What’s the Matter with @KansasDailyNews?

Originally published on Linkedin (12/9/2021)

Special Thanks to DefendingDemocracyTogether.Org for maintaining RussiaTweets.com

Photo by Javier Balseiro on Unsplash

“We are in the middle of the most transforming technological event since the capture of fire.” — John Perry Barlow

In 2015, a Twitter account with the handle @KansasDailyNews launched itself into the Twittersphere with tweet of

Carson mispronounces ‘Hamas’ as ‘hummus’ #politics (link)

And it was not alone. In addition to the local and national media figures commenting on the serious gaffe from an unserious campaign, @KansasDailyNews was joined by two other accounts @neworleanson (link) and @todaypittsburgh (link), who used the same wording to amplify the neurosurgeon’s flub. Those accounts were part of a targeted and coordinated series of campaigns designed by Russia’s Internet Research Agency (IRA) to manipulate local, regional, and national media ecosystems.

By 2015, leveraging the tool of the internet to amplify division, confusion, and conflict in communities was far from a new idea. State intelligence-associated web brigades may have been engaging on 9/11 conspiracy theory topics on message boards as early as 2003, according to some unverified reports. By 2004, the internet was a significant force in modern political life. Its power for virality is credited with derailing the presidential candidacy of Howard Dean, a one-time presidential front-runner. His unbridled enthusiasm for the democratic process was mercilessly mocked as the infamous “Dean Scream’’ which was labeled as off-putting by legions of internet commenters. This online criticism made its way into the contemporary television media of the day. By 2008, then-Senator Barack Obama’s campaign team combined internet comment campaigns, celebrity entertainment techniques, Big Business campaign donations, and an unprecedented level of investment in digital advertising to rocket his way into the Oval Office.

During the Obama presidency, the United States and its media system became even more interconnected with others around the globe. By 2011, a Canadian Magazine Ad Busters forwarded the idea of “Occupy Wall Street” across porous political boundaries worldwide. Humans around the internet then incubated the idea together in chat rooms, comment threads, and message boards. On September 17th, 2011, the once foreign concept was executed at Zuccotti Park in the heart of New York, New York. The internet then continued replicating similar events in cities around the world almost instantaneously. Something that did not go unnoticed by intelligence communities.

The Big Business

By the time the IRA sent out its first publicly attributed tweet in English on February 6th, 2012, the internet’s power as a tool for media and market manipulation was self-evident. It may be telling that this first known tweet was not amplifying local activists or the rhetoric of political violence, but performing as a California real estate booster.

Resale homes sales R up. As we learned from the recent bubble that burst, a healthy housing market puts many pairs of hands to work. — @Crystal1Johnson (link)

Over the following year and a half, IRA operators continued probing personalities and principalities in multiple languages across the globe. They shared content that consisted of pensive quotations, musings on cultural events, and everyday truths.

I need coffee. #Energy -@Crystal1Johnson (link)

Lacking the instinct for originality, at times the operators directly copied word for word the content of communities they were surveilling online.

Check out my new track called! #Cloned XpecTed 2 drop next Month — @blk_voice (link)

When relying on publicly available information, researchers can only speculate based on the behavior of the accounts that in these early days they were mostly used for surveillance and testing. By the end of June 2012, the project had contributed a mere 155 tweets to the Twittersphere.

IRA activity then reached its first peak in July 2012 with 97 tweets that month. The peak was represented with the opening of new accounts while accounts that were already active maintained their same output levels. The project sent out only 300 publicly attributed tweets throughout the following year, and it’s speculated that most resources were spent on research and surveillance of communities.

Thanks to the fearless reporting by Alexandra Garmazhapova of the Novaya Gazeta and others who followed suit, we know that in July 2013 the Internet Research Agency officially registered as a business in St. Petersburg. They soon posted job listings in the typical advertising agency manner. By late August, local millennials looking for work caught notice of the promises of free food, the equivalent of $350 a month, and the opportunity to work in a “chic” office. Based on the job advertisements and other sources, we know these workers typically worked one of three 8 hour shifts from Tuesday through Saturday, and that the structure of the IRA was divided into departments based on behaviors and targets. Specific departments included bloggers, commenters, rapid response, CEOs, journalists, creative, and social networking specialists.

It is believed the IRA used this time to continue their online surveillance in addition to registering or purchasing online accounts en masse. The young Russian staff received training on detecting, penetrating, disrupting, and dismantling the mechanisms of social order in local communities and across language barriers.

Over the next year, few English tweets were sent by the IRA. However, that began to change in August when English tweets dramatically increased in volume. Then, as the operation became more fully engaged, tweet frequency escalated into the hundreds in October and thousands in November, with #obamalameduck, #love, #rap, and #usa being among the most used hashtags during this time.

Beginning in 2015, English language tweets consistently topped over 12,500 a month. June’s English tweets exceeded 60,000 and a new peak was quickly reached with July exceeding over 100,000 tweets aimed at contributing to disrupting the democratic social order of communities in the United States. July 2015’s top hashtags used included #news, #sports, #politics, #local, and #cleveland.

August through October saw a decrease in tweet volume that sharpened the focus on specific communities. During this time, the hashtags #trumpbecause, #blacklivesmatter, #fergusonremembers, #crime, #cleveland, and #local were tweeted over a thousand times by IRA operator accounts. While some of the accounts may have been considered suspicious by community members, at no point was the scale of these psychological attacks on an unsuspecting populace publicly acknowledged by the people’s representatives in government.

In November 2015, the IRA distributed over 30,000 English tweets to engage more directly in US politics and daily life. IRA operators spread the news to communities concerning a hoax food poisoning scare, and engaged the Democratic Party’s primary debate in Des Moines, Iowa. By the time @KansasNewsDaily was activated on December 4th, 2015, the IRA had years of community surveillance, multiple experiments completed on unsuspecting populations, and a small army of online accounts, operators, strategists, and specialists to refine their attacks on democratic social order. Over time, this operation contributed to confusion among targeted populations and participated in social and political attacks between neighbors. @KansasDailyNews was one of those accounts.

The Local Operation

@KansasDailyNews is an illustrative archive to study because of its middling quality. The account operator initially focused on news and sports stories that fit their theme and included the keyword “Kansas.” During its first three months of operation, @KansasDailyNews amplified a wide variety of subjects, including the Kansas State Attorney General proposal that schools give their students naturalization tests, how Kansas City’s Wayside Waif Shelter kindly took in 34 dogs from Louisiana, as well as “Trump’s on again off again feud with Chuck Todd.” Perhaps the most telling detail of the quality of the Internet Research Agency’s operator talent and experience levels is that the user failed to include a link with their tweets for the first several weeks of operation. Instead, they were copying and pasting headlines and occasionally adding hashtags. A #VictoryMonday partnership promotion between the Kansas City Chiefs and McDonald’s was among their first retweets.

The tweets forwarded the question of whether the GOP was headed to an open convention and shared local parking maps for the Intrust Arena in Witchita, KS. They amplified news stories about local Santas, local weather events, and the deplorable and bigoted actions of Rowan County Clerk Kim Davis in Kentucky. And as they continued sprinkling local and national headlines across Twitter, a clear pattern began to emerge. The content was dominated by public safety and law enforcement topics that would contribute to the increase of stress or fear in the target audiences.

The engagement was consistent, steady, and unyielding. The tweets continued through the Russian high holidays with workers being forced to perform on Novy God (New Year’s), Christmas Eve, and even Christmas Day in Russia (January 7th), times usually set aside for family and worship.

The pace and patterns continued through June, with the account increasingly discussing local politicians and outputting over 1900 tweets a month. In July and August of 2016, engagement decreased significantly. Still, it continued its focus on amplifying local news and politics, focusing on public safety issues. With September came a return of high-volume engagement on political issues maintained through election day.

After election day, the IRA reduced the output of @KansasDailyNews to a quota of approximately 1000 tweets per month. Still, it continued its maintenance of psychological attacks on communities. This pace was maintained through August 2017 which is our endpoint of account data. During this time, they continued amplifying both local and national public safety and law enforcement stories that featured violence and tragedy. According to RussiaTweets.com, the account’s last known tweet was

Gas prices jump in #KansasCity as Hurricane Harvey continues to pound Gulf Coast https://t.co/KAiI3cHDep — @KansasNewsDaily (link)

The Unmeasured Effect

The publicly known scale of IRA social operations dwarfs all but the most major of marketing campaigns. It’s important to mention that neither Kansas nor Missouri were considered a swing state for the 2016 election. @KansasNewsDaily and other local news aggregator accounts operated by the Internet Research Agency may have had the effect of skewing audience attention and, in turn, news coverage more in line with the agenda of the IRA than would have naturally occurred. We can only interpret what an audience member within the account’s social network may have experienced without examining outside data. After some initial confusion by the operator, the account eventually shared thousands of links to local news stories heavily featuring KSNT.COM and KSN.COM. The account had 25,759 direct followers at its reported peak while they actively followed and observed 6,427 Twitter accounts. If we suppose local influencers used metrics to decide what to discuss and share with their community online, the footprint left by @KansasNewsDaily could be considered significant. The amplification of stories of violence and vandalism combined with the under coverage of those speaking out for peace and the rule of law creates dangerous situations for communities. The IRA’s level of collaboration and support to targeted offline activity remains unconfirmed.

The Cause

It’s an operational certainty that the Internet Research Agency’s successors continue to surreptitiously operate influence campaigns against democratic targets designed to increase a population’s stress level and degrade democratic order among communities. As a result, many communities may be left wondering how to respond to injurious attacks from the past while also recognizing current attacks on democratic order. One approach may be to consider what SOAP could bring to the dialog. In this instance, SOAP stands for SHARE RESPONSIBILITY, OPEN RECORDS, ADVANCE PEACE, and PROMISE JUSTICE.

Share Responsibility

Every community member has a role to play in resolving and preventing crime. The Internet Research Agency’s goal was to exacerbate prevailing community disagreements and division to advance disorder and corruption. Communities that approach local issues, such as public safety and law enforcement, with a commitment to shared responsibility for events and their outcomes, may have an advantage in reducing discord and chaos more than communities that appeal to authoritarian dynamics.

Open Records

Communities that are more open and honest with their record-keeping will have a distinct advantage in countering influence attacks over communities that seek to preserve darkness. While we may not always be able to identify a malign influence campaign during its distribution, thanks to fearless reporters and government record keepers, we are able to recognize and trace the artifacts of these campaigns back to the source after the fact. Moreover, communities may become less vulnerable to malign influences by fostering open access to records and education.

Advance Peace

The Internet Research Agency operates in the same manner as those who opposed the work of American visionaries such as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Rep. John Lewis. They seek to amplify the levels of stress and fear in a community to short-circuit audiences’ decision-making and misdirect their anxieties at their neighbors. Conversely, communities that can move forward with an understanding of inclusion and togetherness may have an advantage in recognizing and countering attacks from local and foreign malign influences.

Promise Justice

When public officials and political leaders disengage from the rule of law, lawlessness and corruption are a near certainty. A key theme in the Internet Research Agency’s content was the focus on elevating disturbing and bewildering miscarriages of justice within communities. The IRA sought to highlight the hypocrisy of communities that preach values enshrined in the US constitution yet fail to maintain behaviors in alignment with the document. The IRA often highlighted how some communities are still unable to secure those promises to every member of their community. Communities that take meaningful steps to fulfill the promise of justice and accountability among both state and community actors may have an advantage over communities that engage in and support lawless behaviors among their civil servants and throughout their community.

If you would like to learn more about @KansasDailyNews, the Internet Research Agency, Malign Influence Campaigns, or the internet as a tool check out the links below:

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