Ron Nehring, campaign spokesman for Texas Sen. Ted Cruz during the 2016 presidential campaign, said Tuesday that online trolls of unclear origin flooded his Twitter feed whenever he was critical of then-candidate Donald Trump, but not when he attacked other GOP candidates.
“If I had said something critical about Marco Rubio, or John Kasich, or Ben Carson, there was no response on Twitter whatsoever, dead,” Nehring said about his cable news appearances on behalf of Cruz during last year’s campaign. “However, if I was critical of Donald Trump, I would get a torrent of negative comments on Twitter.”
Nehring said when he looked closely at those accounts, they fit into similar parameters: no personally identifiable profile picture, no location listed, and certain buzzwords in the profile description.
“The tone was always extremely hysterical, not something that I would see from typical conservative activists,” said Nehring, a former chairman of the California Republican Party and the Republican Party of San Diego County.
Nehring’s remarks came at a Heritage Foundation event on Russian use of social media to promote disinformation and propaganda. The panelists, experts from Ukraine, Moldova, Latvia and Lithuania, each described their experiences with what they described as Russian efforts to undermine public confidence in their governments, their media and information in general.
In response to Nehring’s concerns, Arnoldas Pikzirnis, a transatlantic fellow with the World Affairs Journal and a national security adviser to the prime minister of Lithuania, said that Russia wants to see its interference in U.S. elections become politicized, so that voters take increasingly radical positions on the issue. The more the president’s opponents raise the issue, the more his supporters would deny it happened, creating deep divisions between factions in future elections, he said.
“That could easily be done without any knowledge of a candidate,” he said.
In Ukraine, where much of the online public discourse is conducted on Facebook, Russian trolls use phony accounts to lodge complaints against thought leaders, making it difficult for authentic political voices to reach their desired audience, said Anna Korbut, deputy chief editor of The Ukrainian Week and also a transatlantic fellow.
Even on reasonable posts about controversial issues, troll accounts inject hysterical or hateful comments, and the discussion becomes emotionally charged and heated.
Readers “see the comments, they get charged, and in the end you have a storm of hate,” Korbut said.
Aureliu CioCio, the Republic of Moldova’s ambassador to the U.S., recalled hosting Ukraine’s Minister of Foreign Affairs during Ukraine’s last parliamentary election. When the visiting official met with members of Moldova’s Ukrainian minority, they were absolutely convinced that he was a representative of Nazi authorities, CioCio said.
“The Russian Federation is using in the media landscape all tools that they can, and even democratic institutions and tools,” he said. This includes spreading its own disinformation via media outlets such as Russia Today and Sputnik and Russian-language television stations, he said.
In these ways, both subtle and blatant, Russia is promoting its own interests and planting the idea that people should believe what Moscow says instead of their own government, CioCio said.
After the event, Nehring said he was concerned Russia will try to meddle in upcoming U.S. elections.
“They are simply on the side of chaos. They will tell one thing to people on the left, and another thing to people on the right, both just to get everyone stoked up and to turn us against one another,” he said.
“We saw this in 2016, we’re seeing this now in 2017 with the NFL and any other divisive issue they find. That will continue because the Russian government is bent on creating as much chaos as possible in the West, mistrust of all institutions, to give them breathing room when it comes to their expansionist plans.”
In the wake of recent revelations about Russia buying targeted ads on Facebook during the 2016 election and Twitter removing 200 accounts linked to Russian efforts to affect the election, Congress has asked Facebook, Twitter and Google to testify before committees investigating Russian involvement in the election.
Nehring called upon those companies to voluntarily step up their efforts to block Russian meddling via social media.
“Every American has a duty to work to ensure that agitators who are working for foreign governments are not given the opportunity to influence American public discourse or American elections,” he said. “Now that everyone is aware what the Russians are up to, these executives [at Facebook, Twitter and Google] have an obligation to take the additional measures necessary so that the consumers of information know their true source.”