NEW YORK –– Researchers have identified what they called a coordinated network of Twitter accounts that’s pushing false and misleading stories about election integrity with hashtags like #VoterFraud.

They found a core of 200 accounts that posted on Twitter or were mentioned in posts more than 140 million times in the past year, according to a research report published Saturday.

The findings don’t necessarily reflect a reprise of the Russian influence efforts in the 2016 election, nor are the posts clearly driven by automated bots, researchers say. But the network of accounts, which sounds off at relatively regular intervals has helped create an echo chamber to justify state-level ballot restrictions despite little evidence of voter fraud.

“There is a tragically ironic relationship between the perception that large groups of people are voting illegally,” while a small group of Twitter accounts is “wielding massive influence to spread disinformation, affecting the public’s understanding of voter fraud,” the report says. It was prepared by a volunteer group of researchers and technologists led by Guardians.ai, a New York startup focused on protecting pro-democracy organizations from information warfare and cyberattack.

Researchers couldn’t identify who was behind the coordination and said the patterns they found suggest that online influence operations have changed in subtle ways that avoid detection.

PATTERNS EMERGE

In mid-September, researchers at Guardians.ai began digging into the hashtag #VoterFraud.

Co-founders Brett Horvath and Alicia Serrani found spikes in the hashtag on two days in August, when mentions jumped from hundreds a day to more than 6,500. They looked back 12 months, and then three years, and found the pattern of increases repeating so regularly that the graph looked like a heartbeat.

They didn’t find much news to explain the spikes, but looking at the accounts using the hashtag, they noticed the same handles again and again. They also found similar spikes mentioning related hashtags like #VoterID and #ElectionFraud.

“It’s not just like, oh there’s these kind of suspicious accounts that tweet about normal stuff, and just happen to all tweet about voter fraud on the exact same day,” Horvath said. “They’re accounts that operate at the same time, in the same ways, and are also involved in influencing other divisive narratives.”

Accounts in the network have promoted the idea that billionaire George Soros is funding the migrant caravan “invasion”; issued warnings about buses of undocumented immigrants being paid to vote; and fueled “false flag” theories that Democrats orchestrated last month’s rash of package bombs to make President Trump look bad.

In 2016, voter fraud became one of the newly elected Trump’s first obsessions, when he claimed without evidence that millions of illegal votes gave Democrat Hillary Clinton the edge in the popular-vote count.

The liberal-leaning Brennan Center for Justice in New York calls voter fraud extraordinarily rare. The conservative Heritage Foundation, which maintains a database of election-fraud cases meant to demonstrate the dangers, lists 1,165 instances and 1,011 criminal convictions over about 40 years. (Heritage points out that those cases involve far more than 1,165 ballots, and says its list is not meant to be comprehensive.)

The specter of undocumented immigrants and phantom dead people casting ballots has driven legislation to tighten voting requirements in many states. Over the past two years, Arkansas and North Dakota passed voter ID bills while Georgia, Iowa, Indiana, New Hampshire and North Carolina enacted new restrictions, according to the Brennan Center.

Once the researchers noticed the heartbeat pattern and identified the accounts that pushed the spikes, they had questions. The accounts don’t look like fakes and many included photos of real people in their bio sections. Some have been around for many years, posting without much attention or many followers, though not necessarily always about politics.

Most had a significant surge, from little activity to thousands or tens of thousands of mentions in a day, according to the report. One account, @1776hotlips, joined Twitter in April and went from zero to sometimes tens of thousands of mentions a day, beginning Aug. 20 and continuing until Twitter suspended the account recently.

The technology and techniques used to identify bot-driven accounts that relay disinformation often rely on measures like the ratio of followers to accounts followed or volume of retweets, Horvath said. Groups of accounts that influence through large, sudden increases in replies and mentions may help evade such tools, he said.

Among these influential accounts, there are real people, posting out of deeply held beliefs, and the report says some of them might not realize they’re part of a broader influence network. “A bad actor coordinating large numbers of accounts could find this person’s tweets useful, then amplify those tweets through thousands of @mentions and replies,” the researchers wrote.

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