Disaster Debate: Pro-Russian voices spread toxic propaganda on social media after Ohio train crash

Disaster Debate: Pro-Russian voices spread toxic propaganda on social media after Ohio train crash

Shortly after a train derailed and spilled toxic chemicals in Ohio last month, anonymous pro-Russian accounts began spreading misleading claims and anti-American propaganda about it on Twitter, using Elon Musk’s new verification system to expand their reach while they create the illusion of credibility.

The accounts, which traced Kremlin talking points on numerous topics, claimed without evidence that Ohio authorities had lied about the true impact of the chemical spill. The accounts circulated fear-mongering posts that played down legitimate concerns about pollution and health effects and compared the response to the derailment to America’s support for Ukraine after its invasion by Russia.

Some of the claims pushed by the pro-Russian accounts were demonstrably false, such as the suggestion that the news media covered up the disaster or that environmental scientists traveling to the site died in a plane crash. But most were more speculative, seemingly designed to incite fear or mistrust. Examples include unverified maps showing widespread pollution, posts predicting an increase in deadly cancers and others about unconfirmed mass die-offs of animals.

“Biden offers food, water, medicine, shelter, pension payments and social services to Ukraine! Ohio first! Present and deliver to Ohio!” posted one of the pro-Moscow accounts, which boasts 25,000 followers and features an anonymous location and a profile picture of a dog. Twitter awarded the account a blue tick in January.

The accounts, which regularly spew anti-American propaganda, show how easily authoritarian states and Americans willing to spread their propaganda can exploit social media platforms like Twitter in an attempt to steer domestic discourse.

The accounts were identified by Reset, a London-based nonprofit that studies social media’s impact on democracy. Felix Kartte, a senior adviser at Reset, said the report’s findings suggest Twitter is allowing Russia to use its platform like a bullhorn.

“With no one at home in Twitter’s product security department, Russia will continue to interfere in US elections and in democracies around the world,” Kartte said.

Twitter did not respond to messages seeking comment for this story.

The derailment of 38 cars near East Palestine, Ohio, released toxic chemicals into the atmosphere, sparking a national debate over rail safety and environmental regulations while raising fears of poisoned drinking water and air.

The disaster was a big topic on social media, with millions of mentions on platforms like Facebook and Twitter, according to an analysis by San Francisco-based media intelligence firm Zignal Labs, which conducted a study.

Initially, the derailment received little attention online, but mentions grew steadily and peaked two weeks after the incident, Zignal found, a time lag that gave pro-Russian voices time to try to shape the conversation.

The accounts identified by Reset’s researchers got an extra boost from Twitter itself, in the form of a blue tick. Before Musk bought Twitter last year, these tick marks indicated accounts run by verified users, often public figures, celebrities or journalists. This was seen as a sign of authenticity on a platform known for bots and spam accounts.

Musk ended that system and replaced it with Twitter Blue, which is given to users who pay $8 a month and provide a phone number. Twitter Blue users agree not to engage in deception and are required to post a profile picture and name. But there is no rule that they use their own.

Under the program, Twitter Blue users can write and send longer tweets and videos. Their answers also get higher priority on other posts.

The Associated Press reached out to several of the accounts listed in Reset’s report. In response, one of the accounts sent a two-word message before blocking the AP reporter on Twitter: “Shut up.”

While researchers noted clues suggesting some of the accounts were linked to coordinated efforts by Russian disinformation agencies, others were American, showing the Kremlin doesn’t always have to pay to get its message out.

One account, known as Truth Puke, is linked to a website of the same name that targets conservatives in the United States. Truth Puke frequently reposts Russian state media; RT, formerly known as Russia Today, is one of his favorite groups to repost, Reset found. One video posted by the account features former President Donald Trump’s comments about the train derailment, complete with Russian subtitles.

In response to questions, Truth Puke said it aimed to provide a “broad spectrum of views” and was surprised to be labeled a spreader of Russian propaganda, despite the account’s heavy use of such material. Asked about the video with Russian subtitles, Truth Puke said it was using the Russian version of the Trump video for the sake of efficiency.

“We can assure you that this was not done with any Russian propagandist intent in mind, we just like to put things out as fast as we find them,” the company said.

Other stories boast of their love for Russia. One account on March 16 reposted a bizarre claim that the US was stealing humanitarian earthquake relief supplies donated to Syria by China. The account has 60,000 followers and is known as Donbass Devushka, after the region of Ukraine.

Another pro-Russian account recently tried to pick an online argument with Ukraine’s defense department, posting photos of documents it said came from the Wagner Group, a private military company owned by ‘ n Yevgeny Prigozhin, a key Putin ally. Prigozhin operates troll farms that have targeted American social media users in the past. Last fall, he bragged about his efforts to interfere with American democracy.

A separate Twitter account claiming to represent Wagner is actively using the site to recruit fighters.

“Lord, we interfered, are interfering and will interfere,” Prigozhin said last fall on the eve of the 2022 midterm elections in the U.S. “Carefully, precisely, surgically and in our own way, as we know how to do, ” Prigozhin said at the time.

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