Russian propaganda ‘troll farm’ targeted UC Berkeley with divisive tweets last spring

Lianne Frick/Senior Staff

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A now-defunct twitter account run by a Russian propaganda organization spread divisive tweets about UC Berkeley to its more than 100,000 followers last spring, during the time when Ann Coulter and other conservative speakers were scheduled to appear on campus.

The account, @TEN_GOP, was run by the Internet Research Agency, a pro-Kremlin “troll farm” whose about 100 employees spread propaganda through various online sources. Twitter has since shut down @TEN_GOP, which masqueraded as a platform representing the Republican Party in Tennessee.

Tweets from @TEN_GOP about UC Berkeley included a string of heated tweets in response to Coulter cancelling her speech on campus. @TEN_GOP applauded conservative activists and condemned the campus.

“Well done! Proud of all you Patriots! #BerkeleyProtest,” read one tweet, in response to a protester reading Coulter’s speech at a campus rally. “So, the president of Mexico is allowed to speak at Berkeley but an American citizen is banned? Seriously, this is infuriating,” read another tweet from the account.

Former ASUC president and UC Berkeley graduate William Morrow said the ability of foreign propaganda organizations to spread misinformation through accounts like @TEN_GOP has serious implications for both the campus and the country.

“It’s easy to write off the significance of these accounts,” Morrow said. “But if just one of those (violent protestors) became radicalized because of misinformation from these accounts and decided that they needed to show up and be violent in response, then that has huge impacts on not just student life and safety, but on the nature of our democracy.”

Adjunct professor of political science and executive director of the Berkeley Program in Eurasian and East European Studies, Edward W. Walker, said that attacks like these tweets are part of a broad and long-running Russian campaign to weaken the West. And according to Walker, that campaign is becoming more effective.

“(Russia has) been trying to destabilize and disrupt western countries, and they’re getting increasingly sophisticated about it,” Walker said. “They’re not fussy about who they use in the West — it doesn’t matter if they’re on the far right or far left, or if they believe in crazy things.”

UC Berkeley is not the only college campus affected by the @TEN_GOP account. Last week, Drexel University placed political science professor George Ciccariello-Maher on involuntary leave after @TEN_GOP shared a controversial tweet from the professor last year, which then went viral. @TEN_GOP’s post, which included both the tweet and commentary, gained over 2,000 retweets and was quoted in USA Today.

“The vast majority of the people that they are helping to empower don’t view themselves as Russian agents,” Walker said. “They don’t know that Russia is helping to amplify their line, or care.”

According to Adam Steinbaugh, a reporter at the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education who covered the situation at Drexel, the tweet’s popularity, and the university’s reaction, may indicate that @TEN_GOP and accounts like it have measurable influence on college campuses and beyond.

“These accounts have an impact on academic freedom and free speech,” Steinbaugh said. “The university gave into the wave of threats generated by these accounts.”

Contact Sam Levin at [email protected] and follow him on Twitter at @SamJLevin.