian trolls’ tweets.
Nina Jankowicz, a global fellow at the Kennan Institute focusing on Russia and technology, told NBC News that Qanon’s often outlandish narratives about a secret global cabal fueled by the United States fits well with Russian propaganda’s larger narrative.
“One of the Kremlin’s favorite tactics is to inspire confusion and doubt to sow distrust in government. Qanon certainly does that,” Jankowicz said.
“Amplifying the conspiracy theory also makes it look like it has more supporters, distracting from more substantive issues in the online discourse.”
Qanon, a more elaborate offshoot of the “pizzagate” conspiracy theory, came to prominence when several Trump supporters showed up at the president’s rally in Tampa, Florida, this past August carrying “Q” signs and wearing T-shirts supporting the conspiracy.
In the last year, believers in the conspiracy have also been in armed standoffs with the police in Arizona, and one blocked the Hoover Dam demanding the “Release of the OIG Report,” a Qanon-based conspiracy theory loosely derived from the success of #ReleaseTheMemo.
All of the 30 most-used hashtags pushed by the suspected Russian troll accounts focused on either support for Trump, conspiracy theories that targeted his political opponents or a separate — but sometimes overlapping — trolling campaign that meant to demean Muslims.
The hashtags #IslamIsTheProblem, #StopImportingIslam and #BanShariaLaw were each tweeted more than 15,000 times by the 481 Russian troll accounts.
The accounts attempted to emulate Americans on both sides of the political aisle.
One account identified by Twitter as a Russian troll account, @QuartneyChante, posed as an African-American woman. One of her tweets received more than 66,000 retweets.
“Dear White People. It’s a privilege to learn about racism instead of experiencing it your whole life,” the tweet read.
The account was even featured in several news articles, including a Mashable story dubbed “Dear white women: Here’s how to step up for women of color.”
Jankowicz said the widespread dissemination of the tweets is a good reminder not to trust everything you read on social media.
“That account was created fairly recently and gained a lot of traction quickly, it seems,” Jankowicz said. “It’s pretty sad, but unless accounts use a plausible name and personal photo on Twitter, I’d advise users against interacting with them.”