Wait, There’s More

More information on Russian interference in the 2016 Presidential Election. This post is based on an article titled, “Burst of tweets from Russian operatives in October 2016 generates suspicion” by Craig Timberg and Shane Harris in the 21 July 2018 issue of the Washington Post. The article begins, “On the eve of one of the newsiest days of the 2016 presidential election, Russian operatives sent off tweets at a rate of about a dozen each minute. By the time they finished, more than 18,000 had been sent through cyberspace toward unwitting American voters, making it the busiest day by far in a disinformation operation whose aftermath is still roiling U.S. politics.

Clemson University researchers have collected 3 million Russian tweets. The reason for this burst of activity on 6 Oct. 2016 is a mystery that has generated intriguing theories but no definitive explanation. The theories attempt to make sense of how such a heavy flow of Russian disinformation might be related to what came immediately after on Oct. 7. This was the day when Wikileaks began releasing embarrassing emails that Russian intelligence operatives had stolen from the campaign chairman for Hillary Clinton, revealing sensitive internal conversations that would stir controversy.

Complicating this analysis is the number of other noteworthy events on that day. That day is best remembered for the Washington Post’s publication of a recording of Donald Trump speaking crudely about women. Also on that day U.S. intelligence officials first made public their growing concerns about Russian meddling in the presidential election, following reports about the hacking of prominent Americans and intrusions into election systems in several U.S. states.

Two questions are: Could the Russian disinformation teams have gotten advanced notice of the Wikileaks release, sending the operatives into overdrive to shape public reactions to the news? And what do the operatives’ actions that day reveal about Russia’s strategy and tactics that Americans are heading into another crucial election in just a few months?

The Clemson University researchers have assembled the largest trove of Russian disinformation tweets available so far. The database includes tweets between February 2014 and May 2018, all from accounts that Twitter has identified as part of the disinformation campaign waged by the Internet Research Agency, based in St. Petersburg, Russia and owned by a Putin associate.

The new data offer still more evidence of the coordinated nature of Russia’s attempt to manipulate the American election. The Clemson researchers dubbed it “state-sponsored agenda building.”

Overall the tweets reveal a highly adaptive operation that interacted tens of millions of times with authentic Twitter users—many of whom retweeted the Russian accounts—and frequently shifted tactics in response to public events, such as Hillary Clinton’s stumble at a Sept. 11 memorial.

The Russians working for the Internet Research Agency are often called “trolls” for their efforts to secretly manipulate online conversations. These trolls picked up their average pace of tweeting after Trump’s election. This was especially true for the more than 600 accounts targeting the conservative voters who were part of his electoral base, a surge the researchers suspect was an effort to shape the political agenda during the transition period by energizing core supporters.

For sheer curiosity, nothing in the Clemson dataset rivals Oct. 6. The remarkable combination of news events the following day has several analysts, including the Clemson researchers, suspect there likely was a connection to the coming Wikileaks release. Other researchers dispute the conclusion that there was a connection.

However, last week’s indictment of Russian intelligence officers by Special Counsel Robert Mueller III made clear that the hack of Clinton campaign chairman John Podesta’s emails and their distribution through Wikileaks was a meticulous operation. Tipping off the Internet Research Agency, the St. Petersburg troll factory owned by an associate of President Vladimir Putin, might have been part of an overarching plan of execution, said several people familiar with the Clemson findings about the activity of the Russian trolls.

Clint Watts, a former FBI agent and an expert on the Russian troll armies and how they respond to new as well as upcoming events, like debates of candidate appearances ,says that they tend to ramp up when they know something’s coming.

Although Watts did not participate in the Clemson research, his instincts fit with those of researchers Darren L. Linvill and Patrick L. Warren, who point to the odd consistency of the storm of tweets. More than on any other day, the trolls on Oct 6 focused their energies on a left leaning audience, with more than 70% of the tweets targeting Clinton’s natural constituency of liberals, environmentalists and African Americans. Livill and Warren, have written a paper on their research now undergoing peer review, identifying 230 accounts they categorized as “Left Trolls” because they sought to infiltrate left-wing conversation on Twitter.

These Left Trolls did so in a way designed to damage Clinton, who is portrayed as corrupt, in poor health, dishonest and insensitive to the needs of working-class voters and various minority groups. In contrast, the Left Trolls celebrated Sen. Bernie Sasnders and his insurgent primary campaign against Clinton and, in the general election, Green Party candidate Jill Stein.

For example, less than two weeks before election day, the Left Troll account @Blactivisits tweeted, “NO LIVES MATTER TO HILLARY CLINTON. ONLY VOTES MATTER TO HILLARY CLINTON.”

Ninety-three of the Left Troll accounts were active on Oct. 6 and 7, each with an average following of 1760 other Twitter accounts. Taken together, their messages could have directly reached Twitter accounts 20 million times on those two days, and reached millions of others though retweets, according to the Clemson researchers.

Podesta’s emails made public candid, unflattering comments about Sanders and fueled allegations that Clinton had triumphed over him because of her connection to the Democratic party establishment. The Left Trolls on Oct. 6 appeared to be stirring up conversation among Twitter users potentially interested in such arguments, according to the Clemson researchers.

Warren, an associate professor of economics, said, “We think that they were trying to activate and energize the left wing of the Democratic Party, the Bernie wing basically, before the Wikileaks release that implicated Hillary in stealing the Democratic primary.”

U.S. officials with knowledge of information that the government has gathered on the Russian operation said they had yet to establish a clear connection between Wikileaks and the troll account that would prove they were coordinating around the release of campaign emails. The official spoke on the condition of anonymity to share assessments not approved for official release.

But some clues have emerged that may point to coordination. It now appears that WikiLeaks intended to publish the Podesta emails closer to the election, and that some external event compelled the group to publish sooner than planned, the officials said.

One U.S. official said, “There is definitely a command and control structure behind the IRA’s use of statistical media, pushing narratives and leading people towards certain conclusions.”

Warren and Linvill found that Russian disinformation tweets generated significant conversation among other Twitter users. Between September and November 2016, references to the Internet Research Agency accounts showed up in the tweets of others 4.7 million times.

The patterns of tweets also shows how single team trolls worked on different types of accounts depending on shifting priorities, one hour playing the part of an immigrant-bashing conservative, the next an African American concerned about police brutality and on their avid participant in “hashtag games” in which Twitter users riff on particular questions such as “#WasteAMillionIn3Words.” The answer on 11 July 2015 from IRA account @LoraGreen was, “Donate to #Hillary.”

Linvill said, “Day to day they seem to be operating as a business just allocating resources. It’s definitely one organization. It’s not one fat guy sitting in his house.”

Warren and LInvill collected their set of Internet Research Agency tweets using a social media analysis tool called Social Studio that catalogs tweets in a searchable format. The researchers collected all of the available tweets from 3,841 accounts that Twitter has identified as having been controlled by the Internet Research Agency, whose officials and affiliated companies have been charged with several crimes related to the 2016 election.

The Clemson researchers sorted the Internet Research Agency accounts into five categories, the largest two being “Right Troll” and Left Troll.” The others focused on retweeting news stories from around the country, participating in hashtag games or spreading a false news story about salmonella outbreak in turkeys around the Thanksgiving season of 2015.

The latest and most active group overall were the Right Trolls, which typically had little profile information but features photos the researchers described as “young, attractive women.” They collectively had nearly a million followers, the researchers said.

The Right Trolls pounced on the Sept. 11 stumble by Clinton to tweet at a frenetic pace for several days. They experimented with a variety of related hashtags such as #HillarSickAtGroundZero, #ClintonCollapse and #ZombieHillary before eventually focusing on #HillarysHealth and #SickHillary, tweeting these hundreds of times.

This theme flowed into several more days of intensive tweeting about a series of bombings in the New York area that injured dozens of people, stoking fears of terrorism.

When one group of accounts was tweeting at a rapid pace, others often slacked off or stopped entirely, underscoring the Clemson researchers’ conclusion that a single team was taking turns operating various accounts. The trolls also likely used some forms of automation to manage multiple accounts simultaneously and tweet with a speed impractical for humans, according to the researchers.

One Response to “Wait, There’s More”

  1. Deb Fencer Says:

    Doug, I got behind in reading your posts (summer lethargy). I finally got around to reading your posts on Sanger’s book. Now, I think my hair is turning white. Not being a particularly techie person, I understood your summaries quite well. Thanks.

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