Russian Twitter trolls sent more than 12,000 tweets about the NFL and the national anthem from the end of 2014 through the middle of this year, reportsThe Wall Street Journal's Andrew Beaton.
According to the Beaton, the accounts were linked to the Internet Research Agency, a Russian and Kremlin-backed company that has been accused of attempting to encourage discord in the United States.
On Sept. 22, 2017 at a rally in Huntsville, Ala., President Donald Trump gave a speech where he called players protesting "son[s] of b------". His comments sparked a surge of tweets from the linked accounts.
According to the Beaton, on Sept. 23, there were 24 accounts that almost simultaneously tweeted: “VIDEO: Trump SHREDS NFL Anthem Protesters!” Hours later, the same accounts sent another like-minded tweet. Over the days that followed, there were thousands of tweets, mainly criticizing the protests. Analysis shows that 87% of the tweets featured a conservative-leaning message.
More than 12,000 tweets came from 491 accounts linked to the Internet Research Agency. The Wall Street Journal was provided the tweets by Clemson researchers after Twitter shut down the accounts following congressional investigations revealed their connection to the Internet Research Agency.
The protests during the national anthem started in August 2016 when former 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick refused to stand for the "Star-Spangled Banner" as a means of protesting racial inequality and police brutality. Dozens of other NFL players, as well as numerous other athletes across America joined him. The protests grew during the 2017 season after Trump criticized NFL players who chose to follow suit. Players responded by protesting en masse.
While the accounts have been shut down, Clemson researchers said active accounts that are strongly suspected to be Russian trolls continue to use sports topic to divide, including using the Nike campaign featuring Kaepernick and the U.S. Open final between Serena Williams and Naomi Osaka.