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The Russian connectionRussia’s pro-Trump campaign began early, aiming to help him win GOP primaries: WSJ

Published 8 November 2017

The U.S. intelligence community cited December 2015 as the earliest suspected time that Russian government social media account began their broad campaign in support of Donald Trump. A Wall Street Journal investigation reveals that the Kremlin’s campaign of support for Trump began six months earlier, in June 2015, days after he announced his candidacy. This earlier Russian disinformation campaign was aimed to help Trump defeat his Republican primary rivals. This early campaign, however, already engaged in dissemination of fake stories aiming to tarnish Hillary Clinton and undermine her campaign.

President Vladimir Putin ordered Russian government agencies, chief among them the GRU, Russia’s military intelligence branch, to launch a broad and systematic hacking and disinformation campaign to ensure the victory of Donald Trump in the November 2016 presidential election.

An investigation by the Wall Street Journal now reveals that Putin understood that in order to win in November, Trump would first have to win the Republican Party primaries. The same Russian government agencies, and the disinformation specialists they employed, which would later support the Trump campaign against Hillary Clinton, also supported his campaign against his rivals in the Republican primaries.

The U.S. intelligence community unanimously concluded, based on voluminous and incontrovertible evidence, that Russian social media accounts began backing Donald Trump as early as six months into his bid for the presidency. The Journal reports that new data shows the Russian government’s pro-Trump and anti-Hillary Clinton activity started six months earlier — within weeks of him entering the race.

The Journal analyzed 159,000 deleted tweets from 2,752 Russian accounts named during congressional hearings last Wednesday, and found that in the three-month period after Trump announced his candidacy on 16 June 2015, the ratio of Russian accounts praising Trump to those criticizing him was close to a 10-to-1.

The accounts, which Twitter identified as having been created and run by the Kremlin-backed Internet Research Agency (IRA), by equal or greater margins criticized Clinton and early Republican frontrunner Jeb Bush.

BOOM! DOWN GOES @jebbush,” tweeted @DorothieBell, claiming to be an American “Conservative wife, mother,” three weeks after Trump announced his bid. The account wanted to “take this once great country back!!!,” and provided a link to a Breitbart News story on Trump attacking Bush for being soft on immigration.

“#TrumpBecause It’s time for @BarackObama and @HillaryClinton to go quietly into the night #MakeAmericaGreatAgain,” @TamaFlan, described as an American named Tamar Flanagan, tweeted two months after Trump joined the race.

The Journal’s analysis shows that in summer 2015, at least forty Russian-backed accounts tweeted content favorable to Trump and only one spread strong negative opinions. That was @Jenn_Abrams, posing as an opinionated American blogger who tweeted, “I’d rather join #ISIS than have Donald Trump as my president,” the day Trump declared.

The U.S. intelligence assessment, released in January this year, pointed to December 2015 as the earliest suspected time that Russian Twitter accounts began their broad campaign of support for Trump.

The Kremlin-run disinformation campaign in support of Trump steadily ratcheted up as the November election approached. The Journal notes that in the two weeks before the election, pro-Trump or anti-Clinton tweets numbered 236, versus seven that were pro-Clinton or anti-Trump, a 30-to-1 ratio.

The Journal notes that many of the Russian political messages were sent out word-for-word by multiple Russian accounts, often within minutes of each other, suggesting a coordinated campaign.

The Kremlin conducted much of its social media disinformation campaign on behalf of Trump from the St. Petersburg’s-based Internet Research Agency (IRA), a Kremlin-backed troll farm engaged in disseminating Russian propaganda on social media (see “Russia’s disinformation posts reached 126 million Americans: Facebook,” HSNW, 31 October 2017; and “Our task was to set Americans against their own government”: Russian troll-farm operative,” HSNW, 18 October 2017).

“The Russian-backed Twitter accounts were so successful at imitating Americans that they were frequently followed and retweeted by prominent people, including Trump campaign insiders, and quoted in mainstream media,” the Journal reports. “One such account, @Pamela_Moore13, which claimed to be run by a Texan who was “Conservative. Pro God. Anti Racism,” amassed an impressive 700,000 followers – including retired Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn and Fox News commentator Sean Hannity – before being suspended by Twitter in the purge of Russian accounts.”

One notorious fake story Russia planted on Reddit was the “Pizzagate” conspiracy, which linked Hillary Clinton to a fabricated pedophile ring allegedly operating out of a Washington, D.C. pizzeria. One of the most aggressive disseminators of the story was Mike Flynn’s Jr., the son of Michael Flynn, Trump’s then-designated national security adviser (Flynn Jr., who was scheduled to move to the NSA was his father, was stripped of his security clearance and barred from joining the NSA staff because of his over-eager dissemination of Russian-produced fake stories. He was then dismissed from Trump’s transition team on Vice President-designate Mike Pence’s orders). In December 2016, a gunman who was persuaded by the story showed up with an assault rifle at the Washington, D.C. pizza restaurant, aiming to put an end to the pedophile ring, and managed to fire one shot before being arrested.

The tweets which the Journal analyzed represent only a small fraction of those disseminated by Russian-backed accounts because Twitter removes posts from deleted or suspended accounts.