Monday, 18 February 2019

Russian Troll Factory: Sketches of a Propaganda Campaign

When Twitter shared a large archive of propaganda tweets late in 2018 we were excited to get access to over 9 million tweets from almost 4 thousand unique Twitter accounts controlled by Russia's Internet Research Agency. The tweets are posted in 57 different languages, but most are in Russian (53.68%) and English (36.08%). Average account age is around four years, and the longest accounts are as much as ten years old.
A large amount of activity in both the English and Russian accounts is given to news provision. Secondly, many accounts seem to engage in hashtag games, which may be a way to establish an account and get some followers. Of particular interest however are the political trolls. Left trolls pose as individuals interested in the Black Lives Matter campaign. Right trolls are patriotic, anti-immigration Trump supporters. Among left and right trolls, several have achieved large follower numbers and even a degree of fame. Finally there are fearmonger trolls, that propagate scares, and a small number of commercial trolls. The Russian language accounts also divide on similar lines, perhaps posing as individuals with opinions about Ukraine or western politics. These categories were proposed by Darren Linvill and Patrick Warren, from Clemson University. In the word clouds below you can see the hashtags we found left and right trolls using.

Left Troll Hashtags

Right Troll Hashtags
Mehmet E. Bakir has created some interactive graphs enabling us to explore the data. In the network diagram at the start of the post you can see the network of mention/retweet/reply/quote counts we created from the highly followed accounts in the set. You can click through to an interactive version, where you can zoom in and explore different troll types.
In the graph below, you can see activity in different languages over time (interactive version here, or interact with the embedded version below; you may have to scroll right). It shows that the Russian language operation came first, with English language operations following after. The timing of this part of the activity coincides with Russia's interest in Ukraine.

In the graph below, also available here, you can see how different types of behavioural strategy pay off in terms of achieving higher numbers of retweets. Using Linvill and Warren's manually annotated data, Mehmet built a classifier that enabled us to classify all the accounts in the dataset. It is evident that the political trolls have by far the greatest impact in terms of retweets achieved, with left trolls being the most successful. Russia's interest in the Black Lives Matter campaign perhaps suggests that the first challenge for agents is to win a following, and that exploiting divisions in society is an effective way to do that. How that following is then used to influence minds is a separate question. You can see a pre-print of our paper describing our work so far, in the context of the broader picture of partisanship, propaganda and post-truth politics, here.

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