The Surprising Nuance Behind the Russian Troll Strategy
We set out to study internet discourse around #BlackLivesMatter — instead, we were unintentionally learning about the Russian information operation to undermine democracy
For researchers in online disinformation and information operations, it’s been an interesting week. On Wednesday, Twitter released an archive of tweets shared by accounts from the Internet Research Agency (IRA), an organization in St. Petersburg, Russia, with alleged ties to the Russian government’s intelligence apparatus. This data archive provides a new window into Russia’s recent “information operations.” On Friday, the U.S. Department of Justice filed charges against a Russian citizen for her role in ongoing operations and provided new details about their strategies and goals.
Information operations exploit information systems (like social media platforms) to manipulate audiences for strategic, political goals—in this case, one of the goals was to influence the U.S. election in 2016.
In our lab at the University of Washington (UW), we’ve been accidentally studying these information operations since early 2016. These recent developments offer new context for our research and, in many ways, confirm what we thought we were seeing—at the intersection of information operations and political discourse in the United States—from a very different view.
A few years ago, UW PhD student Leo Stewart initiated a project to study online conversations around the #BlackLivesMatter movement. This research grew to become a collaborative project that included PhD student Ahmer Arif, iSchool assistant professor Emma Spiro, and me. As the research evolved, we began to focus on “framing contests” within what turned out to be a very politicized online conversation.
Framing can be a powerful political tool.
The concept of framing has interesting roots and competing definitions (see Goffman, Entman, Benford and Snow). In simple terms, a frame is a way of seeing and understanding the world that helps us interpret new information. Each of us has a set of frames we use to make sense of what we see, hear, and experience…