After months of silence, Tumblr Friday released a list of 84 usernames and their aliases that it says were connected to “state-sponsored disinformation and propaganda campaigns.” It’s the first time the company has publicly acknowledged what journalists and researchers have known now for months: Russian trolls also used Tumblr to spread their divisive memes and gifs, reportedly to the tune of hundreds of thousands of interactions.
“Democracy requires transparency and an informed electorate, and we take our responsibilities very seriously,” Tumblr wrote in a brief introduction to the list. “We aggressively monitor Tumblr for signs of state-sponsored disinformation campaigns, and take the appropriate action when we uncover anything.” A company spokesperson declined to answer follow-up questions about what form that monitoring takes, how comprehensive the current list is, and what took Tumblr so long to make this information public.
‘It was one of the biggest components of trying to reach young black youth in urban communities.’
Jonathan Alrbight, Tow Center for Journalism
While Facebook, Twitter, and Google have all testified before Congress about the ways trolls from the Russian Internet Research Agency abused their platforms to create political chaos during the 2016 election, Tumblr has remained remarkably silent on the matter. In fact, when researcher Jonathan Albright told Buzzfeed about IRA-related content on Tumblr, the blogging company and its parent business Oath offered no comment at all, despite reportedly opening Buzzfeed’s emails more than 290 times.
Albright, who has amassed a trove of IRA-linked content from across the web, stumbled on the Tumblr posts while he was analyzing Russia’s trolling Facebook and Twitter content. He noticed a large percentage of posts on those sites linked to Tumblr. In particular, he found an account called 4mysquad that he says, “brought out a universe of propaganda.”
“It was huge,” Albright says. “It was one of the biggest components of trying to reach young black youth in urban communities.”
Tumblr’s list of usernames, which includes 4mysquad, bears out both that influence and focus. Among the accounts are names like bleepthepolice, blacknproud, blackness-by-your-side, and black-to-the-bones. One particularly disturbing post Albright unearthed from 4mysquad featured a GIF of a black girl being sexually assaulted by a police officer. The description for the video said that the officer in question was a member of NYPD; he was in fact a police officer in South Africa.
While the accounts are no longer active, several of them were archived by the Wayback Machine, offering at least a partial glimpse into the strategy behind the disinformation campaigns. As on Facebook and Reddit, the Russian-backed accounts mixed general interest memes and GIFs with more politically charged content. An IRA account that went by “thetrippytrip,” for instance, focused largely on race issues in the months leading up to the election, but occasionally posted eclectic artworks as well.
While Tumblr posts often don’t require an expansive textual element, the accounts do appear to have had a spotty command of English grammar. The IRA account “bastardpigeon,” previously known as “pigeonbastard,” appears to have created a meme that includes the just-off phrase “What Motto Do We See On Police Cars.”
One language-challenged banned account also stands out as particularly cheeky: stopropaganda, which purportedly “created this blog to dedicate my free time combating the propaganda of terrorism.” In a 2015 post, the state-sponsored troll behind stopropaganda crafted a knowing message: “If you have questions or suggestions, please contact me, I am ready to dialogue. Media is a powerful weapon in the hands of terrorists, do not underestimate this tool.”
Not surprisingly, the accounts often promoted each others’ posts, in an apparently successful effort to expand their reach. They also mostly appear to have continued posting long after the election, a reminder that, as intelligence officials have repeatedly warned, Russia’s efforts to subvert US democracy have continued unabated.
‘Media is a powerful weapon in the hands of terrorists, do not underestimate this tool.’
Russian Troll ‘Stopropoganda’
Tumblr is not the only tech company that has tried to fly under the radar as its larger counterparts face regular scrutiny in Congress and in the press. Earlier this month, Reddit revealed it too had deleted hundreds of accounts with ties to the Internet Research Agency. A WIRED investigation found more than a thousand links to Russian propaganda websites are still live on Reddit, and unearthed two suspicious accounts that Reddit immediately shut down.
It’s unclear how many Russian accounts, if any, continue to operate on Tumblr. Given the number of accounts that flooded Facebook, Twitter, and Reddit, it seems hard to imagine that the IRA’s Tumblr efforts stopped at 84. Tumblr says it “will be maintaining” the current list, indicating other accounts may well join it.