Fires need fuel. In this era of political rage, a Twitter account that called itself the unofficial voice of Tennessee Republicans provided buckets of gasoline. Its pre-election tweets were a bottomless well of inflammatory misinformation: “Obama wants our children to be converted to Islam! Hillary will continue his mission.” A mysterious explosion in Washington, it said, had killed one of Mrs. Clinton’s aides, raising her “body count” to six. Another proclaimed, “Obama is the founder of ISIS.” The account, @TEN_GOP, eventually reached more than 130,000 followers — 10 times that of the official state Republican Party’s Twitter handle. It was one of the most popular political voices in Tennessee. But its lies, distortions and endorsements came from the other side of the world.
@TEN_GOP was a Russian troll account devoted to stoking division in America, according to a report earlier this month by RBC, a Russian media company with a history of independence. Twitter declined to even discuss the account, which had posted 10,000 tweets by the time it was finally shut down in August. That was more than a year after Republican officials in Tennessee had first complained about its misrepresentations to Twitter.
“It’s disappointing and disheartening to see how an outside actor can pinpoint areas of division in America and then exploit them,” said Brent Leatherwood, the former executive director of the Tennessee Republican Party. “You think we’re getting to a better place and then something like this throws a Molotov cocktail into it.”
Perhaps no form of communication has ever established itself so quickly and so thoroughly as social media. Hundreds of millions of people around the world have grown to rely on it for news and information. Now Twitter and Facebook are facing a moment of reckoning. They, as well as Google, are being called to account for their role in the deception and chicanery that has surrounded the 2016 campaign, especially from accounts linked to Russia.