Your Friendly Neighborhood Troll: The Internet Research Agency’s Use of Local and Fake News in the 2016 U.S. Presidential Campaign

We examine whether IRA-operated Twitter accounts spread polarizing or misleading content on social media platforms in an attempt to influence the outcome of the 2016 U.S. presidential election.

Summary

The NYU Social Media and Political Participation (SMaPP) lab analyzed data shared publicly by Twitter on the activity of the Kremlin-linked “Internet Research Agency” (IRA) to examine whether IRA-operated Twitter accounts spread polarizing or misleading content on social media platforms in an attempt to influence the outcome of the 2016 U.S. presidential election. Our analysis produced 3 main insights:

Junk News. IRA-operated accounts shared 50 percent more junk news than did typical Twitter users, though the overall volume was low. However, the number of junk news sites shared spiked in the weeks immediately leading up to the November 8, 2016 elections.

Local Media. The troll accounts shared news from local media sources 15 times more often than did a comparison group over the same period, possibly trying to take advantage of the trust local media outlets enjoy in the US. Most of this activity was driven by 27 highly automated IRA accounts that masqueraded as local news sources. However, engagement with these accounts was low, and their activity was not concentrated on content from swing states.

Polarization. Several IRA accounts pretended to be American partisans, sharing potentially polarizing local news on Twitter. While engagement with these accounts was higher than with the fake local news outlets, the average number of likes and retweets per link was still less than 50.