Recently, Twitter deleted 1500 accounts connected to Russian troll activities in what is increasingly being seen as an attempt to sway public opinion. It was discovered the tweets were
It is no secret that Twitter has been used in attempts to sway public opinion around the world. Data pertaining to the suspended accounts were recently released for study by researchers and journalists. The findings have been quite revealing.
Atlantic Council’s think tank received access to the data. Its digital forensic research lab took a close look at the techniques employed by the troll farms.
Ben Nimmo led the effort and told me the data cache showed a gradual evolution from the early days, when most of the tweets were quite boring.
‘You could see them learning how to use social media,’ he explained.
‘Individual accounts started getting more edgy, more aggressive and trying to be more funny. And the more they did that, the more they were getting audience response.’
Posing as angry Americans, they responded to breaking news such as the San Bernardino shooting. They intervened on both sides of the gun control debate, trying to fan the flames of discord.
Mr. Nimmo said there appeared to be some sort of editorial figure in charge. Thousands of tweets would suddenly coalesce around a hashtag.
‘You could imagine the editorial meeting where someone said, “Right lads, this is your hashtag and this is what you’ll be posting.”’
While most of the activity first revolved around Russian and then American politics, the Atlantic Council team did spot some tweets about the UK’s EU membership referendum.
On the day of the vote, nearly 1,100 tweets in the trove featured the hashtag #ReasonsToLeaveEU – popular with Leave campaigners.
Did any of this have an impact in changing votes?
Not in the case of Brexit, says Ben Nimmo, given the fact that Russian tweets were such a tiny proportion of the total conversation during the campaign.
He is more circumspect about the impact in the United States.
On the day of the 2016 election, one Russian troll tweeted the false claim that the voting machines had been fixed to favour Hillary Clinton. That single tweet had 25,000 retweets on the day. That kind of activity by the trolls had gone on for months.
‘They probably had some impact but it’s hard to measure it,’ said Mr. Nimmo.