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Twitter opens huge archive of tweets tied to Russia, Iran misinformation

See with your own eyes what Twitter calls "nefarious attempts" to wreak havoc on social media.

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This is just one of millions of images Twitter released on Wednesday. 

Twitter

Twitter is sharing a massive trove of data on foreign interference in political conversations.

The social network on Wednesday opened an archive of material linked to accounts associated with potential information operations by Russia and Iran. The goal: letting independent researchers, and the general public, see what it's been up against.

The data sets present information on 3,841 Twitter accounts affiliated with Russia's IRA, or Internet Research Agency, and on 770 accounts possibly originating in Iran, according to the company's blog post. Included are more than 10 million tweets and more than 2 million images, GIFs, videos and Periscope broadcasts dating back to 2009.

All this comes a little more than a month after Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey testified before Congress about foreign interference in US elections. He was joined by Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg, with both talking about the spread of misinformation on social media and about foreign influence operations -- and what their companies are doing to fight back against internet trolls, provocateurs and propagandists.

The executives acknowledged that they'd been slow to respond to a rising tide of problems. Dorsey said the "required changes won't be fast or easy."

Now, with the data revealed Wednesday, they're trying to make up for lost time.

"We will continue to proactively combat nefarious attempts to undermine the integrity of Twitter, while partnering with civil society, government, our industry peers, and researchers to improve our collective understanding of coordinated attempts to interfere in the public conversation," wrote Vijaya Gadde, Twitter's lead on legal, policy, trust and safety matters, and Yoel Roth, head of site integrity, in the blog post.

The majority of the tweets came from Russia's trolling operation, with 9 million tweets from the IRA, while the rest came from Iran's propaganda campaign. Ben Nimmo, a defense and international security analyst with the Atlantic Council's Digital Forensic Research Lab, received early access to the massive data dump.

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He's been following Russia's trolling campaign for years, but getting to see every single tweet showed that the misinformation effort was much larger than he originally expected. 

"The first thing to notice is the sheer size of the Russian operation," he said. "It really gives you an impression of the sheer scale of it." 

Nimmo noted that the tweets were targeting every political issue that Russians could use to divide the US: They would pose as Black Lives Matter activists, gun rights advocates and even former NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick, among others. 

While the campaign reaches as far back as nine years ago, the majority of the content comes from late 2014 and early 2015, Nimmo said. That's when Russia was building its trolling operation to suppress voices surrounding its occupation in Ukraine, he noted. 

But once it became a refined tool to spread propaganda domestically, the IRA was able to turn social media into a weapon abroad, setting its sights on the 2016 presidential election in the US. Two days after Hillary Clinton announced she was running for president, it had launched the #HillaryNoThnx hashtag on Twitter. 

Combing through the tweets, Nimmo was able to see what made the Russian trolling operation so successful. Part of it was that trolls jumped on hot-button issues immediately, and another part was that they understood what worked on social media. 

"The more radical it becomes, the more rewarding it gets," Nimmo said. "The trolls embedded themselves into the DNA of Twitter and social media."

After Twitter suspended thousands of accounts from the IRA in September 2017, the trolls quietly returned with another 1,000 accounts. But the activity post-ban shows that they were much quieter the second time around. 

Nimmo noted that Twitter's gotten better at detecting propaganda accounts, and also changed its rules so the Russian trolls couldn't spread as easily as they did in 2015. 

"If you think about pre-2017, this was virgin territory. They were operating in such a permissive environment they could get away with anything," the researcher said. "We've moved from first-generation trolling in an unprotected space to an increasingly protected space." 

You can click here to download Twitter's data sets.

First published Oct. 17 at 7:46 a.m. PT. 
Update at 8:40 a.m. PT
: Adds more details on data published by Twitter.

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