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Pro-Russian voices tried to steer the debate over the Ohio train derailment

WASHINGTON (AP) — Shortly after a train derailed and spilled toxic chemicals in Ohio last month, anonymous pro-Russian accounts began spreading misleading claims and anti-American propaganda on Twitter using Elon’s new check Musk to expand its reach while creating . the illusion of credibility.

The reports, which echo the Kremlin’s talking points on a myriad of topics, claim without evidence that Ohio authorities lied about the actual impact of the chemical spill. Reports circulated alarmist posts that used legitimate concerns about pollution and health effects and compared the response to the derailment to America’s support for Ukraine after its invasion by Russia.

Some of the claims made by the pro-Russian accounts were verifiably false, such as the suggestion that the media covered up the disaster or that environmental scientists traveling to the site were killed in a plane crash. But most were more speculative, apparently designed to incite fear or distrust. Examples include unverified maps showing widespread pollution, posts predicting an increase in deadly cancers, and others about unconfirmed mass animal deaths.

“Biden gives Ukraine food, water, medicine, housing, pensions and social services! Ohio first! Offer and deliver in Ohio!” posted one of the pro-Moscow accounts, which boasts 25,000 followers and features an anonymous location and a profile photo of a dog. Twitter gave the account a blue check in January.

Regularly spreading anti-US propaganda, the accounts show how easily authoritarian states and Americans eager to spread their propaganda can exploit social media platforms like Twitter in an effort to spur domestic discourse.

The accounts were identified by Reset, a London-based non-profit that studies the impact of social media on democracy, and shared with the Associated Press. Felix Kartte, a senior consultant at Reset, said the report’s findings indicate that Twitter is allowing Russia to use its platform as a red flag.

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

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

A drone reveals parts of the derailed freight train in East Palestine, Ohio.

Gene J. Puskar via Associated Press

The 38-car derailment near East Palestine, Ohio released toxic chemicals into the atmosphere, sparking a national debate over rail safety and environmental regulations and raising fears of poisoning 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 the study on behalf of the AP.

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

Accounts identified by Reset’s researchers got an extra boost from Twitter itself, in the form of a blue tick. Before Musk bought Twitter last year, bookmarks flagged accounts run by verified users, often public figures, celebrities or journalists. It was seen as a sign of authenticity on a platform known for bots and spam accounts.

Musk shut down that system and replaced it with Twitter Blue, which is offered to users who pay $8 a month and provide a phone number. Twitter Blue users agree not to commit fraud and are necessary to post a profile photo and name. But there is no rule that they use theirs.

Under the program, Twitter Blue users can write and send longer tweets and videos. Their replies also have a higher priority than other posts.

AP contacted several of the accounts listed in the reset report. In response, one of the accounts sent a two-word message before blocking the AP reporter on Twitter: “Shut up.”

A black plume rises over East Palestine, Ohio, after a controlled detonation of part of a derailed train on February 6.
A black plume rises over East Palestine, Ohio, after a controlled detonation of part of a derailed train on February 6.

Gene J. Puskar via Associated Press

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

One account, known as Truth Puke, is linked to a website of the same name aimed at conservatives in the United States. Truth Puke regularly reposts Russian state media; RT, formerly known as Russia Today, is one of his favorite repost groups, Reset found. A video posted by the account features former President Donald Trump’s remarks about the train derailment, complete with Russian subtitles.

In response to questions from the AP, Truth Puke said he aims to provide a “broad spectrum of opinion” and was surprised to be labeled a Russian propaganda speaker despite the story’s heavy use of that material. When asked about the Russian subtitled video, Truth Puke said he used the Russian version of Trump’s video for convenience.

“We can assure you that this was not done with any intention of Russian propaganda, we just like to get things out there as quickly as possible,” the company said.

Other accounts boast of their love for Russia. A report on Thursday published a bizarre claim that the United States is stealing earthquake relief supplies donated to Syria by China. The account has 60,000 followers and is known as Donbass Devushka, from the region of Ukraine.

Another pro-Russian account recently tried to spark an online confrontation with Ukraine’s defense department by posting photos of documents it said came from the Wagner Group, a private military company owned by one Yevgeny Prigozhin, a key ally of to Putin. Prigozhin runs troll farms that have targeted US social media users in the past. Last fall he boasted about his efforts to meddle in American democracy.

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

“Gentlemen, we have interfered, we are interfering and we will interfere,” Prigozhin said last fall, on the eve of the 2022 US midterm elections, “carefully, precisely, surgically and in our own way, as we know, “Prigozhin . he said then.

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