On the March 23 anniversary of the Affordable Care Act becoming law, Democrats attacked Republicans for trying to sabotage the health law and praised the embattled legislation.
So did Russian trolls.
“8 years ago today, President Obama signed the Affordable Care Act into law. Millions of Americans have gained access to health care. Thank you, Mr. President!” said a tweet linked to the Internet Research Agency, a Russian company engaged in an online influence campaign that typically seeks to pit one side against the other on controversial issues.
A newly identified group of nearly 10,000 tweets shows that while Russian trolls often focus on such hot-button issues as Hillary Clinton’s email or athletes kneeling during the national anthem, they also target substantive and divisive policy areas like health care.
Nearly 600 IRA-linked accounts posted to Twitter about the ACA and health policy from 2014 through this past May, with the most prolific ones tweeting hundreds of times, the new data show. One account, called TEN_GOP, rocketed from fewer than 1,000 followers to more than 138,000 in two years, sending 60 tweets that potentially reached followers more than four million times.
Researchers at Clemson University provided The Wall Street Journal with the set of about 9,800 tweets involving health policy and the ACA that the IRA posted over that period. An analysis by the Journal found that 80% of the tweets had conservative-leaning political messages, often disparaging the health law.
The accounts have been shut down by Twitter as congressional investigators unearthed their origin, but intelligence experts say the assault is continuing through similar accounts and channels. The tweets provide a snapshot of a continuing strategy, one that is likely now aimed at November’s midterm elections in which health care is playing a dominant role, experts said.
Tweeting by the IRA accounts peaked in spring 2017 and again that summer, when congressional Republicans mounted failed efforts to repeal the health law.
The IRA, based in St. Petersburg, seeks to use divisions over the health law to mobilize voters, pressure Congress and target specific lawmakers, the tweets suggest. The organization is seen by U.S. intelligence officials as a sophisticated, Kremlin-backed group that ran a surreptitious operation to influence the 2016 elections with a budget in the tens of millions of dollars.
The IRA is the focus of several federal and congressional investigations as it becomes increasingly clear how Russian propagandists have used social media to stoke tensions in the U.S.
A Twitter spokesman declined to comment for this article. Previously, Twitter has said it would improve communications with the political parties before the midterms and move rapidly to curb spam and abuse.
In many ways, the ACA and health policy were natural targets for the provocateurs. The ACA “was already an issue that divided America, and if Russians could throw fuel on the fire, it makes sense,” said Sen. Susan Collins (R., Maine). “It’s a systematic effort to weaken faith in our democracy. That’s why it’s so serious.”
A recent report in the American Journal of Public Health found that Russian trolls and bots have been spreading misinformation about vaccines, already the subject of unsubstantiated theories and rumors.
On the ACA, the Russian effort moved easily between supporting and opposing the health law depending on the political moment.
Pro-ACA tweets peaked around the spring of 2016, possibly aimed at fostering division between Mrs. Clinton and her presidential primary rival, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I., Vt.). Anti-ACA tweets intensified in mid-2017 as Republicans mounted their push to repeal the law, apparently seeking to capitalize on the emotions generated by that effort. “Let Obamacare crash & burn. Do not bail out insurance companies,” said a tweet from an IRA-linked account called JUSMASXTRT on Aug. 28, 2017.
The tweeters displayed political savvy, retweeting respected analysts and citing pop culture figures like singer Clay Aiken, who gained fame on “American Idol,” as ACA supporters. They latched onto ACA-related events, such as votes in Congress, urging followers to contact lawmakers and making far-fetched assertions, such as saying the health law was a weapon of mass destruction or more dangerous than Islamic State.
“The IRA consistently uses the ACA as a wedge issue to motivate their right-leaning followers,” said Darren Linvill, an associate professor of communication at Clemson University who, along with a colleague, provided the tweets used in the Journal’s analysis.
The Russian trolls also likely use topics like the ACA to gather personal information from Americans they can later exploit, experts said. They may follow up by encouraging them to vote—or not vote.
“One has to ask, what are they trying to do when they’re on both sides of an issue?” said Kathleen Hall Jamieson, director of the Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania. “When people like it, share it, you can collect the identification to send additional information.”
The technique works in part because of the harsh language that has become common regarding the health law on social media, experts said. Nicholas Bagley, an assistant law professor at the University of Michigan who focuses on health policy, said he tries to tune out the most extreme tweets and emails. “It can get extraordinarily heated,” he said.
While the trolls are disguised as American citizens, sometimes a Russian or even Soviet flavor peeks through, such as when the senders refer to Stalin or Marxism.
“As the ACA slowly sinks into the sunset the Marxists claim #DJT is sentencing people to death,” tweeted ADNNELST on Aug. 13, referring to President Donald J. Trump.
Then it linked to a website seeking volunteers for an all-civilian army.
Write to Stephanie Armour at [email protected]