Pro-Moscow Voices Tried to Debate Ohio Train Disaster
A 38-car derailment in East Palestine released toxic chemicals into the atmosphere, sparking a national debate over rail safety and environmental regulations.
WASHINGTON. Shortly after a train derailed and toxic chemicals spilled in Ohio last month, anonymous pro-Russian accounts began spreading misleading claims and anti-American propaganda on Twitter, using Elon Musk’s new verification system to expand reach and give the illusion of authenticity. .
The reports, which echoed the Kremlin’s theories on a variety of topics, claimed without any evidence that the Ohio authorities lied about the true effects of the chemical spill. The accounts circulated fear-mongering posts based on legitimate concerns about pollution and health impacts, and compared the response to the crash to America’s support for Ukraine after its invasion of Russia.
Some of the claims put forward by pro-Russian sources were credibly false, such as the suggestion that the media covered up the disaster or that environmental scientists who arrived on the scene died in a plane crash. But most of them were more speculative, apparently meant to stir up fear or mistrust. Examples include unconfirmed maps showing widespread contamination, reports predicting an increase in cancer deaths, and other reports of unconfirmed mass animal deaths.
“Biden offers Ukraine food, water, medicine, housing, pensions and social services! Ohio first! Offer and deliver to Ohio!” posted one of the promo Moscow accounts with 25,000 followers, an anonymous location, and a profile picture of a dog. In January, Twitter gave the account a blue tick.
Regularly spouting anti-American propaganda, these reports show how easy it is for authoritarian states and Americans willing to spread their propaganda to use social media platforms like Twitter in an attempt to manipulate domestic discourse.
The accounts were discovered by Reset, a London-based non-profit organization that studies the impact of social media on democracy, and shared with the Associated Press. Felix Kartte, a senior advisor at Reset, said the report’s findings show Twitter is allowing Russia to use its platform as a megaphone.
“With no one at home at Twitter’s product security department, Russia will continue to interfere in U.S. elections and democracy around the world,” Kartte said.
Twitter did not respond to messages asking for comment on this story.
The derailment of 38 railcars near East Palestine, Ohio released toxic chemicals into the atmosphere, leading to a national debate over rail safety and environmental regulations, as well as concerns about poisoning drinking water and air.
The crash was a major topic on social media, with millions of mentions on platforms like Facebook and Twitter, according to an analysis by San Francisco-based analytics firm Zignal Labs, which conducted the research on behalf of the AP.
The crash didn’t receive much attention online at first, but the number of mentions steadily increased, peaking two weeks after the incident as Signal discovered, a time lag that gave pro-Russian voices time to try to build a dialogue.
Accounts identified by Reset researchers received additional support from Twitter itself in the form of a blue checkmark. Before Musk bought Twitter last year, its checkmarks stood for accounts of verified users, often public figures, celebrities, or journalists. This was taken as a sign of authenticity on a platform notorious for bots and spam accounts.
Musk shut down that system and replaced it with Twitter Blue, which is provided to users who pay $8 a month and provide a phone number. Twitter Blue users undertake not to engage in deception and necessary post a profile photo and name. But there is no rule that they use their own.
As part of the program, Twitter Blue users can write and send longer tweets and videos. Their replies also have higher priority in other messages.
The AP has contacted multiple accounts listed in the Reset report. In response, one of the accounts sent a two-word message before blocking the AP reporter on Twitter: “Shut up.”
While researchers have found signs that some accounts are linked to a coordinated effort by Russian disinformation agencies, others are American-owned, showing the Kremlin doesn’t always have to pay to spread its message.
One account, known as Truth Puke, is associated with a website of the same name that targets conservatives in the United States. Truth Puke regularly reposts in Russian state media; Reset found that RT, formerly known as Russia Today, is one of his favorite groups to repost. One video posted by the account features ex-president Donald Trump commenting on the train derailment with Russian subtitles.
In an interview with AP, Truth Puke said he strives to provide “a wide range of opinions” and was surprised to be labeled as a distributor of Russian propaganda, despite the account’s heavy use of such material. When asked about the video with Russian subtitles, Truth Puke said he used the Russian version of Trump’s video for reasons of expediency.
“We can assure you that this was not done for some Russian propaganda purpose, we just like to post information as soon as we find it,” the company said.
Other accounts boast of their love for Russia. One account on Thursday posted a bizarre claim that the US was stealing earthquake relief supplies donated to Syria by China. The account has 60,000 followers and is known as Donbass Girl, after the region of Ukraine.
Another pro-Russian account recently attempted to engage in an online dispute with the Ukrainian Defense Ministry by posting photographs of documents that it claimed came from the Wagner Group, a private military company owned by Yevgeny Prigozhin, a key Putin ally. Prigozhin runs troll farms that have targeted social media users in the US in the past. Last fall, he boasted about his attempts to interfere with American democracy.
A separate Twitter account purporting to represent Wagner is actively using the site to recruit fighters.
“Gentlemen, we have interfered, we are interfering and we will interfere,” Prigozhin said last fall on the eve of the 2022 midterm elections in the United States. said at the time.
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