A Conspiracy Made in America May Have Been Spread by Russia

The night of the Iowa caucuses last February, Robby Mook, Hillary Clinton’s 2016 campaign manager, logged into Twitter to find the hashtag #RobbyMookCaucusApp trending across the country. Pundits on both sides of the aisle accused him of developing a mobile app to rig the Democratic primary against Senator Bernie Sanders.

Soon his phone was buzzing with calls from reporters demanding to know what role he had played in creating the app, a flawed vote-reporting system that delayed caucus results for days.

But he had never even heard of the app, which was developed by a company called Shadow Inc. This mattered little to the thousands of Twitter users attacking him online. Four months later, Mr. Mook sighed, “There are still people out there who believe I developed that app.”

Mr. Mook was the target of an American-made social media conspiracy theory that was picked up by Americans and quickly amplified by accounts with Russian links. What happened to him in February — though just a sliver of the enormous amounts of misinformation pouring onto social media platforms — offers a manual to understand how false information about the coronavirus and the election is now spreading.

“The Kremlin doesn’t need to make fake news anymore,” said Clint Watts, a former F.B.I. special agent and information warfare expert. “It’s all American-made.”

Russians have concluded it is far easier to identify divisive content from real Americans and stoke and amplify it instead of creating tales of their own.

“Russia’s trolls learned it is far more effective to find the sore spots and amplify content by native English speakers than it is to spin out their own wackadoodle conspiracy theories,” said Cindy Otis, a former C.I.A. analyst who specializes in disinformation.

The conspiracy targeting Mr. Mook started a week before the Iowa caucus, when Chelsea Goodell, a web designer in Arizona, quoted a Twitter post that included a screenshot of an article from the technology news site CNET describing Democrats’ plans to use an app to tabulate votes in the caucus.

The article noted that Iowa officials were working with Harvard University’s Defending Digital Democracy program — a program Mr. Mook helped found — to protect the caucus from digital threats. Ms. Goodell claimed it was a Democratic ploy to steal the primary from Mr. Sanders.

Four hours later, Ms. Goodell added the hashtag #RobbyMookCaucusApp to her tweets.

There was no basis for her claims. The Digital Democracy Project had run threat simulations for Iowa election officials in both parties. But neither Harvard’s staff nor Mr. Mook had even seen the Shadow app before the caucuses that February.

The conspiracy theory might have flamed out had it not been picked up by Ann Louise La Clair, a self-described Los Angeles filmmaker with a Russian Twitter following. Her tweets praising RT advertisements and protesting American airstrikes in Syria — a key Russian ally — had previously been picked up by RT, the Kremlin-owned news outlet.

She had also caught notice of @DanWals83975326, who also claimed to be a filmmaker. But his Twitter feed suggested otherwise.

He tweeted in broken English 72 times a day, on average, often in the middle of the night in the United States — just as business was getting underway in Russia. Of the 2,000 accounts he followed, many posted exclusively in Russian. He routinely shared content from RT, Sputnik, Tass and other Kremlin-owned outlets.

He often took aim at the “deep state” and American media and retweeted Americans like Ms. La Clair who criticized the “Democratic establishment.” In fact, Ms. La Clair was among the top 10 accounts @DanWals83975326 retweeted. He promoted Ms. La Clair’s theories to his 1,200 followers, which included a broader network of Russia-linked accounts that bore the words “Russia,” “Moscow” and “Kremlin” in their profiles, set their locations to Russia, and regularly promoted Russian state news.

The account he “liked” most frequently belonged to @Manul_na_skale, which posted from Russia, exclusively in Russian, and highlighted tweets like “Happy Border Guards Day” — a holiday celebrated by members of the F.S.B., the successor to the K.G.B.

None of the accounts in @DanWals83975326’s network had particularly large followings.

“They aren’t looking for their own accounts to go viral anymore, because it draws attention to themselves,” said Ms. Otis, the former C.I.A. analyst. “The bulk of their approach is to slip into existing narratives.”

Within 10 minutes of Ms. La Clair quoting Ms. Goodell’s Mook-Iowa theory, @DanWals83975326 shared it. When the app imploded the night of the caucus, RT picked up the theory, writing: “There are rumors that Clinton’s former 2016 campaign manager, Robby Mook, was indirectly involved with the Shadow app.”

By the time Mr. Mook could correct the record on Twitter that evening, the false claim had been shared more than 20,000 times. The #RobbyMookCaucusApp hashtag had climbed to the top of Twitter. Soon, President Trump, his campaign advisers and his sons were echoing the claims.

“Mark my words,” Eric Trump, the president’s son, posted, “they are rigging this thing.”

It was a textbook example, Mr. Watts said, of suspected Russian trolls exploiting unwitting Americans to sow discord.

“Russia just pushes populists against the establishment,” Mr. Watts said. “It doesn’t even matter what their political leanings are.”

Ms. La Clair also tweeted that the coronavirus was a bioweapon, only in her version it was developed by the United States or Israel.

She argued on Twitter that Dr. Anthony Fauci, a crucial figure in the Trump administration’s pandemic response, and the billionaire Bill Gates are part of a plot to profit from an eventual Covid-19 vaccine. Once again, her theories were promoted by @DanWals83975326.

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