#MAGA, #Trump, and #NeverHillary are among the most-tweeted hashtags by Russian troll accounts, which are known to have sought influence in the 2016 presidential election. But so is #BlackLivesMatter.
Drawn from NBC’s newly-released dataset of tweets sent by Russian troll accounts, these are the 50 hashtags that were most-tweeted, from July 2014 to September 2017.
As NBC’s analysis shows, the tweets—usually sent from accounts that are set up to look like real people—push conspiracy theories, racism, and false information, often related to the campaign.
But the 200,000-tweet dataset also reveals that the strategy of these accounts, taken together, is more sophisticated than simply supporting Donald Trump or vilifying Hillary Clinton. In addition to pro-Trump hashtags, trolls propagated the hashtag #BlackLivesMatter, and also tweeted #FergusonRemembers 26 times. Their strategy attempts to divide public opinion by pushing controversial views on both sides.
Of course, using a hashtag does not mean you support it. Many of the tweets using left-leaning hashtags are disparaging, like one that reads. “Obama disrespect [sic] our Law Enforcement by defending #blacklivesmatter terrorists.” This is true for most of the #ImWithHer tweets.
Others are sincere, though. “In USA your skin color doesn’t define your future, your choices do #BlackLivesMatter,” reads one.
Russian trolls are often plugged in to internet memes and acronyms. #2A is short for “second amendment,” used in tweets about gun rights. There is both #tcot (Top Conservatives on Twitter) and #p2, used by progressives.
Finally, some of the hashtags show that the trolls make an effort to look like normal people. Many of the top results are about mundane things, like, “#IGetDepressedWhen the whiskey runs out,” tweeted in 2016 by the user “melvinsroberts.” Or “Get fat – oh wait ✅ #ToDoListBeforeChristmas,” from “queenofthewo.”
Admittedly, this dataset only includes 454 of the 2,752 accounts known to be part of official Russian propaganda operations. And it may not contain all the tweets sent by these users. But it’s more than enough to get a better understanding for how Russia’s efforts to divide Americans on social media work.