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Russian-linked Twitter accounts stoked NFL anthem debate

Researchers find 600 accounts linked to Russian influence operations pushing both sides of the debate, The New York Times reports.

Miami Dolphins v New York Jets
Miami Dolphins players kneel during the national anthem prior to an NFL game against the New York Jets at MetLife Stadium on Sunday.
Steven Ryan/Getty Images

Attempts by Russia-linked social media accounts to influence events in the US apparently weren't limited to last year's US election.

A network of Twitter accounts suspected of links to Russia were used this weekend to stoke the controversy over whether NFL players should stand for pregame performances of the national anthem, The New York Times reported late Wednesday. The accounts pushed both sides of the debate, using hashtags such as #boycottnfl, #standforouranthem and #takeaknee, the newspaper reported.

During a rally in Alabama on Friday, President Donald Trump said players who kneel during the national anthem should be fired. The remarks were met with pregame protests by nearly every NFL team on Sunday, as well as a league statement calling the comments "divisive."  

Researchers at the Alliance for Securing Democracy have been monitoring 600 Twitter accounts they have linked to Russian influence operations. Those accounts, operated by human users and suspected bots alike, pushed the opposing messages surrounding the NFL and the playing of the national anthem, researchers said.

Twitter didn't respond to a request for comment.

The revelation comes as the Senate and House of Representatives prepare to hold hearings examining the role social media may have played in alleged meddling in the 2016 election by Russian operatives. Twitter representatives were scheduled to meet this week with staff of the Senate Intelligence Committee. Facebook and Alphabet, Google's parent company, also have reportedly been invited to appear.

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg, who at first downplayed the impact his company's social network may have had on the spread of false news, has now embraced those concerns and is working to address them. Those efforts include working with news organizations to identify false reports and shutting down advertising access to accounts that repeatedly spread it.

Russian operatives reportedly used Facebook Events to remotely organize political protests in the US, including a 2016 anti-immigration rally in Idaho. The social media giant told The Daily Beast earlier this month it had "shut down several promoted events" as part a takedown operation aimed at cleaning up the platform's event management and invitation tool.

First published Sept. 27, 7:21 p.m. PT.
Update, Sept. 28 at 12:11 p.m.: Adds background on NFL controversy and Twitter's meeting with the Senate Intelligence Committee.

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