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Twitter’s Russian troll problem: There’s good news and bad news

Twitter’s Russian troll problem: There’s good news and bad news
[Photos: Tyler Lastovich/Unsplash; joshborup/Pixabay]

On Wednesday, Twitter released a collection of more than 10 million tweets related to thousands of accounts affiliated with Russia’s Internet Research Agency propaganda outfit, as well as hundreds more troll accounts, including many based in Iran.

The Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Lab took an advance look at the data and released a four-part report on its analysis. Among the lab’s findings:

  • Targeting both sides: Russian trolls targeting U.S. politics took on personas from both the left, including African American activists, and the right, including a white conservative male character using the name “Marlboro Man.” Their primary goal appears to have been to sow discord, rather than promote any particular side, presumably with a goal of weakening the United States. In some cases, they even posted anti-Russian content.
  • The Russian trolls were often effective, drawing tens of thousands of retweets on certain posts including from celebrity commentators like conservative Ann Coulter. When Twitter suspended many accounts linked to the group, they continued with other fake activist accounts.
  • Twitter’s efforts to take down accounts did help. The second wave of Russian troll accounts, now since taken down, posted much less than the original group. “Twitter’s suspension of over 2,500 Russian troll accounts in late 2017 disrupted the troll operation very significantly by suspending hundreds of its assets at the same time,” according to the report.
  • Self-interested: Iran’s trolling was mostly focused on promoting its own interests, including attacking regional rivals like Israel and Saudi Arabia. Some posts also attacked Trump and tried to woo supporters of Bernie Sanders.
  • Trolling isn’t easy: The Iranian trolling was less effective than the Russian posts, with most tweets getting limited engagement. This was partially due to posting styles less suited to the medium, according to the report. “Few of the accounts showed distinctive personalities: They largely shared online articles,” according to the report. “As such, they were a poor fit for Twitter, where personal comment tends to resonate more strongly than website shares.” Generally, many troll posts were ineffective, and “their operations were washed away in the firehose of Twitter.”

For now, there’s no reason to think political trolls are going away.

“Identifying future foreign influence operations, and reducing their impact, will demand awareness and resilience from the activist communities targeted, not just the platforms and the open source community,” according to the report.

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