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Russians deflected Trump bad news

Profile image for Ryan Nakashima and Barbara Ortutay
Ryan Nakashima and Barbara Ortutay, AP Technology Writers

SAN FRANCISCO -- Disguised Russian agents on Twitter rushed to deflect scandalous news about Donald Trump just before last year's presidential election while straining to refocus criticism on the mainstream media and Hillary Clinton's campaign, according to an Associated Press analysis of since-deleted accounts.

Tweets by Russia-backed accounts such as "America1st" and "BatonRougeVoice" on Oct. 7, 2016, actively pivoted away from news of an audio recording in which Trump made crude comments about groping women, and instead touted damaging emails hacked from Clinton's campaign chairman John Podesta.

Since early this year, the extent of Russian intrusion to help Trump and hurt Clinton in the election has been the subject of both congressional scrutiny and a criminal investigation by special counsel Robert Mueller. In particular, those investigations are looking into the possibility of collusion between the Trump campaign and the Russians.

AP's analysis illuminates the obvious strategy behind the Russian cyber meddling: swiftly react, distort and distract attention from any negative Trump news.

The AP examined 36,210 tweets from Aug. 31, 2015, to Nov. 10, 2016, posted by 382 of the Russian accounts that Twitter shared with congressional investigators last week. Twitter deactivated the accounts, deleting the tweets and making them inaccessible on the internet. But a limited selection of the accounts' Twitter activity was retrieved by matching account handles against an archive obtained by AP.

"MSM (the mainstream media) is at it again with Billy Bush recording ... What about telling Americans how Hillary defended a rapist and later laughed at his victim?" tweeted the America1st account, which had 25,045 followers at its peak, according to metadata in the archive.

The tweet went out the afternoon of Oct. 7, just hours after The Washington Post broke the story about Trump's comments to Bush, then host of Access Hollywood, about kissing, groping and trying to have sex with women, saying, "when you're a star, they let you do it."

Within an hour of the Post's story, WikiLeaks unleashed its own bombshell about hacked emails from Podesta's account, a release the Russian accounts had been foreshadowing for days.

"WikiLeaks' Assange signals release of documents before U.S. election," tweeted both "SpecialAffair" and "ScreamyMonkey" within a second of each other on Oct. 4. "SpecialAffair," an account describing itself as a "Political junkie in action," had 11,255 followers at the time. "ScreamyMonkey," self-described as a "First frontier.News aggregator," had 13,224. Both accounts were created within three days of each other in late December 2014.

Twitter handed over the handles of 2,752 accounts it identified as coming from Russia's Internet Research Agency to congressional investigators ahead of the social media giant's Oct. 31 and Nov. 1 appearances on Capitol Hill. It said 9 percent of the tweets were election-related but didn't make the tweets themselves public.