New UW Study on Russian Twitter Trolls in U.S. Media

This past week, my research team published a study on news media's use of tweets written by Russia's Internet Research Agency (a copy of the study can be found here).

We also wrote a parallel article with Columbia Journalism Review.

Importantly, we show that Russian tweets conveying stereotypical partisan beliefs were picked up by a variety of mainstream and partisan news outlets. We are particularly critical of news stories that use "strings of tweet" to represent the vox populi (voice of the people). Unlike the more traditional "man on the street" interviews, tweets used in news stories (particularly online ones) are difficult to verify.

However, as shown by the (admittedly shallow) penetration of IRA tweets, it is still important for journalists to verify these Twitter users to the best of their ability. Journalists can do so by corresponding outside of the tweet-o-sphere (e.g., email), trying to look up the user's name on a search engine, or by looking at that user's past social media history.

Digital, partisan news outlets were particularly susceptible to embedded these IRA tweets. Liberal and conservative organizations both used tweets to convey cheap talk (discourse that supports their position or criticizes their opponents'). If the goal of Russian disinformation in the United States was to increase doubt in the news media system and increase polarization in the civil sphere, the amplification of these messages through partisan outlets represent some measure of success.


Why does this matter? Aside from natural concerns about deceptive foreign practices to our public sphere, the appearance of these messages across a broad range of news organizations  (bost partisan and traditional, liberal and conservative) shows how little tweets were checked. It highlights a greater problem: our willingness to promote partisan messages to prove a political point, even if they have little to no journalistic value and are not verified.