Earlier this month, The New York Times reported what many Americans probably already assumed: President Trump "tends to scroll through the replies to his tweets, and will often pick up what he has seen there."
In May, Politico reported that, in a meeting with lawmakers about his Syria strategy, President Trump invited his adviser Dan Scavino to testify to the support that Trump's withdrawal plan had garnered online. "Tell them how popular my plan is," Trump reportedly asked the man responsible for managing the president's social media presence.
Combined, these reports reveal the heavy weight the president places on the opinion of Twitter, and specifically the replies. "He is particularly receptive to tweets that reinforce his own views," according to The Times' story. Needless to say, this reliance on social media feedback to shape foreign policy outcomes is ill-advised and reckless. But what's more important is that this behavior exposes — and almost surely has already exposed — the U.S. president to manipulation by foreign governments.
Last year, my colleague Ethan Fecht and I published a study of a Russian disinformation campaign on Twitter, which showed that Moscow attempted to influence American policy on Syria by creating a slew of Twitter accounts masquerading as Americans. Specifically, they spent the week between the April 7, 2018 chemical attack in Douma, Syria and the April 13 U.S. retaliatory strike attempting to dissuade such a strike by changing the social media discussion.
We found that the single most common tactic used by these "trolls" was to reply to the president's tweets while impersonating an American Trump supporter; they framed themselves as only disagreeing with him on this single policy issue. At the time of our research, we concluded that these Russian agents were attempting to influence other social media users — not the president himself — in order to manipulate the broader conversation, and perhaps indirectly influence the president's reasoning on Syrian intervention.
However, this new reporting on just how much Trump relies on Twitter to gauge public opinion strongly suggests that these operations may have directly influenced the president in the past. Moreover, it provides good reason for the Kremlin to believe that it should engage in its social media disinformation efforts more aggressively. If the president has been actively monitoring the social media responses to his policy proposals, he almost certainly encountered Kremlin-controlled "trolls" spreading Moscow's viewpoint on policies, rather than only reading the thoughts of genuine Americans. Our study found that up to 20 percent of accounts purporting to be Americans and overtly objecting to Trump's planned Syria intervention during the time period we examined were likely controlled by Russian actors.
An identified "troll" responding to President Trump in an attempt to influence his policy on Syria. The account was filled with excessive pro-American imagery and posts — common features of accounts managed by Moscow.
While it's impossible to know if the president actually was influenced by Russian propaganda in determining his Syria strategy, either in response to the Douma chemical attack or later when considering the withdrawal of U.S. forces, what's more certain is that recent revelations of the weight that Trump gives social media responses from average users will have long-term implications for the Kremlin's disinformation strategy. Russia currently casts a wide net in employing various "active measure" strategies, but now that Moscow can be sure that Trump is personally invested in the responses to his policies found on social media, it will likely heighten its emphasis on the specific disinformation tactic we identified.
Another identified "troll" posing as a Trump supporter. Our study concluded that posing as a supporter of the president was the most effective way to gain credibility among other, genuine Trump supporters. It was also the most common tactic seen in the disinformation campaign in support of Syria's Assad regime. The revelation that the president is hyper-focused on social media responses suggests that this tactic may also gain the troll credibility with the president.
Crucially, these examples show Russia's tactics have included disinformation campaigns aimed at shaping a single policy, rather than the more general campaign to "sow division" which was exposed and widely discussed in 2016. The Syria tweets were not an isolated operation either; according to an investigation by the Digital Forensic Research Lab, Russia attempted the same thing in the aftermath of the poisoning of Sergie Skripal in March 2018. In an attempt to obfuscate responsibility for the incident and avoid retribution, Russian trolls claimed that the attack was in fact a "false flag" manufactured by the west.
An identified "troll" responding to the president while posing as a veteran in an attempt to dissuade him from launching an attack on Syria.
Now, the recent revelations about the weight President Trump places on the opinion of Twitter users have made it clear the president has likely been subject to this type of operation, which will only encourage Russia and potentially other bad actors to further hone their efforts. Trump's preoccupation with approval on social media is no laughing matter, it places U.S. foreign policy at serious risk of being steered by the Kremlin.