Before the Ruskies started influencing U.S. elections, they cut their digital teeth spreading hoaxes about American food poisoning incidents.
At least that's the story in today's (Feb 21) Wall Street Journal, which reported on its front page about a 2015 Thanksgiving incident in which 200 people in New York City went to the hospital with food poisoning from a Koch Turkey Farms bird sold at Walmart. Except it never happened.
The fictitious story began on a cooking website forum, then spread to Twitter, where it was repeated hundreds of times, many apparently by legitimate U.S. citizens who were simply trying to warn others.
It was an early test of how digital misinformation could be spread to wreak havoc and damage the credibility of American government agencies and companies, the Journal and its sources said. And it proved successful enough that it was replicated with stories of contaminated groundwater, terrorist attacks, a chemical plant explosion – all fictitious – and eventually with stories defaming Hillary Clinton and others.
International cyber-crime experts and the Journal's own staff examined 221,641 tweets from long before the 2016 election tampering, all of them linked to now-blocked Twitter accounts. The investigation identified 2,170 Russian-controlled accounts, some suspected of links to Fancy Bear, the Russian military intelligence group that hacked the emails of Democratic party officials.
"Alice Norton" began the Thanksgiving incident on the cooking forum, saying her family was stricken after eating the turkey. Another suspect site, Proud to be Black, upped the ante by reporting 200 people went to New York City hospitals with turkey food poisoning.
"Russia-linked Twitter accounts kicked in … post[ing] at least 1,151 messages about the nonexistent food poisoning," the Journal reported. Wikipedia even picked up the story briefly, before deciding it was false.
USDA and New York health officials said they could find no cases of food poisoning from Thanksgiving 2015. Alice Norton has never been found and is believed to be fabricated. A spokesman for Koch Turkey Farms noted his company doesn't even sell turkeys to Walmart.