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We analyzed 1.8 million images on Twitter to learn how Russian trolls operate

Russian-sponsored Twitter trolls, who so aggressively exploited social media to persuade the 2016 U.S. presidential election, didn’t forestall when Donald Trump was once elected president.

Even after the election, they remained lively and tailored their strategies, together with the usage of photographs—amongst them, easy-to-digest meme photographs corresponding to Hillary Clinton showing to run clear of police—to unfold their perspectives. As a part of our find out about to know the way those trolls perform, we analyzed 1.eight million photographs posted on Twitter by way of three,600 accounts known by way of Twitter itself as being a part of Russian government-sponsored disinformation campaigns, from prior to the 2016 election thru 2018, when the ones accounts had been close down by way of Twitter.

Whilst our find out about taken with the ones particular accounts, it’s cheap to think that others exist and are nonetheless lively. Till they had been blocked by way of Twitter, the accounts we studied had been sharing photographs about occasions in Russia, Ukraine, and the U.S.—together with divisive political occasions such because the “Unite the Proper” rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, in August 2017. The pictures Russian government-backed trolls posted on Twitter seemed on different social networks, together with Reddit, 4chan, and Gab.

Sample memes including
Examples of memes shared on-line by way of Russian government-sponsored trolls.
Zannettou et al., 2019., CC BY-ND

Converting focal point

What they posted shifted over the years. We analyzed the real photographs themselves, to spot the subjects of the posts or even depictions of public figures and particular places. In 2014, a majority of these accounts started posting photographs associated with Russia and Ukraine, however steadily transitioned to posting photographs about U.S. politics, together with subject matter about Donald Trump, Hillary Clinton, and Barack Obama.

That is in line with a few of our earlier research of the textual content posts of those accounts, which confirmed that they had modified their focal point from Russian overseas coverage to U.S. home problems.

A dot plot showing how often different topics were posted about.
Subjects of posts from Russian-sponsored trolls on Twitter.
Zannettou et al., 2019., CC BY-ND

Spreading their concepts, and others’

We discovered that the Russian-backed accounts had been each growing new propaganda and amplifying messages created by way of others. About 30% of the photographs they tweeted had no longer seemed on different social media or in different places on Twitter and had been due to this fact most likely created by way of the Russians in the back of the accounts. The rest 70% had seemed in different places.

Via examining how their posts unfold throughout other social networks over the years, we had been ready to estimate how a lot affect those accounts had at the discussions on different on-line services and products corresponding to Reddit and Gab.

We discovered that the accounts’ talent to unfold political photographs numerous by way of the social community. For example, Russian-sponsored tweets about each events had been similarly influential on Twitter, however on Gab their affect was once principally on spreading photographs of Democratic politicians. On Reddit, in contrast, the troll accounts had been extra influential at spreading photographs about Republican politicians.

Taking a look forward

This analysis is an early step towards figuring out how disinformation campaigns use photographs. Our analysis supplies a have a look at the previous, however from what now we have discovered, we predict that knowledge warriors will create extra content material themselves, and make the most of subject matter others create, to make stronger their methods and effectiveness.

Because the 2020 presidential election approaches, American citizens must stay conscious that Russians and others are nonetheless proceeding their an increasing number of subtle efforts to lie to, confuse, and unfold social discord within the public.


Gianluca Stringhini is an assistant professor and pc engineering at Boston College, and Savvas Zannettou is a postdoctoral researcher on the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human Historical past. This text is republished from The Dialog beneath a Inventive Commons license. Learn the unique article.

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