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Russian-Linked Bots Used U.S. Startups to Meddle in Elections

(Bloomberg) -- Operatives behind Russian-linked bots used tools from U.S. startups, including IFTTT Inc., to supercharge social-media misinformation campaigns and meddle in elections.

Data disclosed this week by Twitter Inc. showed that hundreds of accounts affiliated with the Russia-based Internet Research Agency used services offered by IFTTT, RoundTeam Inc. and Dlvr.it Inc. to automate and disperse their divisive messages more widely.

San Francisco-based IFTTT lets people connect different apps and automatically post content on multiple services. The company is backed by investors including Salesforce Ventures, IBM Ventures and Andreessen Horowitz, according to Crunchbase.

The majority of Russian-linked bot content dispersed via IFTTT contained a hyperlink redirecting readers to other websites and blogs, most of which have either been removed or no longer exist, according to the Twitter data.

The Russian-linked accounts were using IFTTT a lot late last year and early this year, possibly to disguise the origin of the information they were spreading, said Ben Nimmo, a senior fellow at the Digital Forensic Research Lab, a network of researchers studying disinformation. Iranian-linked bots also used the service, he added.

Large internet and social-media companies have come under intense scrutiny after Russia spread misinformation across their services to influence the 2016 U.S. presidential election and the U.K.’s Brexit vote. Less attention has been paid to services from smaller startups that some operatives also used to automate and disseminate their content.

"What’s interesting is that trolls are using an off-the-shelf American system to automate. That may be one way they were trying to hide their tracks," Nimmo said. "A lot of this is about side stepping the Twitter algorithm."

IFTTT co-founder Linden Tibbets said the startup "is actively investigating Twitter’s recent data set release and we intend to take thorough actions to remove and reduce such abuse where appropriate.” Of the more than 4,600 Twitter handles released in the data set, 256 were connected to IFTTT accounts and have now been suspended, according to the startup, which has more than 15 million users. A Twitter spokesman declined to comment.

RoundTeam automates the tasks of searching and sharing tweets and is based in San Francisco, according to Crunchbase. Portland, Oregon-based Dlvr.it, which is used by publishers, automatically posts content across different social media pages. The two startups did not respond to emails seeking comment on Friday.

IFTTT and services like it can be used to manipulate public opinion because they help bad actors magnify their political attacks, said Samuel Woolley, a research director at the non-profit Institute for the Future.

The data Twitter released are made up of 3,841 accounts affiliated with the Internet Research Agency, 770 other accounts potentially based in Iran, as well as 10 million tweets and more than 2 million images, videos and other media. The data showed that Twitter’s own products, like TweetDeck and its mobile apps for iPhone and Android, were also used by these accounts.

Earlier this year, Twitter updated TweetDeck and other services to stop users coordinating actions across multiple accounts. It also adjusted rules to prohibit the use of automation to post identical or substantially similar content.

"Twitter has sent a clear message to developers that automation should not be abused," Nimmo said. "But you’ll always find people trying to get around this system."

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