When Claudia Lopez uploaded a video to YouTube on April 4 that showed a women in Dallas threatening to call the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement after Lopez parked her taco truck near the woman’s home, it quickly received attention.
The video accumulated more than 173,000 views while making its way through Twitter and other social media platforms, with many users condemning the woman nicknamed “Taco Truck Tammy” but some people also questioning why the truck had been parked on the residential street.
The video, however, appears to have also attracted the attention of foreign powers looking to sow discord online, according to two researchers at Clemson University who say Twitter users affiliated with the Russian government were responsible for helping make the video an internet hit.
At least two Twitter accounts linked to Russia’s Internet Research Agency, @Dany_xoo and @Powerlisadoyle, published content that combined received tens of thousands of retweets, data by Darren Linvill and Patrick Warren shows, providing an example into how the Russian government continues to use social media to try to influence public discussion around issues in the United States.
Russian internet trolls “like taking these stories that are examples of somebody being stupid or potentially racist and inflating them,” Linvill said. “Regardless of how common (an incident) is, they want to make it seem that it is more common and are trying to drive a wedge into society even deeper.”
A tweet by the @Danny_xoo user published on April 5, for example, described the scene in Dallas, ending with “Twitter, you know what to do.” The tweet received more than 33,000 retweets, driving conversation on the platform that reached a total of more than 60,000 tweets, according to data from the Clemson researchers.
Following the online activity, various news organizations wrote about the incident, and the Dallas chapter of the League of United Latin American Citizens organized a protest. Twitter also suspended both the @Danny_xoo and @Powerlisadoyle accounts.
Linvill and Warren have studied disinformation tactics on social media since 2017 and have been cited or written about the subject on news sites such as the Washington Post and the ABC News-owned FiveThirtyEight website.
The researchers say they identify patterns used by Russia government-affiliated accounts on social media to track activity. They use research tools that analyze similarities between accounts and also refer to a dataset of content available on Twitter that the platform says it believes “resulted from potentially state-backed information operations on our service.”
Disinformation spread by Russia’s state-backed accounts on Twitter, Facebook and other platforms has been written widely since the 2016 presidential election, when American intelligence officials say Russia used various tactics online to try and cause disharmony among the voting public. Activity happened throughout the country, including in Texas, where law enforcement experts say a phony November 2015 rally planned for Houston provided some of the earliest evidence that Russians attempted to interfere in the 2016 election.
Since then, Twitter, Facebook and others have also self-reported on the effort by the Russian government to infiltrate online discussion in the U.S., which has included a flood of tweets, fake accounts and phony news articles, and the platforms have implemented several tactics to try and improve tracking.
But misinformation continues. And in many ways, the threat could be worse now than, according to Linvill.
It’s not just the Russians anymore, Linvill Said. State agencies from China, Venezuela, Iran, Saudi Arabia and others are mimicking the strategies set forth by Russia.
“It’s incredibly hard to control,” Linvill said. “The floodgates are open.”