Russian Twitter Trolls

Our Political Analyst Antone Christianson-Galina takes a close look at the use of Russian Twitter trolls.

From listening to the Senate hearing last week, you might get the impression that Twitter has not been manipulated for political gain before. Countries have been trying to influence each other’s elections for years. In the Cold War, the Soviets and Americans almost made a sport of it. However, the 2016 American election may have been swayed by Twitter.

According to Samuel Woolley, director of research at the Computational Propaganda Project 50-55 percent of Hillary Clinton’s Twitter followers, like and retweets were automated posters (or bots)  compared to 80 percent for Trump.

By the following liking and retweeting, bots make messages more popular. Next, media organizations like CNN report on these popular tweets in an attempt to be popular and relevant.

The Russian government has used bots in 2 ways to manipulate American public opinion
  1. By boosting the tweets of candidate Donald Trump to bring him to the forefront of public attention.
  2. By spreading confusion in comments sections of American media.

The Russian government began to use botnets (networks of bots)  strategically during the massive domestic 2011 protests. Russian government botnets drowned out the dissident hashtag #???????????? (Triumfalnaya), limiting mobilization around the term. The bots filled the hashtag with anti-protester and pro-Putin sentiment. In the same elections, botnets created the illusion of large support behind the pro-Putin Nishi youth movement.

The origins of the Russian twitter trolls can be found in the conflict with Ukraine

During the Russian war with Ukraine, botnets such as the “St. Petersburg based Internet Research Agency” spread pro-Putin propaganda on comment sections on The Blaze, Fox News, Huffington Post, Politico, and WorldNet Daily. Accused of bias by the bots, media sites attacked by Russian botnets lose credibility and the ability to unify public opinion.

Russian intelligence has made effective use of social media to achieve its goals. The irony is that many social media technologies have been American developed, and have long partnered with American intelligence.

For spreading chaos in a hostile country, using Twitter botnets has shown to be an effective tool.

Antone holds an MSc from the London School of Economics. He has a BSc in International Relations and has worked in India, China, Mexico, the United Kingdom, and the United States.

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