On Sept. 10, 2018, @PoliteMelanie tweeted to her more than 20,000 followers: “Criticizing Trump in a book is just unfair. It’s like criticizing the Amish on television.” The next day, this tweet won the Chicago Tribune’s “Tweet of the Week” contest. What the Tribune’s readers didn’t know when casting their votes, however, was that “Melanie” was a Russian troll.
PoliteMelanie appears to be part of a well-coordinated network of Russian troll accounts that we monitored in the run-up to the 2018 elections. Examining a range of data points, including source material and the timing of tweets, told us that this account was most likely operated from Russia’s Internet Research Agency (IRA). This secretive St. Petersburg-based organization, financed by Russian oligarch Yevgeny Prigozhin (known as “Putin’s chef” because he catered dinners for the Russian president), has worked for years to influence political conversations on social media around the globe. One may have assumed that the Russian trolls’ posts would be crass, vitriolic, vodka-fueled attacks featuring broken English and spreading fake news or simple pro-Putin propaganda. Most Americans probably believe that they could spot a Russian troll from a mile away — and that they would certainly never engage with one. These assumptions, however, do not give credit to what Prigozhin’s people have built.
We’ve spent the past year studying Russian IRA disinformation on Twitter with the goal of better understanding its strategy and tactics. Like KGB disinformation operations of the past, this campaign has two overt goals. First, it seeks to further divide and polarize the United States along ideological lines. As long as we are fighting among ourselves, we aren’t paying attention to what Putin is doing in Ukraine and elsewhere. Second, it attempts to undermine our trust in the institutions that sustain a strong nation and a strong democracy. The media, science, academia and the electoral process are all regular targets of troll venom. The Russians want to push us further apart while causing us to lose trust in what has traditionally made us strong.
Yet the IRA’s work is much subtler, often more palatable and always seemingly more organic than Americans may imagine. The operators in St. Petersburg understand the way information is spread on the platforms they use and, more important, they understand how to reach their American audience. On the theory that it is easier to catch a fly with honey, many troll messages are not negative. Instead, they are cute, or educational, or uplifting, all in an attempt to gain credibility and followers.
PoliteMelanie won the “Tweet of the Week” because Americans found her funny. They spread her messages and followed her account for that same reason. Before Twitter suspended PoliteMelanie’s account, her winning tweet had more than 125,000 retweets and likes — and this wasn’t even her most popular post. Another tweet from this account became the topic of a heartwarming Scary Mommy blog post. A third PoliteMelanie tweet was highlighted by the popular humor website CollegeHumor.com. PoliteMelanie garnered nearly 25,000 followers in less than six months — she effectively built a brand.
The operators in St. Petersburg are good at their jobs. Tweets from other accounts that were part of the PoliteMelanie network had similar success: We found them cited by The Washington Post, CNN, BuzzFeed, Al Jazeera, the New York Post and Essence magazine, to name a few. One of these accounts, @Blk_Hermione, had a tweet with cross-platform success, gaining more than 40,000 “upvotes” to make the front page of Reddit. An analysis of 2 million English-language IRA tweets released by Twitter last July shows that the trolls had at that point gained 30 million likes and 22 million retweets among 1,866 English-language accounts active between 2014 and 2017. And the data shows they have gotten better with each passing year. Compare the trolls’ performance to a typical tweet: The median number of likes and retweets a tweet receives is zero.
The trolls may not always hit the mark, but they’ve achieved moments of social media virality that would make a grumpy cat jealous. They are remarkably astute in exploiting questions of culture and identity and are frequently among the first to push new divisive conversations. We’ve seen debates that they helped foment move quickly from Twitter to mainstream print media. On topics ranging from vaccines to Colin Kaepernick, they can speak vehemently to the extremes of both sides. In so doing, they work to drive Americans ideologically further apart.
That’s why IRA accounts have differing target audiences and differently tailored messages. In June 2017, for example, @Crystal1Johnson, a troll account that participated in Black Lives Matter communities, tweeted to her more than 50,000 followers, “Daily reminder that the most educated First Lady in American history is a black woman with two Ivy League degrees from Harvard and Princeton.” This tweet gained almost half a million likes and retweets, though even this seemingly positive message could still be read as a dig at other first ladies. The trolls know that a message is in the eye of the beholder.
They know us and they know our sins. They can be bitter, dark and nihilistic at times, but that fits us. Active in 2016, Jihadist2ndWife, for instance, was a Russian troll account pretending to be a more conventional parody account, posing as the work of the second wife of an Islamic State fighter. It was clearly meant for a niche audience, but a large one. Its humor was anti-Muslim and popular, garnering 5,577 followers.
Twitter continually shuts down accounts like Jihadist2ndWife, but the IRA’s success at spreading disinformation and dissent has been historic. It can afford to routinely lose accounts, given the low cost of replacement and the efficiency with which they can build followers. In relative terms, Prigozhin’s entire endeavor is incredibly inexpensive: The price tag for this online warfare has been far less than for one U.S. fighter plane. Other nations clearly view these asymmetrical tactics as fruitful, since new troll factories are spreading, to countries as diverse as Iran, Venezuela and Bangladesh.
The IRA’s success has led to some outright boasting, and it has even used itself as a tool of division. As early as July 2015, five different IRA accounts tweeted, “#TrumpCampaignSlogans Real troll from America.” On Nov. 9, 2016, the day after the election, the IRA troll @jonathandotnet tweeted to the New Yorker’s Adrian Chen, “Trump is Putin’s agent.” And in a final election victory lap, on Dec. 19, 2016, the day of Trump’s electoral college victory, 27 IRA accounts tweeted, “#ThingsYouCantIgnore a Russian plant as your next #POTUS.”
The IRA’s operatives have studied us, and they know how to take advantage of the tools we’ve given them. IRA employees aren’t actually trolls; they are professionals with a job to do. So far we’ve made that job easy. We need to accept that we are engaged in nothing less than political warfare, and as we approach the 2020 election, we need to be more clever than the trolls.
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