New research: Russian trolls used Twitter to attack liberals, conservatives and news media

Cartoon drawing of someone holding a smartphone showing Twitter

Research forthcoming in the journal Computers in Human Behavior finds that Russia’s Internet Research Agency — a troll farm — used Twitter in 2016 to attack conservatives, liberals, the news media and American government institutions.


June 17, 2019

The 448-page investigative report that Special Counsel Robert Mueller released in March makes it clear that Russian operatives used social media to interfere with the 2016 U.S. presidential election.

Now new research forthcoming in the journal Computers in Human Behavior offers insights into how the Kremlin’s elections-interference operation played out on Twitter. The study finds that Russia’s Internet Research Agency — troll farm — had a dual strategy: to sow division and weaken America’s two main political parties while also bolstering voter support for Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump.

Lead author Darren Linvill, an associate professor at Clemson University’s College of Behavioral, Social and Health Sciences, said the IRA wasn’t using Twitter to circulate so-called fake news, as some people have believed. It was “pushing the extreme version of narratives we already created ourselves,” Linvill tells Journalist’s Resource.

“They were trying to push both sides to extreme positions … but they’re doing so in a way that very much also pushed for the election of Donald Trump,” he says. “You can very easily do both at the same time. In fact, doing both at the same time was a good [effective] mechanism.”

Linvill and his research team examined tweets originating from the IRA in the month before the 2016 election. The researchers used data that Linvill and co-author Patrick Warren, an associate professor of economics at Clemson, had collected for an earlier study. That study looked at about 3 million tweets from 3,841 Twitter handles that the U.S. House Intelligence Committee had reported as being associated with IRA activity.

For this study, titled “‘THE RUSSIANS ARE HACKING MY BRAIN!’: Investigating Russia’s Internet Research Agency Twitter Tactics During the 2016 United States Presidential Campaign,” Linvill and three colleagues analyzed a random sample of 4,200 tweets written in English. They find that the tweets supported and attacked both Trump and his Democratic challenger, Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton.


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