Twitter has reportedly shut down another batch of suspected Russian-linked propaganda accounts that shared propaganda messages about US President Donald Trump, Germany chancellor Angela Merkel and Brexit. The accounts were first flagged by BuzzFeed News and reportedly had "close connections" to the hundreds of Russia-linked accounts that Twitter recently presented to Congress.
BuzzFeed News reported that the 45 suspect accounts were discovered "through basic analysis of those that interacted or retweeted accounts cited by Twitter to Congress". However, they were not included in the list of Russian-linked troll accounts that were handed over to Congress.
These accounts tweeted mostly in German and inserted negative messages about Merkel by focusing on hashtag games and trending topics. About 20 accounts tweeted in English about Trump while 21 posted about the Brexit referendum. Some accounts also tweeted openly pro-Russia messages.
Some tweets included strange memes supporting Trump "because he is gay" and included the hashtag #WirLiebenTrump, which means #WeLoveTrump. One tweet read: "We are sorry Hillary, but Germany loves Trump!" Another said the Republican candidate is "not like #Hitler."
BuzzFeed News noted a huge spike in activity on 23 June 2016 — the day of the referendum. The media outlet notified Twitter about the accounts on Tuesday (21 November) that were taken down within 24 hours.
Twitter, Facebook and Google have come under scrutiny over the past few months over the role their platforms played in Russia's disinformation campaign during the 2016 election. Facebook and Google admitted that Russian operatives bought thousands of dollars worth of politically divisive ads on their platforms while Twitter identified a list of 2,700 Russian-backed accounts designed to churn out controversial content to sow discord in the US and UK.
US congressional committees are currently investigating Russian interference in the 2016 election and possible collusion between Trump's campaign and the Kremlin. The UK parliament has also launched its own probe into Russian interference in the British politics and the Brexit vote as well and requested Facebook and Twitter to submit evidence of the same.
Damian Collins, head of the Culture, Media and Sport Committee, who is heading the UK parliamentary probe said BuzzFeed's findings highlighted the fact that the evidence handed over by Twitter to investigators so far is "only the tip of a very large iceberg".
"This BuzzFeed investigation clearly calls into question the evidence that Twitter provided to the US Senate judiciary and intelligence committees and demonstrates that whatever process the company undertook to identify Russian-backed fake accounts was simply not rigorous enough," he told BuzzFeed News.
"The findings of this report raise serious questions about the methodology used by Twitter to identify fake content on their platform, and how seriously they are taking investigations by governments and parliaments around the world.
"The technology exists to aid the identification of fake accounts based on their shared characteristics and use of language. Twitter should be deploying this to identify other accounts linked to organisations like the Russian Internet Research Agency."
Twitter declined to respond to BuzzFeed's queries saying "we've nothing to share on individual accounts." It also shared its earlier statement on its dealings with investigators.
"Due to the nature of these inquiries, we may not always be able to publicly share what we discuss with investigators," Twitter said. "And there will always be tools or methods we cannot talk about, because doing so would only help bad actors circumvent them."