Among the hundreds of Twitter handles that have been identified as being part of a Russian-linked misinformation campaign, two in particular stand out as attempting to appear as if they were Louisiana based: @BatonRougeVoice and @NewOrleansON.
Congress' investigation continues into Russia's reported attempts to sway or misinform the public in the run-up to the 2016 presidential election. Executives from Twitter and Facebook each testified during a recent congressional hearing related to the investigation. It's unclear how many, if any, of the now deleted 470 Russian-linked Facebook accounts were made to appear as if they were linked to Louisiana, but information that the company turned over to Congress estimates that 11.4 million American users likely saw the Russian-backed content.
A review of Twitter activity through replies and retweets from the two faux Louisiana Russian actors shows that each had an active presence, responding to the latest news in Baton Rouge and New Orleans – including spreading information about the removal of New Orleans' Confederate monuments and updates on the deaths of three law enforcement officers killed in a targeted mass shooting in Baton Rouge in summer 2016.
"Baton Rouge Voice" and "New Orleans Online" were among 2,752 accounts that Twitter identified as being human-directed and coming from Russia's Internet Research Agency, a shadowy company linked to the Kremlin and thought to have sought to spread political messages during the 2016 election. Another 36,746 accounts have been identified as "bot" accounts, or computer-directed though automated programs.
The Associated Press reported last week that it had examined 36,210 tweets from Aug. 31, 2015, to Nov. 10, 2016, posted by 382 of the human-directed Russian accounts that Twitter shared with congressional investigators, including Baton Rouge Voice. The AP was able to access an archive of the tweets, but the accounts have been deactivated so the theirs messages are no longer accessible to the public.
The Advocate reviewed dozens of replies to Baton Rouge Voice and New Orleans Online and various interactions with them.
The accounts seemed to know a lot about what was going on in Louisiana, but never directly personalized current events.
When three law enforcement officers were targeted and killed in a shooting at a gas station in July 2016, the Baton Rouge Voice account acknowledged the tragedy.
It also spread information about Louisiana's catastrophic flooding in August 2016 – occasionally directing people to information about resources.
The account was frequently tagged alongside legitimate news accounts when users sought to spread info to them. For example, Tyson Foods tagged the account alongside legitimate news outlets when the company wanted to spread the word about free meals at Cortana mall after the flood.
New Orleans Online similarly spread information that falsely relayed an intimate connection to Louisiana stories and issues.
It retweeted a video from U.S. Rep. Clay Higgins, a Port Barre Republican who faced a heavy backlash online after he filmed himself touring the Auschwitz-Birkenau Memorial and Museum, a former concentration camp in Poland.
It shared stories about Vice President Mike Pence's brief visit to Baton Rouge shortly after taking office. It also tweeted about issues in the state Legislature, including possible threats to funding for Taylor Opportunity Program for Students scholarships and New Orleans' decision to take down monuments honoring the Confederacy.
Roy Fletcher, a Republican political consultant active in Louisiana campaigns, engaged with the Baton Rouge Voice account on a couple of occasions. He didn't know anything about the account and was shocked to learn that it has been identified as a Russian directed.
"It's weird," Fletcher said. "The notion that a Russian bot account or whatever would attempt to sway our views here is crazy."
Fletcher said he doesn't remember anything in particular that stood out to him but during one exchange, it appears that the account was attempting to link Republican Scott Angelle, who unsuccessfully ran for governor, to Gov. John Bel Edwards, a Democrat. Angelle never endorsed Republican David Vitter in the gubernatorial election over Edwards, which has remained a sore topic among many in Republican circles.
Angelle, who now serves as director of the federal Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement – a position that President Donald Trump appointed him to earlier this year, unsuccessfully ran for the 3rd Congressional District seat against Higgins last year.
"(E)xcuse me but Angelle did not endorse Edwards or (V)itter," Fletcher wrote in a reply to Baton Rouge Voice in August 2016, during the Congressional campaign.
Fletcher said he's baffled by the exchange now knowing that it was a Russian agent's speculation about Angelle that prompted him to set the record straight.
"It's pretty damn freaky," Fletcher said.
A review of other Twitter exchanges with users shows both Baton Rouge Voice and New Orleans online often engaged with readers, encouraging follows to beef up its audience.
Fletcher said he doesn't remember what prompted him to follow the account, but he said he likely saw it shared in his timeline.
"It never dawned on me that they could be Russian," he said. "I didn't know what a Russian bot account was or that they were out there."