Pro-Russian Twitter accounts have been using Elon Musk’s new verification system to spread misinformation and anti-American propaganda about a train derailment in Ohio, according to a report by a London-based nonprofit called Reset. The accounts claimed that authorities were lying about the true impact of the chemical spill, and pushed false claims, such as the news media covering up the disaster and environmental scientists being killed in a plane crash. The accounts also compared the response to the derailment with America’s support for Ukraine following its invasion by Russia.
The report highlights how authoritarian states and their propaganda can exploit social media platforms like Twitter to influence domestic discourse. The accounts were identified by Reset, which studies social media’s impact on democracy, and the findings of the report suggest that Twitter is allowing Russia to use its platform as a bullhorn.
The train derailment in Ohio occurred last month, and toxic chemicals were spilled as a result. Shortly after the incident, anonymous pro-Russian accounts began spreading misleading claims and anti-American propaganda on Twitter, using Elon Musk’s new verification system to expand their reach while creating the illusion of credibility.
The pro-Russian accounts, which parroted Kremlin talking points on myriad topics, claimed without evidence that authorities in Ohio were lying about the true impact of the chemical spill. The accounts spread fearmongering posts that preyed on legitimate concerns about pollution and health effects, and compared the response to the derailment with America’s support for Ukraine following its invasion by Russia.
Some of the claims pushed by the pro-Russian accounts were verifiably false, such as the suggestion that the news media had covered up the disaster or that environmental scientists traveling to the site had been killed in a plane crash. But most were more speculative, seemingly designed to stoke fear or distrust. Examples include unverified maps showing widespread pollution, posts predicting an increase in fatal cancers, and others about unconfirmed mass animal die-offs.
“Biden offers food, water, medicine, shelter, payouts of pension and social services to Ukraine! Ohio first! Offer and deliver to Ohio!” posted one of the pro-Moscow accounts, which boasts 25,000 followers and features an anonymous location and a profile photo of a dog. Twitter awarded the account a blue check mark in January.
The pro-Russian accounts regularly spew anti-US propaganda, showing how easily authoritarian states and Americans willing to spread their propaganda can exploit social media platforms like Twitter in an effort to steer domestic discourse.
The report by Reset raises concerns about Twitter’s ability to detect and prevent the spread of misinformation and propaganda on its platform. The company has faced criticism in the past for allowing foreign actors to use its platform to interfere in US elections and influence public opinion.
Twitter has taken steps to address these concerns, including banning political advertising and labeling tweets that contain misleading information. However, the report by Reset suggests that more needs to be done to prevent the spread of propaganda on the platform.
In response to the report, a Twitter spokesperson said, “We have clear policies in place prohibiting spam and platform manipulation, and we enforce them vigorously. We also continue to invest in our technology and teams to better detect and respond to this activity.”
The use of social media by foreign actors to influence public opinion is a growing concern, and platforms like Twitter and Facebook have faced increased scrutiny over their role in the spread of misinformation and propaganda. The incident in Ohio highlights the need for these companies to be more proactive in detecting and preventing the spread of false information on their platforms.