Holly Richardson: Propaganda in the age of social media

(Jon Elswick | AP file photo) In this March 15, 2018, photo, a portion of the Feb. 16, 2018 indictment against Russia's Internet Research Agency is photographed in Washington.

“It’s Election Day. Rip america. #HillaryForPrison2016 #TrumpForPresident.” (@archieolivers, Aug. 11, 2016)


If you use Twitter, you might have seen tweets like these during the 2016 election cycle. You might have agreed or not. You might have forwarded, commented or retweeted — or not. You might have wondered who was writing these tweets — or not. But, I am guessing that you did not realize these tweets were from a Russian “troll” farm known as the Internet Research Agency (IRA).

Based in St. Petersburg, Russia, this “agency” reportedly went beyond trolling and actively orchestrated subversive political social media activities. In 2018, a U.S. district court found “the company engages in ‘information warfare’ based on ‘fictitious U.S. personas on social media platforms and other Internet-based media’.”

According to congressional testimony in late 2017, given by Sean Edgett, Twitter’s acting general counsel, a total of 36,746 Russian accounts produced approximately 1.4 million tweets in connection with the U.S. elections. Out of these accounts, Twitter believes that 3,841 of them are linked to the Internet Research Agency.

Not just “bots” using an algorithm to like and retweet, this IRA deployed human capital to weaponize multiple social media platforms to attack and undermine the 2016 U.S. presidential election, the U.K.’s referendum on the European Union, as well as to positively promote Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and Russian president Putin.

According to newly released research, up to 1,000 employees worked 12-hour days on-site, with another 600 or more working remotely. On an average day, those IRA employees were to comment on news articles at least 50 times. Each blogger was to maintain six Facebook accounts, publishing at least three posts a day and commenting in groups at least twice a day. On Twitter, they were to run 10 accounts, posting a minimum of 50 tweets per day.

When researchers dug into the now-deleted Twitter accounts, they found that a large number of accounts had been created in 2012 and 2013 but they lay dormant and were not activated until 2015 or 2016. These IRA Twitter accounts had nine identifiable audiences, but the top three were “conservative patriots,” Black Lives matter activists and supporters and seekers of local news.

In the first category, trolls claimed to be U.S. citizens, Christian patriots and Donald Trump supporters. They tweeted consistently about gun rights, national identity, the U.S. military, abortion, Hillary Clinton and the mainstream media. In the second, these subversive trolls claimed to be African-American citizens supporting or participating in the Black Lives Matter movement. They used hashtags like #BlackLivesMatter, #BLM, #WokeAF, and #BlackToLive. At least one fake Facebook account had more followers than actual Black Lives Matter accounts. Their objectives appear to have been to discourage African Americans from voting for Clinton, or from voting at all, by comparing both candidates to Satan and spreading racial discord.

In the third most highly targeted group, the people looking for local news (ostensibly more trustworthy than national news), trolls created accounts using city names and combining them with words like “daily,” “news,” “post” or “voice,” resulting in accounts that included “DailyLosAngeles,” “DailySanDiego” and “KansasDailyNews.” They tweeted real news stories — usually a single headline that may or may not have linked to the original story — but they carefully curated their stories. Those accounts were dedicated to posting stories of violent crime, fatalities or risk of fatalities, traffic accidents, natural disasters and other highly emotionally charged stories, likely to induce a negative emotional response in their 10,000-plus followers.

The study I refer to only takes a deep look at one troll farm, affecting one social media platform. There were more. These fake accounts were believable. They had many followers and in hundreds of millions of “impressions.” They injected themselves into national narratives playing out in 2016 and beyond. They weaponized multiple media platforms through their propaganda efforts. They sowed discord and dissent. They deliberately created and shared fake information. And they got lots of people to believe them.

Welcome to “1984.” Caveat emptor.

Holly Richardson

Holly Richardson is a regular contributor to The Salt Lake Tribune.