Russian trolls are taking advantage of the free-for-all on far-right social media apps to spread pro-Kremlin propaganda — and they were particularly successful when impersonating fans of MAGA musician Kid Rock.
Those conclusions are from a new report by the social media tracking firm Graphika and Stanford University’s Internet Observatory. The researchers traced at least 35 accounts on the right-wing social apps to the Newsroom for American and European Based Citizens (NAEBC), a phony news organization linked to Russia’s troll factory. The fake accounts focused on ginning up support for failed Arizona gubernatorial candidate Kari Lake, attacking Democratic Senate candidates, and pushing bizarre conspiracy theories about Ukraine and the bankrupt cryptocurrency exchange FTX, among other topics.
Researchers found Russian-linked fake accounts posing as authentic American conservatives cross-posting content to personas on Truth Social, Gab, and Gettr. While right-wing social platforms like Gab and Parler have previously played host to Russian influence operations, the report marks the first documented case of Russian meddling on Truth Social, the social media app founded by Trump.
The 35 trolls amassed an audience of approximately 33,000 unique followers spread across Gab, Gettr, and Truth Social. The network’s memes and talking points mostly failed to recapture the large audiences they enjoyed during the 2016 presidential election, but a few — particularly those impersonating Kid Rock, a favorite target of Russian trolls — outperformed their troll persona colleagues.
One of the trolls, KidRockOfficial, created a fake Kid Rock fan account that even scored a repost from Donald Trump Jr., when the former president’s son (a friend of the real Kid Rock) shared it with his more than 6 million Instagram followers. After screenshotting the troll’s post — a memed conspiracy theory about gas prices and the bogus Covid cure Ivermectin originally posted to Gettr — and putting it on Instagram, Trump Jr. commented simply “Yup.”
Researchers linked the bogus “official” fan account on Gettr to Russia’s troll factory when they discovered an identical account on Gab — first identified by the FBI as run by Russia’s Internet Research Agency in 2020 — had resurfaced under the same handle to post the same content as its Gettr twin.
The network engaged in a “deliberate effort to capitalize on public concerns about foreign interference in U.S. elections,” according to Graphika and Stanford researchers. Shortly before the midterm elections, accounts in the network sarcastically identified themselves as “Russian trolls,” just as Yevgeny Prigozhin, the Russian oligarch behind the Internet Research Agency, was trying to raise his own profile within Russia with public admissions that his troll farm was behind meddling in U.S. politics.
The trolls stuck to themes familiar to previous Russian influence operations, including support for fringe or far-right candidates. The trolls backed Kari Lake, the Trump-backed failed Republican candidate for governor, creating a “war room” account for Lake that has since pivoted to echoing bogus voter-fraud claims in the wake of her defeat. In addition to hyping Lake, the trolls also attacked Democratic Senate candidates in battleground states, such Raphael Warnock in Georgia and John Fetterman in Pennsylvania.
Aside from domestic politics, researchers found the troll network also spread lies about Ukraine and its efforts to fend off Russia’s aggression. The accounts found by the researchers pounced on a bizarre but popular right-wing conspiracy theory that FTX, a cryptocurrency exchange that recently was bankrupt, was somehow secretly funneling money to Ukraine to give to Democratic politicians. The meme — stolen from authentic American fever swamps — illustrates how even on familiar and important subjects like Moscow’s war on Ukraine, the trolls were often trying to catch up with the American fringe rather than directing it.
“The tactics are exactly what we’ve come to expect from these actors since 2016. They use fake personas to imitate, infiltrate, and attempt to influence a specific online community,” Tyler Williams, director of investigations at Graphika, tells Rolling Stone. “These personas then coordinate across multiple platforms to amplify division and exacerbate existing tensions. This is precisely the behavior that gets them caught on Facebook and YouTube, but on alt-tech platforms they appear to enjoy relatively free rein.”
“This operation doesn’t appear to have evolved much beyond efforts we exposed by the same actors in 2020 and 2021. In terms of influence or impact, they mostly scream into an echo chamber on the fringes of the online conversation, with sporadic moments of ‘breakout.’ Despite public claims to the contrary by the actors themselves, we consistently see them struggle to achieve sustainable reach,” Williams added.
Representatives for Truth Social, Kid Rock, and Donald Trump Jr. did not immediately respond to questions from Rolling Stone. In an email, Gab founder Andrew Torba said that his company prohibits illegal content and cited a Nov. 30 post in which he claimed to have removed an unspecified “foreign state actor botnet operating on Gab.”
“If we had received notification from law enforcement that the account you mentioned was involved in illegal activity we would have investigated and taken action,” Torba wrote. “We do not care what Graphika has to say on the matter.”
Jason Miller, Gettr’s CEO, said in a statement that the company “takes a robust and proactive approach to moderation, and removed all Russia Today accounts earlier this year for violating [its] Terms of Service. Our platform always complies with local law-enforcement authorities and has been repeatedly praised for its approach to moderation by third-parties such as Bot Sentinel CEO Cristopher Bouzy.”
(Shortly after publication, the Kid Rock account on Gettr disappeared. Gettr did not respond to questions about whether it had removed the account.)
Stanford and Graphika researchers were able to link the accounts in their report to Russia’s troll factory, thanks to a lack of moderation on the right-wing apps and even sloppier operational security by the trolls themselves.
In 2020, the FBI identified accounts associated with NAEBC as fakes operated by the St. Petersburg-based Internet Research Agency, and a subsequent investigation by Meta attributed accounts in the network to “individuals associated with past activity by the Russian Internet Research Agency.” After Reuters blew the cover of the Russian-linked accounts on Gab, the operators behind them changed their account usernames and rebranded, surfacing to spread propaganda as renamed sock puppets. Graphika and Stanford could link other accounts to the same network as the rebranded Gab accounts through shared behavioral patterns, including the practice of sharing the same unique content at the same time, telltale grammatical mistakes common among native Russian speakers, and reused persona handles from previously attributed Russian sock puppet accounts. In one particularly embarrassing case, the trolls mistakenly included a Twitter screenshot that showed the app offering to translate the tweet into Russian, betraying the poster’s default language on the app.