A troll operation attributed to the Internet Research Agency or “troll factory” in Russia ran over 100 accounts on Instagram and Facebook, and posted divisive content from all political angles, right up to the eve of the U.S. midterm elections, according to traces of this activity left online.
Facebook took the accounts offline on November 5, 2018, the eve of the U.S. midterm elections, after a tip-off from U.S. law enforcement. Initial suspicions were that the accounts were run by the Internet Research Agency or “troll factory” in St. Petersburg, which targeted American social media users throughout 2014 through 2018 with divisive, inflammatory and election-related content. A website which claimed to be affiliated to the troll factory said it ran them, although any such claim should be viewed with caution.
On November 13, Facebook confirmed it had taken down 99 Instagram, 36 Facebook accounts, and six Facebook pages for “coordinated inauthentic behavior.” Around 1.25 million other users followed at least one of them. Facebook said that the inauthentic accounts “may have been connected” to the troll factory, but stopped short of attribution.
Ahead of the November 13 announcement, Facebook shared the Instagram account names with @DFRLab. Enough traces have survived online to illustrate the way this operation worked, posing as online interest groups, building an audience, and progressively inserting more polarizing and political content into the mix.
The overall strategy of promoting divisive political content matched those of earlier Russian operations. The latest operation stood out for its greater focus on celebrity groups, rather than single-issue political ones. This appears likely to have been an attempt to build audience appeal, while allowing the flexibility to switch from one hot political topic to another.
Troll Factory Resemblances
All the accounts which Facebook named were blocked before @DFRLab could review them. This analysis is based on residual posts, either from online caches or from shares. It therefore provides a snapshot of the accounts’ behavior, not a full catalog of their output.
Within that subset of residual posts, some of the suspect accounts shared content directly from the original troll factory. One account which focused on African American communities, @not_your_negro, shared a meme which was watermarked by known Russian troll account @woke_blacks_, and had also been posted by Russian troll account @afrokingdom_ .
Similarly, suspect troll account @4merican.m4de shared a post which was watermarked by original Russian troll account @american.veterans, preserved in the archive created by online researcher UsHadrons.
The use of watermarked troll factory content does not, on its own, confirm a link between these suspect accounts and earlier Russian troll operations. It does provide a further data point on the resemblance between the operations, independent of the assessments by the FBI and Facebook, and the claims of the apparent troll factory site.
On another occasion, one account shared content from a Russian state source, without attribution. In October, suspect account @anonymous.speak posted an attack on Facebook, and its decision on October 11, 2018, to take down hundreds of accounts for coordinated inauthentic behavior.
The post was unattributed, but its opening sentences were taken from an “exclusive” article on Kremlin outlet Sputnik, whose stated mission is to “secure the national interests of the Russian Federation in the information sphere.” Later content in the Instagram post appeared original, and included the grammatical error, “Those independent activists have a courage to tell people.”
The sentence, “those independent activists have a courage to tell people” is suggestive because it embodies a grammatical error which would be unlikely to come from a native English speaker. Confusion over the use of “the” and “a” is characteristic of speakers of Slavic languages, notably Russian, which do not possess grammatical articles; this weakness was one of the clues in the exposure of earlier Russian troll accounts.
The same blindness to “a” and “the” featured in the central post in this image, from suspected troll account @black.dollar__, “Keep up a great work”.
Linguistic errors also featured in this post from suspected troll account @not_your_negro: “everything else doesn’t matter for the sane people” and “Such asshole like the one who,” a non-English turn of phrase which missed out “an” and replicated the phrasing of the Russian “Такой мудак…”
As a further example, this post from Instagram account @anonymous.speak mis-phrased the word order of a question (“why the f**k media never mentioned this?”), in a way that earlier, known Russian troll accounts also did (“why marijuana is illegal?”).
None of these features is enough on its own to provide a firm attribution. They should be understood as adding context to Facebook’s finding that the accounts were coordinated and inauthentic, and the apparent claim by U.S. law enforcement.
Even More Divisive Content
Just like the original troll factory, these accounts posted highly divisive content which targeted both sides of America’s partisan gulf. Some, such as @black.voices__ and @ur.melanated.mind, focused on African American communities. Others, such as @maga.people and @4merican.m4de, posed as conservatives. @feminism_4ever and @lgbt_poc focused on gender and race issues; @american.atheist_ and @proud_muslims focused on religion.
Some of their posts were clearly designed to offend, as in this post, which equated Christianity with child abuse.
Religion and politics mixed in this post (right of image), which portrayed a “Republican Jesus” telling a rape victim that “what’s really important” is the rapist’s Senate seat.
The suspect accounts paid particular attention to race and gender issues, including the hyper-sensitive questions of violence against African Americans, and transgender rights.
Regularly, the troll accounts took both sides on divisive issues, as in these examples on feminism; feminism and gun control; abortion; and President Trump.
The opposition was particularly stark over the question of gun control, with apparent troll accounts both demanding stricter gun controls, and posting messages that refused to countenance even the possibility of discussion. The latter stance appeared designed to render any attempt at reconciliation useless — an indication of how the trolls’ intent appeared to be to reinforce the most polarizing content.
The trolls were quick to fasten on trending controversies, such as Nike’s decision to make footballer Colin Kaepernick the face of its brand.
Kanye West was the subject of particularly polarizing coverage, with a number of suspected troll accounts citing his relationship with Trump as proof that the president and his supporters were not racist, while Democrats and Trump opponents were.
In typical style, other apparent troll accounts took the opposing view.
This controversy took an unexpected twist on October 30, when West tweeted: “I’ve been used to spread messages I don’t believe in. I am distancing myself from politics and completely focusing on being creative !!!”
The following day, suspected troll account @immi.great shared the tweet, together with a Buzzfeed News article which quoted it. The @immi.great account posed as liberal and anti-Trump.
Even apparently apolitical accounts, such as @girlsbeerguns, which largely posted images of girls girls with guns (users were apparently expected to bring their own beer), posted the occasional political content, suggesting that their far higher proportion of innocuous content was meant as an audience building measure, which will be discussed below.
Posting divisive content is not, again, sufficient to expose a Russian troll account; indeed, without American trolls, Russian trolls would have nobody to disguise themselves as. However, it is in character with earlier Russian troll operations.
One striking difference about the latest set of accounts was the way they focused on celebrities or media personalities. This differed from earlier accounts run by the troll factory, which either posed as individuals, or as single-issue activist communities whose issues ranged from LGBT rights and the Black Lives Matter movement to Texan secession and Islamophobia.
Accounts in the latest cluster included @john.oliver.explains, dedicated to comedian John Oliver, and @tomi.lahren.fans, dedicated to conservative pundit Tomi Lahren. The former account had over 95,000 fans, the latter almost 15,000.
Others included @be.louder.with.crowder, dedicated to conservative comedian Steve Crowder, and @bill.maher.time, dedicated to comedian Bill Maher. These had more modest followings, with the “Crowder” account slightly ahead of the “Maher” one.
Other accounts were not even remotely political, and focused on celebrities from the world of entertainment and (non-political) drama, including actress Jennifer Lawrence (jenlawrencefanclub) and rapper Kid Rock (@kidrock_fanpage). These had far fewer followers.
The surviving posts by these accounts were focused on glamor, and did not appear to pass political messaging.
This focus on celebrities is likely to have served two functions. First, it allowed the troll operators to tap into a readymade audience, although receptiveness to these efforts clearly differed across channels, judging by the range of follower numbers. Second, it may have allowed them to switch more credibly between different political hot topics, in a way which apparently single-issue accounts would have found harder to do.
Some of the accounts barely posted on political topics, as we have seen with the celebrity examples. Much more of their content was focused on innocuous, positive or clickbait content. In the context of a suspected information operation, this appears likely to have been an audience building maneuver, as earlier generations of Russian troll accounts are known to have used.
Once again, the posts were not driven by any apparent set of coherent values, and seemed designed to appeal to as many different groups as possible. For example, one account, @ur.melanated.mind, argued that “nudity is not necessary to show beauty,” while another, @girlsrepub1ic, promised “the most beautiful and luscious Conservative girls,” mostly in bikinis.
The prevalence of audience-building posts suggests that these accounts were in the early stage of their operationalization, and had not yet been turned to more aggressive posting on divisive or political issues. Facebook itself said that most of the accounts dated from late 2017 or later, reinforcing that view.
One other important feature of these accounts was the way they repeated partisan and divisive comments by Americans. This is likely, again, to have had multiple purposes. It allowed the trolls to appeal to existing audiences, and reduced the likelihood that they would betray themselves through linguistic errors.
It also revealed America’s fundamental vulnerability to such foreign influence operations, as Americans’ own posts provided the ammunition which foreign trolls used to target American users.
This was especially the case on the conservative side. The troll accounts repeatedly used content from conservative group Turning Point America, whose founder, Charlie Kirk, spread misleading or dated claims of election fraud in the buildup to the midterm elections. Turning Point America, Kirk himself, and the group’s director of communications, Candace Owens, all featured in many different suspected Russian trolls’ posts.
Lahren herself was another voice the suspected troll accounts amplified, not only through the @tomi.lahren.fans account, but by others, including @maga.people and @bring.america.back.
One account, @info.warriors, was even dedicated to alt-right conspiracy theorist Alex Jones, a major source of U.S.-based political disinformation.
The apparently liberal or left-wing accounts drew their comments from a wider range of sources, but also repeatedly shared genuine American comments, sometimes with an additional spin of their own, sometimes only with hashtags.
On both sides, this use of American voices both gave the apparent trolls the appropriate local language and color, and gave them a further chance of embedding in like-minded American communities which they could then seek to radicalize.
While these accounts have not been definitively attributed, their behavior closely resembled that of earlier Russian operations. They masqueraded as both right- and left-wing users, and posted divisive and polarizing content. If anything, their content was even more divisive than earlier troll operations.
Some of the accounts appeared focused on audience building, with little or no controversial content, suggesting that this was an operation in its early stages. Their follower numbers ranged from a few hundred to over 100,000, suggesting that other accounts had already been operating for some time, or at some intensity.
The apparent troll accounts focused on celebrity fan groups. This appears a new approach, designed to boost audience and make it easier to switch from one theme to another. Some of the “celebrity” accounts numbered tens of thousands of followers, suggesting that the approach paid off.
Finally, the exposure of this network confirmed that inauthentic troll clusters are still operating, and still targeting American divisions. However, the response, which featured close cooperation between U.S. law enforcement and the social platforms, showed that key players on the U.S. side are more aware of the threat, and both willing and able to tackle it, than in 2016.
The challenge remains to pass that understanding on to the communities which are being targeted.
Ben Nimmo is Senior Fellow for Information Defense at the Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Lab (@DFRLab).
Csongor Bajnoczki is an Editoral Intern at @DFRLab.
Kanishk Karan is a Digital Forensic Research Assistant at @DFRLab.
Follow along for more in-depth analysis from our #DigitalSherlocks.