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Pro-Russia tweets fuel lies about Ohio train disaster

This photo taken with a drone shows portions of a Norfolk and Southern freight train that derailed in East Palestine, Ohio
The aftermath of the Feb. 3 train derailment in East Palestine, Ohio.
(Gene J. Puskar / Associated Press)
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Soon after a train derailed and spilled toxic chemicals in Ohio last month, anonymous pro-Russian accounts spread misleading claims and anti-American propaganda about it on Twitter, using Elon Musk’s new verification system to expand their reach while creating the illusion of credibility.

The 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 claims were verifiably false, and others 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.

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“Biden offers food, water, medicine, shelter, payouts of pension and social services to Ukraine! Ohio first! Offer and deliver to Ohio!” posted a pro-Moscow account with 25,000 followers. Twitter awarded the account a blue check mark in January.

Despite no evidence that Manhattan prosecutors have given official notice to him or his lawyers, Trump declared in a post on his social media platform that he expects to be taken into custody.

March 18, 2023

Regularly spewing anti-U.S. propaganda, the accounts show how easily authoritarian states and Americans willing to spread their propaganda can exploit social media platforms to steer domestic discourse.

The accounts were identified by Reset, a London-based nonprofit that studies social media’s impact on democracy, and shared with the Associated Press.

Felix Kartte, a senior advisor at Reset, said the report’s findings indicate that Twitter is letting Russia use its platform like a bullhorn.

“With no one at home in Twitter’s product safety department, Russia will continue to meddle in U.S. elections and in democracies around the world,” Kartte said.

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

The 38-car derailment near East Palestine, Ohio, on Feb. 3 released toxic chemicals, leading to a national debate over rail safety and environmental regulations while raising fears of poisoned drinking water and air.

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

At first, the derailment received little attention online, but mentions grew steadily, peaking two weeks after the incident, Zignal found, a time lag that gave pro-Russia voices time to try to shape the conversation.

The accounts identified by Reset’s researchers received an extra boost from Twitter itself, in the form of a blue check mark. Before Musk purchased Twitter last year, its check marks denoted accounts run by verified users, often public figures, celebrities or journalists. It was seen as a mark 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 per month and supply a phone number. Twitter Blue users agree not to engage in deception and are required to post a profile picture and name. But there’s no rule that they use their own.

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

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The AP reached out to several of the accounts listed in Reset’s report. One sent a message — “Shut up” — and blocked the AP reporter on Twitter.

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

One account, known as Truth Puke, is connected to a website of the same name geared toward right-wing adherents in the U.S.

Truth Puke regularly reposts Russian state media; RT, formerly known as Russia Today, is one of its favorite groups to repost, Reset found.

One video posted by the account features former President Trump’s remarks about the train derailment, with Russian subtitles.

In a response to questions from the AP, Truth Puke said it aims to provide a “wide 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 used the Russian language version of the Trump video for the sake of expediency.

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

Other accounts brag of their love for Russia. One account on Thursday reposted a bizarre claim that the U.S. was stealing humanitarian earthquake relief supplies donated to Syria by China. The account has 60,000 followers and is known as Donbass Devushka. The Donbas, sometimes spelled Donbass, is a region in eastern Ukraine.

Another pro-Russia account recently tried to pick an online argument with Ukraine’s Defense Ministry, posting photos of documents that it claimed came from the Wagner Group, a private Russian military company whose fighters are battling Ukrainian soldiers.

Wagner chief Yevgeny Prigozhin operates troll farms that have targeted U.S. social media users in the past. Last fall he boasted of his efforts to meddle with American democracy.

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

Gentlemen, we have interfered, are interfering and will interfere,” Prigozhin said before the U.S. midterm election. “Carefully, precisely, surgically and in our own way, as we know how to do.”

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