Time Series of IRA Activity on U.S. Social Media Platforms

So I've been toying around with some of the data on other social media platforms, now that much of it has been made publicly available. I'm looking forward to doing a more systematic analysis of the content. In the meantime, however, here are some counts of IRA activities on different social media platforms from 2015 to 2017. 

I was somewhat surprised to see that the time series did not line up as neatly as I thought they would have. Perhaps these strategies are meant to complement each other? This is where a deeper dive into the content or the account would be more useful. For example, perhaps conservative-imitating IRA accounts (e.g., Twitter's @TEN_GOP) responded to different things compared to liberal imitating IRA accounts (e.g., Facebook/Twitter's @Blacktivist group). 

Given the pending lockdown of information regarding this case, it is more important than ever to share and verify this information. It's a shame researcher do not get much access to this kind of data, as scientific rigor should be the minimum standard for analyzing potential foreign influences into American elections. 

Reddit Data Source: [Link]
Facebook Data Source: [Link]

Advertisements purchased by IRA on Facebook

Submissions to Reddit by IRA-controlled accounts

Tweets written by the IRA

Interview with Cap Times

This past week, I interviewed with Capital Times in Madison to talk about a recent co-authored study about Russian propaganda in U.S. news media.

I'm glad that the writer, Lisa Speckhard, did a great job capturing my greatest concern with Russian influence and disinformation. We know that the Russians are not going to stop trying to infiltrate U.S. public discourse. They haven't stopped since WWII, and I doubt they ever will.

What we can do is ask ourselves (1) where are they likely to make their way into American political discourse and (2) what can we do [on our end] to stop it.

Journalists are in a special space, as gatekeepers of information, to both prevent and perpetuate Russian propaganda from amplifying. As we learned through this study, this gate is not impervious... especially now that there are so many gates.

In order to keep our public discourse "pure" (that is, not unknowingly manipulated by foreign influences), we need to be self-reflexive, vigilant, and careful. I am continually reminded of this when news organizations reach out to members of our team asking about various articles that have included IRA-linked tweets. We need more news organizations like this and like Slate, who continue to be critical of their journalistic routines. 

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.