Mitt Romney is the latest political target of Russian trolls and bots

As soon as Utah senator Orrin Hatch announced he would retire this year, speculation mounted (paywall) that Mitt Romney, a longtime critic of president Donald Trump, would vie for his place.

Alongside that speculation came a now familiar force in US politics: Russian bots and trolls. Tweets from Russian accounts with the hashtag #neverromney—echoing the “Never Trump” movement to which Romney was tied during 2016 presidential election—have reportedly exploded since Hatch’s statement.

Russia-linked #neverromney tweets are up 2,500% in the last 48 hours, according to Hamilton 68, a project run by the German Marshall Fund think tank that tracks tweets “tied to Russia-linked influence networks.” Tweets about Mitt Romney, who was the 2012 Republican presidential nominee, have soared by 14,400%.

Russian bots and troll factories are now notorious for backing Trump in the 2016 presidential election—Twitter deactivated 2,752 supposedly Russia-linked accounts at the end of last year. The Russian-backed rise of #neverromney seems another sign that they will continue to support his needs in the House and Senate midterms in 2018.

Generally, tweets under the #neverromney hashtag attack him for opposing Trump in the presidential election, for his loss to president Obama in the 2012 election, or for making a U-turn when it looked like Trump might offer him the secretary of State job.

After the devastating loss of a Senate seat to a Democrat in deep-red Alabama in December, Trump put heavy pressure on the 83-year-old Hatch to run for his seat again, in order to stop Romney becoming a thorn in his side in Washington. Trump came second in the Utah Republican primary to senator Ted Cruz, after Romney campaigned for Utah voters to oppose Trump.

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