We study how easy it is to distinguish influence operations from organic social media activity by assessing the performance of a platform-agnostic machine learning approach. Our method uses public activity to detect content that is part of coordinated influence operations based on human-interpretable features derived solely from content. We test this method on publicly available Twitter data on Chinese, Russian, and Venezuelan troll activity targeting the United States, as well as the Reddit dataset of Russian influence efforts. To assess how well content-based features distinguish these influence operations from random samples of general and political American users, we train and test classifiers on a monthly basis for each campaign across five prediction tasks. Content-based features perform well across period, country, platform, and prediction task. Industrialized production of influence campaign content leaves a distinctive signal in user-generated content that allows tracking of campaigns from month to month and across different accounts.
As non-democratic regimes have adapted to the proliferation of social media, they have begun actively engaging with Twitter to enhance regime resilience. Using data taken from the Twitter accounts of Venezuelan legislators during the 2014 anti-Maduro protests in Venezuela, we fit a topic model on the text of the tweets and analyze patterns in hashtag use by the two coalitions. We argue that the regime’s best strategy in the face of an existential threat like the narrative developed by La Salida and promoted on Twitter was to advance many competing narratives that addressed issues unrelated to the opposition’s criticism. Our results show that the two coalitions pursued different rhetorical strategies in keeping with our predictions about managing the conflict advanced by the protesters. This article extends the literature on social media use during protests by focusing on active engagement with social media on the part of the regime. This approach corroborates and expands on recent research on inferring regime strategies from propaganda and censorship.