McCain Frequent Target of Russian Social Media Trolls in Trump Era

Kremlin-linked accounts often acted as megaphone for right-wing critics of McCain

Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., was the frequent target of a Russian smear campaign on social media. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., was the frequent target of a Russian smear campaign on social media. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Posted February 28, 2018 at 12:10pm

As federal investigators continue to pursue Russian interference in the 2016 elections, the picture is coming into clearer focus on how Kremlin-linked entities have continued to sow political discord in the U.S. on social media.

Russian troll accounts on Twitter repeatedly hammered maverick Republicans like Sens. John McCain of Arizona and Lindsey Graham of South Carolina for being “traitors” and “RINOs” (Republicans in name only) any time they disagreed with President Donald Trump, the Arizona Republic found after reviewing an NBC database.

On Feb. 16, a federal grand jury indicted 13 Russian nationals and the Internet Research Agency for working to undermine and sway the 2016 U.S. elections. Special Counsel Robert S. Mueller described the Internet Research Agency as a “Russian organization engaged in operations to interfere with elections and political processes.”

Twitter has been scrubbing its platforms to purge troll accounts linked to such entities. But NBC News retrieved more than 200,000 of the Russian-linked tweets and published them online.

One such account, now suspended, at one point retweeted a March 12, 2017, tweet from still-active account @izzysroses: “McCain at this point has to be recalled and/or Sensored (sic) he is obstructing this admin at everyturn! out of control!”

The Russian troll accounts often acted as an echo chamber.

“Time to retire you senile old scumbag traitor!” a now-defunct account tweeted at McCain, as others that have since been deactivated retweeted.

Watch: Intelligence Officials Aware of Russian Activity Aimed at 2018 Elections

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“It’s no surprise Vladimir Putin’s troll factory has made one of its top targets Senator McCain, who has led the effort in Congress to fight Russian aggression, human-rights abuses and corruption,” McCain spokeswoman Julie Tarallo told The Republic in an emailed statement. “He continues working to ensure Russia pays a price for its attack on our democracy while pushing America’s national security leaders to finally strengthen our defenses against foreign interference in cyberspace.”

Facebook revealed in October that Russians reached roughly 10 million users with ads targeting the U.S. electoral process, including one that falsely purported McCain met with leaders of the Islamic State in 2013.

“Putin’s Russia has no meaningful allies, so it seeks to sow dissent among us and divide us from each other,” McCain said in a statement in the following days. “Putin knows that his power and influence is inferior to ours, so he seeks to subvert us, erode our will to resist, and terrorize us into passivity. Putin knows he has little to offer the world beyond selfishness and fear, so he seeks to undermine our confidence in ourselves and our belief in our own values.”