Shortly after the election, academic and corporate clients hired him to track the proliferation of “fake news” — that is, unequivocally false content. He confined his search to social accounts that shared fake news at least 10 times during the last month of the campaign. This September, in his airy, loft-style office suite on the West Side of Manhattan, he called up the results of the study on a laptop screen. They were visualized as a black sphere on which each of the 14,000 fake-news-spreading accounts appeared as a dot, grouped and color-coded according to ideological affiliation. The sphere was alive with bursts of purple (“U.S. Conservative”), green (“U.S. Far Left”), pink (“Pro-Russia/WikiLeaks”), orange (“International Right”) and blue (“Trump Core”).
Within the fake-news network, Kelly explained, RT was high on the list of most-followed accounts, but it was not the highest — it ranked No. 117 out of roughly 12,000 accounts he was tracking. Its website was the 12th-most-cited by the fake-news consumers and purveyors — ahead of The New York Times and The Washington Post but behind Breitbart and Infowars.
What was more interesting was who followed RT. It drew substantially from all quadrants of Kelly’s fake-news universe — Trump supporters and Bernie Sanders supporters, Occupy Wall Streeters and libertarians — which made it something of a rarity. “The Russians aren’t just pumping up the right wing in America,” Kelly said. “They’re also pumping up left-wing stuff — they’re basically trying to pump up the fringe at the expense of the middle.”
Nearly 20 percent of the fake-news-spreading accounts, Kelly’s analysis determined, were automated bot accounts, of the sort the American intelligence assessment claimed were working in tandem with RT and Sputnik. But who was operating them was unclear — and regardless, they were far outnumbered by accounts that appeared to belong to real human beings, reading and circulating content that appealed to them. In this paranoid, polarized and ill-informed subset of American news consumers, RT’s audience crossed all ideological boundaries.