Of all of the tech platforms that Russian trolls infiltrated during the run-up to the 2016 election in the United States, Reddit has been among the least forthcoming. While Facebook, Twitter, and Google have reluctantly testified before Congress and published frequent—if often incomplete—blog posts about the way Russia’s Internet Research Agency abused their services, Reddit CEO Steve Huffman didn’t fully fess up about the hundreds of Russian troll accounts the company deleted until just this week, following a Daily Beast investigation that shed new light on Reddit’s exposure to Russian propaganda. Even now, a source close to the Senate Intelligence Committee tells WIRED that Reddit has yet to provide the committee with any documentation.
But traces of Russian trolls activity remain on Reddit, providing some hints of their strategy on that platform without the company’s help. Columbia University researcher Jonathan Albright has found more than a thousand posts submitted by a small coterie of accounts between the spring and fall of 2016 linking back to phony websites created by the IRA. These posts were still live on Reddit as of Friday morning.
‘Reddit is a reaction center of the ecosystem.’
Jonathan Albright, Columbia University
Uploaded at a frenetic pace during 2016, the posts link predominantly to the websites DoNotShoot.US and BlackMattersUS.com, both of which are still active and were created by the IRA not only to spread divisive propaganda, but to collect personally identifying information about American citizens who visited the sites. (WIRED doesn’t suggest visiting these sites, which still actively use ad trackers.) Several Reddit accounts that submitted the bulk of these links—in some cases at a rate of 25 posts in a single hour—have since been deactivated, presumably as part of Reddit’s previously announced purge. Two were deactivated only after WIRED asked Reddit about them Thursday. But the articles they posted—some of which garnered hundreds of upvotes and dozens of comments—remain.
WIRED asked Reddit about these suspicious accounts, why the links remain live, whether Reddit has alerted users who interacted with these accounts or shared these links, and why the company hasn’t provided documentation to the Senate Intelligence Committee. In response, Reddit spokesperson Anna Soellner said, “At this time I will need to refer you to Steve’s blog post which goes into some detail. Again, we continue to investigate.” Huffman’s blog post does not provide any answers to those questions. (Advance Publications, which owns WIRED publisher Condé Nast, is a Reddit shareholder).
Of the top 452 posts that link out to DoNotShoot.us, about 440 were uploaded by just five accounts, including three that were already deactivated when WIRED began investigating: Kevin_Milner, Peter_Hurst, and King_Andersons. Some of the accounts that shared hundreds of links to DoNotShoot.us, including Maineylops and Maxwel_Terry—the two that Reddit deactivated following WIRED’s inquiry—had been dormant since 2016.
This same network of accounts was also responsible for sharing the bulk of the top 661 Reddit posts that linked out to BlackMattersUS.com. Several of them were created in the spring of 2016, and have not posted anything in nearly two years. This timing aligns closely with the timeline special counsel Robert Mueller laid out in his indictment of Internet Research Agency trolls, which notes that the Agency began placing election-related ads on social media sites by around April 2016.
The articles these Reddit accounts posted deal largely with police brutality and systemic racism in America, and were submitted strategically to subreddits like r/Bad_Cop_No_Donut and r/copwatch. They included headlines like “Most Cleveland Cops Won’t Be Wearing Body Cams During RNC” and “Police officer is torturing an 8 year-old boy while he is crying in agony.” That post received 332 upvotes and 65 comments. Some links also appeared on anti-Hillary Clinton subreddits like r/HillaryForPrison. One post that received nearly 300 upvotes read, “‘We Won’t Vote For Hillary,’ BLM Protesters Chant.”
“Reddit is a reaction center of the ecosystem,” says Albright, who has amassed troves of data on the Agency’s influence campaign on social platforms and on their own websites. “It’s not a content repository. It’s a link promotion and awareness mechanism for influencers, but not the kind who’d be on Twitter.”
Many of the articles were also posted to subreddits for specific states, including key swing states, like r/Michigan and r/Wisconsin.
The most popular articles posted by these accounts racked up dozens of comments and hundreds of upvotes, which are Redditors’ way of showing approval for stories. In rare cases, the suspicious accounts would leave comments under the posts in awkward English. Kevin_Milner left this comment on a post he uploaded with the headline, “James Comey, FBI Director, claims that the spike in crimes is a result of cops being afraid to do their jobs.”
“Just imagine: somebody does something correct and very useful for society,” Kevin_Milner wrote. “Of course he will not mind cameras. Seems, somebody is afraid that his misconducts gonna become public domain.”
Peter_Hurst left the following comment on a post with 139 upvotes that he uploaded called, “Cops slam a blind man to the ground.”
“The description of a dangerous suspect? May this cop thought that this black male is an agent of enemy intelligence disguised as a disabled person? Modern police may blindly follow the instructions. Human sense is not for them.”
The accounts shared plenty of real news articles, documenting injustices that legitimate news outlets also reported. But rather than linking, for instance, to the New York Daily News article about a woman who was allegedly raped by a police officer, the accounts linked directly to the Agency’s own websites, which repurposed the news as their own. These sites contained the kind of ad-tracking technology commercial marketers use to follow people who have visited their websites around the internet. Instead of more effectively selling visitors a new pair of boots, though, the objective was to feed their information to a Russia propaganda group. Some of the Agency’s websites also prompted visitors to subscribe or donate using their personally identifying information.
In other words, these accounts capitalized on other people’s pain—and on the rage and empathy of Reddit users—to help subvert the democratic process.
Exhibit A: Kevin_Milner
Though these accounts have now been deactivated, both Archive.org and Albright have retained a few snapshots of what they posted on a daily basis. The account Kevin_Milner paints a particularly illustrative picture of the presumed Russian trolls’ strategy on Reddit.
On August 8, 2016, for instance, Kevin_Milner posted 25 articles to Reddit in the span of an hour. The account posted a BlackMattersUs.com article entitled “Are The Clintons Playing Their Usual Election Tricks On Blacks?” to the subreddits r/HillaryforPrison, r/Conservative, and r/Republican.
Not all of the links directed to IRA websites. During that hour, Kevin_Milner also submitted two other posts to r/HillaryforPrison. One was a 2013 article in The New York Times about Clinton being discharged from the hospital after a blood clot. The other was a Washington Post piece with the headline, “As senator, Clinton promised 200,000 jobs in Upstate New York. Her efforts fell flat.”
The posts weren’t all inflammatory, either. Many of Kevin_Milner’s posts and comments seemed intended to ingratiate himself with Redditors. In July 2016, the account posted an article to r/Atlanta about Jimmy and Rosalynn Carter’s 70th wedding anniversary. In response to a comment that said “God bless you Jimmy and Rosalynn!” Kevin_Milner wrote simply, “From your lips to God’s ears.”
This strategy yielded Kevin_Milner nearly 28,000 so-called Link Karma—which equates to the number of upvotes a
user receives—in just three months. Some subreddits require posters to have a minimum karma score. Albright notes that Kevin_Milner’s score was unusually high for such a short period of time.
The pseudonym Kevin_Milner also popped up in a 2016 investigation by the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project, which found that Russian agents were using the Obama administration’s We the People petition tool to push for a pro-Kremlin agenda.
The most popular articles posted by these accounts racked up dozens of comments and hundreds of upvotes.
One petition in particular called for an investigation into alleged payments from a Russian businessman to President Obama. The petition linked to a website called Scitechnation.com. That website, which features the same web design as BlackMattersUS.com, published an article about the supposed payments. As OCCRP noted in its report, Kevin_Milner went on to post that article on Reddit 15 times with the headline, “Obama was sponsored by Russian opposition.”
OCCRP reporters contacted Kevin_Milner to ask him how he found Scitechnation.com in the first place. The owner of the account replied: “To tell the truth, I do not remember how exactly I did it. I make lots of posts every day. But news about Obama and Russians seemed funny to me.”
Milner also told OCCRP he was being paid, but declined to name the person who paid him. “I will be honest with you; I’ve got a task on freelance. I had to make 15 posts with that link…There was a customer, I don’t have any personal information, there was a nickname. Who gives your own real info for similar cases? Nobody.”
Whoever Kevin_Milner was, it now seems apparent that he (or she) was not actually who he claimed. It also seems clear that this account didn’t act alone. Reddit hasn’t come close to purging Russian troll content or accounts from its site. Some accounts that exhibited much the same behavior as Kevin_Milner remained live, though dormant, as recently as this week. Meanwhile, unwitting Redditors could still find and share the propaganda content, which was still being uploaded as recently as eight months ago. Reddit would not comment on whether it’s made any effort to inform the ones who already have.
Albright, for one, finds Reddit’s response lackluster. As other tech companies have spent hours testifying before Congress, Reddit has managed to fly largely under the radar. And yet the IRA seems to have created a densely connected network of accounts and websites on the platform. In some cases, for instance, the very content that the likely trolls link to on Reddit has already been wiped from sites like YouTube. The more these companies share what they’ve found with each other—and with the public—the better prepared they’ll be to protect their audiences from whatever comes next.