Russian Twitter trolls tested out multiple techniques to disrupt U.S. election

A new analysis uses a cache of tweets released by Twitter to track how Russian agents tested out various strategies in order to divide Americans and disrupt the 2016 U.S. presidential election.

Research shows how trolls figured out the best ways to attract and divide American followers

A new analysis takes a closer look at the techniques Russian-backed Twitter trolls used to try to disrupt the 2016 U.S. presidential election. (Thomas White/Reuters)

Russian agents tweeted about everyday topics like sports or trending hashtags to build followers, before switching to more divisive topics as part of a campaign to disrupt the 2016 U.S. presidential election, a new analysis has found.

The research provides a detailed look inside Russia's efforts on Twitter to interfere with the election, showing that the Internet Research Agency, an operation based in St. Petersburg with ties to Kremlin intelligence, spent years testing out various techniques to gain followers and command attention, in order to execute the campaign. 

Russian IRA-backed Twitter accounts ran automatically at first, and were later taken over by real people, according to the paper published online Monday in Defence Strategic Communications, an academic journal published by the NATO Strategic Communications Centre of Excellence.

Using a dataset released by Twitter last year, the paper's authors created a data analysis and visualization of the networks between Russian IRA Twitter accounts and hashtags, such as #BlackLivesMatter, tracking how these relationships changed over time.

The timeline analysis reveals how Russian agents tested out different strategies to create influential accounts. By tracking over time, the researchers could see the techniques succeed or be abandoned. 

"That bird's-eye view, we think, gives it a lot of richness and helps us understand what they were doing more deeply," said Alexa Pavliuc, a data science graduate student at City, University of London and co-author of the paper (Pavliuc previously worked for the CBC as a research analyst). "Other analyses might put a lot of importance on some things that, in a context-rich timeline like ours, we can see was only used for a couple of months."

'Survival of the fittest'

The analysis shows that a "law of survival of the fittest" dictated which accounts would continue to be used and which would be dropped. There is evidence of several different tactics being used to try to gain followers by tweeting about innocuous topics such as sports, local news and trending hashtags. If an account was successful in attracting followers, it would later be used to retweet other accounts tweeting about contentious issues such as the Black Lives Matter movement.

Some accounts, such as a handful that mass-tweeted about fitness topics for a few months, weren't successful at attracting followers and were ultimately abandoned by the Russian IRA.

Another tactic identified was creating fake news accounts styled to look like local news organizations, such as @todaypittsburgh, in order to mislead followers into engaging with disinformation.

Previous research has concluded that the goal of the Russian campaign was not to sway voters one way or another, but to stoke debate and division among Americans. In a United States indictment against the Russian IRA, special counsel Robert Mueller wrote that the group "had a strategic goal to sow discord in the U.S. political system."

While these kinds of analyses provide valuable insight after the fact, it is near impossible for academics or even government agencies to track or prevent this kind of disinformation campaign in real time without the co-operation of social media platforms, according to co-author Charles Kriel, special adviser to the U.K. House of Commons select committees on disinformation, and addictive technologies.

Given the lack of formal commitments from social media platforms to help prevent the spread of disinformation during the Canadian election, Kriel said voters should be vigilant and not assume Canada won't be the target of a similar campaign.

"In a way, it almost doesn't matter if your country is of material interest to Putin or Russia or the Kremlin. If you are a democracy, it is in the Kremlin's interest to sow chaos," Kriel said. "You absolutely have to expect it."


Kaleigh Rogers

Senior Reporter

Kaleigh Rogers is a senior reporter with CBC news covering disinformation online.


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