Internet trolls don’t troll. Not the professionals at least. Professional trolls don’t go on social media to antagonize liberals or belittle conservatives. They are not narrow minded, drunk or angry. They don’t lack basic English language skills. They certainly aren’t “somebody sitting on their bed that weighs 400 pounds,” as the president once put it. Your stereotypical trolls do exist on social media, but the amateurs aren’t a threat to Western democracy.
Professional trolls, on the other hand, are the tip of the spear in the new digital, ideological battleground. To combat the threat they pose, we must first understand them — and take them seriously.
On August 22, 2019, @IamTyraJackson received almost 290,000 likes on Twitter for a single tweet. Put in perspective, the typical tweet President Trump sends to his 67 million followers gets about 100,000 likes. That viral tweet by @IamTyraJackson was innocent: an uplifting pair of images of former pro football player Warrick Dunn and a description of his inspiring charity work building houses for single mothers. For an anonymous account that had only existed for only a few months, “Tyra” knew her audience well. Warrick’s former coach, Tony Dungy, retweeted it, as did the rapper and producer Chuck D. Hundreds of thousands of real users viewed Tyra’s tweet and connected with its message. For “Tyra,” however, inspiring messages like this were a tool for a very different purpose.
The purpose of the Tyra account, we believe, was not to spread heartwarming messages to Americans. Rather, the tweet about Warrick Dunn was really a Trojan horse to gain followers in a larger plan by a foreign adversary. We think this because we believe @IamTyraJackson was an account operated by the successors to Russia’s Internet Research Agency (IRA). Special Counsel Robert Mueller indicted the IRA for waging a massive information war during the 2016 U.S. election. Since then, the IRA seems to have been subsumed into Russia’s Federal News Agency, but its work continues. In the case of @IamTyraJackson, the IRA’s goal was two-fold: Grow an audience in part through heartwarming, inspiring messages, and use that following to spread messages promoting division, distrust and doubt.
We’ve spent the past two years studying online disinformation and building a deep understanding of Russia’s strategy, tactics and impact. Working from data Twitter has publicly released, we’ve read Russian tweets until our eyes bled. Looking at a range of behavioral signals, we have begun to develop procedures to identify disinformation campaigns and have worked with Twitter to suspend accounts. In the process we’ve shared what we’ve learned with people making a difference, both in and out of government. We have experienced a range of emotions studying what the IRA has produced, from disgust at their overt racism to amusement at their sometimes self-reflective humor. Mostly, however, we’ve been impressed.