Spotting Trolls

Russian Retrospective

Volume 1 of the Mueller Report opens with a clear statement on Russian government interference in the US election of 2016. It describes the level of interference as "sweeping and systematic." 

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What happened?

Disinformation is one part of the Russian interference story. It is important for us to understand because it isn't only Russia. Increasingly content that falls under the name "disinformation" is being created here, in the United States. We can only expect it to increase as we head into a heated multi-candidate primary and the 2020 election.

Much of the 2016 election-focused disinformation was generated from the Internet Research Agency (IRA) is a Russian state-sponsored internet marketing firm.


Thirteen Russian nationals in connection with the Internet Research Agency LLC were indicted by the Special Counsel on 2/16/2018. This includes the oligarch, Yeveniy Prigozhin, also known as "Putin's Chef."

(United States District Court for the District of Columbia Indictment, MacFarquhar, Neil. "Yevgeny Prigozhin, Russian Oligarch Indicted by U.S., Is Known as ‘Putin’s Cook’", New York Times, 16 Feb, 2018.)

Here are a few salient facts about the Internet Research Agency:

  • Founded in 2013 and based in St. Petersburg

  • Operational budget of $12.2 million in 2017 

  • More than 1000 paid bloggers and commenters on-site 

  • Estimated 600+ additional remote workers

  • Employees conduct 12-hour shifts every other day

In 2016, IRA reach included:

  • 126 million Facebook users

  • 20 million Instagram users

  • 10.4 million tweets

  • Distribution of over 1,000 videos via YouTube

(Source: Mueller Report, Volume 1, p.23)

How does the IRA disrupt?

Target Content

IRA staff create Facebook pages, Instagram, Twitter accounts that mimic activist groups from across the political spectrum. In 2016, some of the most shared accounts where Blacktivist, Army of Jesus and LGBT United.  None of these groups were real. They existed as social media ecosystems, each with 10's if not 100's of thousands of American followers who thought they were interacting with other like-minded people.

Target Audiences

IRA staff continuously monitor American news and culture to identify volatile events. Sock puppets then propagate social media pushes, targeting specific audiences on divisive issues such as gun rights, immigration and incidents of police brutality.

Reach Millions

IRA-created Facebook pages and posts were shared 31 million times, liked 39 million times, and generated 3.5 million comments.

Source: Computational Propaganda Project, "The IRA, Social Media and Political Polarization in the US, 2012-2018",  2018.

Beware the Rise of Instagram!

In 2016, there were more  IRA disinformation posts on Instagram than Facebook. Instagram is fertile ground for viral spreading of sensational images that appeal to our emotions. Instagram is a rising platform, preferred by younger audiences. And visuals are easier for non-English speaking agents (Russian sock puppets) to create.

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What is the objective? To incite, divide and suppress.

Chaos and Division

The goal of disinformation disruption is to sow chaos and fuel division. To do this, IRA sock puppets:

  • Identify and intensify divisions among more liberal audiences

  • Push pro-Trump messages to conservative audiences

  • Sow distrust of government among Black and Latino audiences

  • Reinforce voter apathy or voting for 3rd party candidates

  • Spread disinformation on election day about polling days and times, vote-by-text

Live Events 

Russia-based sock puppets raised money and planned live rallies in US locations. Often IRA-coordinated events were planned and timed so that members of rival groups would physically collide.

In response to Senate investigations, Facebook has revealed that a total of 13 different IRA-created accounts created 129 events. These fake events had 338,300 unique visits from US Facebook users, with approximately 25,800 users indicating that they were interested and 62,500 indicated they were going. (Washington Post, Russians got tens of thousands of Americans to RSVP for their phony political events on Facebook, January 25, 2018)


A summary of this information is contained in an infographic, which you can download and share. Download to view and save enlarged version.


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