Who let the trolls out? Researchers investigate state-sponsored trolls

Who let the trolls out? Researchers investigate state-sponsored trolls
Visualization of the top hashtags used by Iranian trolls on Twitter. Credit: Zannettou et al.

Over the past few years, journalists and politicians have often highlighted the presence of state-sponsored online trolls with the mission of swaying public opinion on particular issues. Researchers at Cyprus University of Technology, UCL, University of Alabama at Birmingham, and Boston University have taken a closer look at this phenomenon, hoping to achieve a better understanding of how these actors operate.

"Facebook has been tuning its systems to detect and block coordinated for several years," Gianluca Stringhini, assistant professor at Boston University, told TechXplore. "The threats faced by platforms, however, are rapidly changing. Until a couple of years ago, the main threat came from malware controlling fake accounts to spread spam and other frauds. This type of activity is controlled by programs and not by humans, and is therefore very precisely coordinated."

In recent years, have witnessed the rise of a new type of threat: coordinated state-sponsored pushing a particular narrative on social media. This activity derives from humans rather than automated programs and is hence harder to tell apart from normal online chatter.

Currently, there is a growing divide in the U.S., much of which is caused by political tribalism said to be fueled by foreign actors. This theory was confirmed when Twitter and Reddit released information about Russian and Iranian trolls, who had been making bold statements on their platforms.

"Our goal was to take advantage of this precious ground truth dataset, analyzing it across several axes in order to better understand the behavior and the influence of these state-sponsored accounts," Savvas Zannettou, Ph.D. Candidate at Cyprus University of Technology, told TechXplore. "These insights are of paramount importance for developing robust solutions for detecting these actors, mitigating their impact on the web, and also for raising public awareness regarding this emerging form of information warfare."

Who let the trolls out? Researchers investigate state-sponsored trolls
Visualization of top hashtags used by Russian trolls on Twitter. Credit: Zannettou et al.

Zannettou and his colleagues analyzed the data released by Twitter and Reddit across several different axes in an attempt to understand how these state-sponsored trolls operate, how their posts evolve over time, who their targets are and how they influence the online community. Their can be divided into three main themes.

"First, we analyzed various characteristics to assess the behavior of these accounts over time," Zannettou said. "Second, we used models called word embeddings to understand the linguistics and use of language of these state-sponsored accounts. Finally, we leveraged a statistical framework known as Hawkes Processes to model and quantify the influence that these accounts had on other communities, such as the rest of Twitter, Reddit, 4chan and Gab."

The analyses carried out by the researchers offer valuable insight on this widely discussed form of state-sponsored propaganda. Firstly, the researchers observed that the behavior of state-sponsored actors varied over time, making them increasingly harder to detect.

"By analyzing their behavior over time and their reported locations, we were also able to shed light on these agents' targets," Zannettou said. "Specifically, we found that Russian trolls were mainly posing as users from Russia, the U.S. and the U.K., while Iranian trolls were mainly posing as users from France, Brazil, the U.S., Saudi Arabia and Turkey."

Russian trolls were typically pro-Trump, while Iranian ones were against him. This suggests that regular users could be inadvertently caught in the middle of discussions between state-sponsored actors supporting conflicting ideologies. Moreover, the researchers observed that Russian-backed trolls were more sophisticated and subtle than Iranian-backed actors.

Who let the trolls out? Researchers investigate state-sponsored trolls
The map shows the reported locations of Russian trolls (red circles) and Iranian trolls (green triangles) on Twitter. The size of the shapes denotes the number of tweets that were posted from the specific reported location. Credit: Zannettou et al.
"This is evident from Russian trolls' dissemination of random and seemingly general purpose content, while Iranian trolls were more straightforward and focused on disseminating their propaganda," Zannettou explained. "Iranian campaigns are evidently motivated by real-world events. For example, we find that Iranians started communicating in French on November 2013, around the time in which France opposed to the nuclear talks. The same applies to Arabic after the attack on the Saudi Arabia embassy in Tehran, in January 2016."

Zannettou and his colleagues observed that Russian trolls were more proficient in spreading information on most online communities, with the exception of 4chan's Politically Incorrect board, where Iranian actors were more influential. So far, their work has focused on the text content and metadata of tweets and online posts. Nonetheless, many state-sponsored accounts also share images and videos.

"We now aim to analyze images and videos to understand what kind of information trolls disseminate in these formats and whether these were part of their propaganda," Zannettou said. "Finally, we aim to assess the influence that these accounts had to the rest of the web over time."

Interactive graphs are available at trollspaper2018.github.io/trol … #russians_graph.gexf and at trollspaper2018.github.io/trol … #iranians_graph.gexf


Explore further

Propaganda-spewing Russian trolls act differently online from regular people

More information: Who let the trolls out? Towards understanding state-sponsored trolls. arXiv:1811.03130 [cs.SI]. arxiv.org/abs/1811.03130

© 2018 Science X Network

Citation: Who let the trolls out? Researchers investigate state-sponsored trolls (2018, November 23) retrieved 12 December 2018 from https://techxplore.com/news/2018-11-trolls-state-sponsored.html
This document is subject to copyright. Apart from any fair dealing for the purpose of private study or research, no part may be reproduced without the written permission. The content is provided for information purposes only.
1444 shares

Feedback to editors

User comments

Nov 23, 2018
When major media sources like Twitter and Facebook block content based on based political content our freedoms are in real jeopardy. They cannot pre digest opinion without turning into propaganda mills for one side of the other.

Citizens need to listen to BOTH sides of a discussion and come to their own conclusions. The truth is relative and history is rewritten at will in today's society. Major media outlets censor what they distribute in order to further their agenda. That is why an uncensored internet is so important to a free society. The biggest threat to freedom is the limiting of speech that we do not agree with and calling those who speak it some sort of " ist ".

Nov 23, 2018
There are no relative truths or relative facts and we as scientists are trained to know what are facts are what are assertions. If you have the rulers of the two major nuclear powers who both have broken all of the Ten Commandments and who are firmly in charge in this world, it is down to either you believe in the truths or you don't. Around the time the Ten Commandments was written as truths in human behavior 2,600 years ago, they also wrote this:
Proverbs 29:12 If a ruler listens to falsehood, All of his servants are wicked.
Whose servant are you?

Nov 23, 2018
When you talk about politics there is no absolute truth only opinions. As an example, if I desire strong borders and control of immigration am I a racist? To some the "Truth" would be yes others no.

Nov 23, 2018
Thank you for providing examples, guys.

Nov 23, 2018
https://www.thega...ria-law/

There are more, this is just an example.

Nov 23, 2018
There are no relative truths or relative facts


Naturalist fallacy; when talking about politics you are talking about what should be, not directly about what is. These two get mixed up, so that people pretend that what IS dictates what OUGHT to be, and that type of absolutism is false.

For example, is Julian Assange a traitor, or a hero? Fact is, he published embarrassing information about the US government. Whether he is a "criminal" who needs to be put in prison depends largely on whether you are personally embarrassed by the information, hence, nobody can claim to know the truth. It's all about how you spin it, or counter-spin in case of the Russian/Iranian trolls.

Yet another person who subscribes to the idea of Realpolitik might even say that the information Assange published isn't embarrassing at all - that the US government is entitled to be as Machiavellian as it pleases and good for them, and all this "top secret" business is just playing lip service.

Nov 23, 2018
It is easy to tell who the trolls are. The bigots attack those they perceive as weaker than them.

Why are you whining that I am attacking you for being quislings and copperheads?
Are you blubbering because you are weaker then me?

As a friend of mine, in exile from America for being the wrong color, wrong sex, wrong religion, and expressing a code of honor unrecognizable to the altright fairytails. Just messaged me.

"It is ridiculous that a nation of immigrants now fears immigrants."

My father's family owes the American People an apology.

For our great-greats corruption. Accepting those bribes from your grandfather to let his scum family slip across the border into America.

As far as my father's kinfolk are concerned? None of you are white enough. Or American enough to be allowed to stay.

Nov 23, 2018
Even framing the problem as either or limits the conversation. False dichotomies everywhere perpetuated by the fact that evolution hasn't taken the time to realize we aren't running around the Serengeti anymore. I wonder what a world would look like if it was ran by biologists, physicists, engineers, ect. They could use economists and sociologists as consultants. Reduce lawyers to arbitrating domestic squabbles and put career politicians in a matrix style VR world where they can control everything to their hearts desire. Ha what could go wrong!?

Nov 23, 2018
Don't forget that the West, especially the US, have their massive mainstream media propaganda machine network to disseminate their ideology, in addition to trolls.

Nov 23, 2018
I AM a russian bot ! my greatest achievment

Nov 23, 2018
I wonder what a world would look like if it was ran by biologists, physicists, engineers, ect. They could use economists and sociologists as consultants.


Pretty much the same. The world is already run by these people - the key point being that they are people just like the rest of us.

Nov 24, 2018
False erika, if only it were

Nov 24, 2018
..that the US government is entitled to be as Machiavellian as it pleases and good for them, and all this "top secret" business is just playing lip service.
But is it good when you censor media and hinder innovation by slowing the globalization of information? Capitalism should want the world to shrink to permit a smaller entrance to market.
Pretty much the same. The world is already run by these people - the key point being that they are people just like the rest of us.
Nope, the government has prosecuted these people without due process in psychological experimentation and electronic harassment campaigns. These people can even measure it, block it, report it, but the mass populace doesn't have time because they are too busy trying to survive, and are distracted by the bread/circus. The few that are informed are tempted by the power of authority, mystery and miracles. Ought means little if your own agency does not follow through or it comes at a cost to the infrastruct

Nov 24, 2018
False erika, if only it were


Too a point. They are just as lazy. Just as human. Just as crazy. Ultimately the social construct decides with the information it has. The integrity of that information depends on the philosopher king at hand :/

Whose servant are you?

Silence's the only thing inscrutable.

Nov 25, 2018
Any discussion of online troll farms and their political influence that neglects to discuss David Brock's Correct The Record operation and others is simply pointing their fingers at the "other," refusing to blame the decline of the US on the corruption within. Reminder the US made Russia what they are today. They're corrupt capitalists just like us now!

Love the obligatory demonization of Iran, the country that will be the next victim of the US Industrial Military complex within the decade. Why are we best friends with Saudi Arabia again? Oh right Oil and the USD.

Nov 25, 2018
"If you have the rulers of the two major nuclear powers who both have broken all of the Ten Commandments..."

-You mean like the hebrews who broke every one of their commandments during the joshuan genocidal rampage through palestine?

Internal empathy + external animosity = the tribal dynamic. Tribalism's a bitch. Your abrahamic religions are designed to exploit it to the max. See your holy books for instructions.

"They entered into a covenant to seek the Lord, the God of their fathers, with all their heart and soul; and everyone who would not seek the Lord, the God of Israel, was to be put to death, whether small or great, whether man or woman."(2 Chron15:12-13 NAB)

"6 He replied, "Isaiah was right when he prophesied about you hypocrites; as it is written: " 'These people honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me." Mark7

Nov 25, 2018
BTW otto is a bot from HELL haha

Nov 28, 2018
I had a look at that article, "Propaganda-spewing Russian trolls act differently online from regular people," and I went down the list:

Pen_Air
National American news
Blacks4DTrump
African-Americans stand with Trump to make America Great Again!
southlonestar2

This is the first time I've heard about any of these. I'm still waiting for the explanation that anyone with any type of sense would be swayed by such juvenile activities.

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more