Twitter Told Congress This Random American Is a Russian Propaganda Troll
Robert Delaware is now part of the Congressional record, despite having no apparent ties to Russia.
Image: Shutterstock / Composition: Louise Matsakis
Update 11/6/17 11:34 AM: Twitter has re-activated Delaware's account. The company declined to comment about why it reinstated the account and about whether it would amend the list it sent to Congress.
Robert Delaware is a US citizen, a former Microsoft contractor, and an avid Freedom of Information Request (FOIA) filer. According to the United States Federal Government however, he's a Russian propaganda agent—at least on Twitter. As part of the social media company's investigation into Russia's meddling into the 2016 US presidential election, it deleted Delaware's account, and sent record of it to US lawmakers as evidence of foreign interference.
The problem is Delaware is actually an American—and has never even been to Russia. So how did his account get swept into a list of those believed to be connected to a Russian troll farm?
Representatives from Google, Facebook, and Twitter testified at several open hearings on Capitol Hill this week about how Russian-linked trolls used their platforms to influence the 2016 US presidential election and sow political unrest. As part of that process, the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence released a list of 2,753 suspended Twitter accounts the company believes to be linked to a Russian troll farm.
The committee said those handles "impersonate[ed] U.S. news entities, political parties, and groups focused on social and political issues," in a memo it released along with the accounts.
Included on the list is Delaware, under the handle @RobbyDelaware. Motherboard reviewed emails sent to Delaware by Twitter verifying that he was the owner of the handle or at least had access to the email account associated with it. Motherboard also verified that Robert Delaware was the person he purported to be by verifying his Facebook account.
The fact that Delaware was included in the cache sent to the US government indicates that real people are being swept up in Twitter's investigation into how Russia used its platform to influence US politics. Delaware's Twitter account is now part of the Congressional record as being linked to a Russian troll farm—even though he has no apparent ties to it.
"I would guess I am the only actual human who ended up on this list."
A Google cache as well as several news articles which aggregated his tweets show that Delaware talked about the journalist Don Lemon, a Microsoft chatbot, and used the hashtag #1980sin4words on Twitter. According to a Google cache, his bio said "I support the free movement of people, ideas and capital."
The cached version of his Twitter account shows Delaware tweeted about current events, as well as mundane events like having a cold. A screenshot from the Internet Archive also shows that he was tweeting about similar topics in 2012.
According to an email from Twitter to Delaware reviewed by Motherboard, Delaware's account was suspended two weeks ago, on October 17.
Delaware's life is far from connected to Russian propaganda efforts. He is a United States citizen and was born in California. In 2010, he moved to the country Georgia, and now resides there with a Georgian woman. He works as a commercial actor and an English instructor. He mainly used his Twitter account to tweet about books, movies, and television shows, he told me.
Delaware's account was the oldest included in the ones Twitter provided to US lawmakers, according to a security expert Motherboard spoke to that asked to remain anonymous citing professional concerns. Twitter assigns a unique ID number to each person when they join the network. Delaware's was 18710816. The number is an indication of the age of an account; you can use this website for example to calculate your own.
Other security researchers noticed the age of some of the accounts as well:
We don't know for certain why Delaware's account was banned or why it was on the list delivered to US lawmakers, and Twitter declined to tell me.
"We are confident in the methodology described in our written testimony to surface accounts associated with the Internet Research Agency. We encourage all Twitter users to take steps to reinforce security on their accounts, including enabling two-factor authentication, and to file a support request if they believe their account may have been compromised," a Twitter spokesperson told me in an email.
Delaware believes that his account might have been mistakenly connected to Russia for two reasons. For one, he lives in Georgia, which shares its northern border with Russia. For nearly seven years, he has tweeted from the country in which he lives. Delaware told me that he rarely tweeted about his intellectual pursuits (like filing FOIA requests) nor politics.
The second reason involves a Russian-created hoax from 2014. On September 11 of that year, Russian trolls spread a false rumor online about an explosion at the "Columbian Chemicals plant" in St. Mary Parish, Louisiana. The "Columbian Chemicals plant" doesn't exist. The trolls used text messages, YouTube, Wikipedia, Facebook, and Twitter to try and spread their hoax.
Almost a year later, journalist Adrian Chen published an extensive article in the New York Times connecting the hoax to a now-notorious Russian propaganda outfit, the Internet Research Agency. The accounts Twitter handed over to US lawmakers are believed to be connected to the same outfit.
On the day the trolls attempted to spread their explosion hoax, Twitter was flooded with hundreds of fake accounts tweeting under the hashtag #ColumbianChemicals, according to Chen's reporting.
Robert Delaware was one of the people using the hashtag that day. Not because he was a bot trying to spread a hoax, but because he knew the explosion was fake, he told me. "I immediately suspected it as a hoax. I tweeted to DHS [Department of Homeland Security] saying something like, 'what is this, please investigate,'" Delaware told me in a Twitter direct message from another account he has, @iPad_App_Bugs, where he documents minor iOS bugs that he finds. Delaware has had that account since 2016, but began using it more after @RobbyDelaware was suspended.
Delaware even communicated with Chen. The journalist confirmed with Motherboard that he was contacted by Delaware in a Twitter message. "I think I emailed him because he tweeted about [the hoax]," Chen told me. "And he emailed me back. I think we talked on the phone. He seemed fine."
After his account was suspended, Delaware tried a variety of methods to try and get it back, or at least figure out why he was banned in the first place. He opened a case with Twitter Support asking for information about his account, and he sent messages to various Twitter email accounts, according to messages Motherboard reviewed.
"I went to the thing where I entered in my account, and asked for support," Delaware told me. "I even cc'd other emails I found on the site. I searched on the internet, and someone on a blog wrote that Twitter has zero human customer support. That is why I cc'd advertising and jobs emails associated with Twitter."
In addition to @iPad_App_Bugs, Delaware also runs an account where he shares photos of his adopted country, Georgia. There, he sent a public plea to Twitter's CEO Jack Dorsey for help with his banned account:
As of Thursday, Twitter had not gotten back to Delaware, he said. Twitter did not immediately respond to a followup request for comment about why Delaware's support case has yet to be addressed.
"Still puzzled as to how I entered into the Congressional record," he told me. "I would guess I am the only actual human who ended up on this list."