Faculty measure impact of underreported activity of political Twitter trolls
Darren Linvill has earned an unusual moniker over the last eight months. He’s spent so much time studying the habits of those that would abuse Twitter to subvert political discourse, his colleagues in Clemson’s communication department now call him “the troll whisperer.”
Linvill and College of Business faculty member Patrick Warren have spent months studying the activities of social media accounts created by Russian agencies to negatively influence election cycles and political discourse. They’ve studied how these “trolls” achieve their goals and what the timing and frequency of posts have to say about their intentions and efficacy, and they’re getting national attention for their work.
Twitter has not supplied much detail regarding the scope of social media attacks coming from Russia, only giving specific numbers from the weeks prior to the election. Researchers working with NBC news identified a little over 200,000 tweets which they published online back in February. Linvill and Warren, however, have downloaded over 3 million individual tweets, a striking figure and well more than Twitter’s “official” revelations.
“The numbers during this immediate lead up to the election are important, but we’ve looked at data from months before that and the time since,” Linvill said. “The activity isn’t limited to a few weeks and we believe the impact on Twitter has been grossly underreported.”
By using resources on Clemson’s campus and a little ingenuity, Linvill and Warren have discovered data that flies in the face of all previous reports on the subject of Twitter trolls, but the work has been fraught with challenges and long hours.
Linvill first approached Warren in December 2017 to investigate the issue. With all the news surrounding Russian trolls on Facebook, they both agreed they should at least attempt to use the Social Studio software housed in Clemson’s Social Media Listening Center to investigate whether the problem with troll accounts was better or worse than reported by Twitter.
“We both trained with the software,” Warren said. “Most people know the software as being a great way to monitor social media conversation, but it’s arguably more powerful as an archive tool; we were able to tweak the search criteria to hone in on these accounts months or years in the past.”
Linvill and Warren started with the initial list of over 2,700 troll accounts revealed by Congress in late 2017. They used the Social Studio’s tools to quantify the number of tweets coming from known trolls and chart the various identities they’ve assumed over the course of an account’s history.
They ran numbers. They played troll Whack-a-Mole. They marveled—and cringed—at their targets’ often twisted sense of humor.
Linvill also took the time to examine every account one by one to verify suspicious activity, and in the process has helped people falsely accused of being trolls clear their names with Twitter. Attempts by many journalists to reach Twitter about people who have been mislabeled trolls have been met with little-to-no success, but some of the names uncovered by Linvill have been removed from subsequent troll lists.
“We decided early on to not automate the entire process,” Linvill said. “It’s made our findings more valuable but it’s been incredibly time consuming.”
The EU’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) has made the research especially challenging. The GDPR has forced businesses to erase data that is more than three years old in order to protect people’s privacy. This regulation has essentially put an unforgiving countdown on Linvill and Warren’s data; every day that passes is another piece of potential data falling out of their hands.
This cruel reality stung in June when the House Intelligence Committee released over 1,100 new handles designed to increase political polarization in the U.S. This forced Linvill to go back and add even more tweets to the already large list he had assembled before, and it meant countless pieces of data that could have been found before were lost forever due to the GDPR.
“This whole process has been like gathering data in front of a steamroller,” Warren said. “You know you’ve got to keep moving forward and you’re frantically picking up as many pieces as you can, but after a certain point you can’t go back for more.”
Linvill and Warren realized early on that these circumstances practically guaranteed their work would never produce the full picture of negative political influence via Twitter. They came to terms with it because of the potential value of what it suggested about the magnitude of the problem on a social platform that many were ignoring when it came to Russian interference in U.S. politics.
Those who are aware of Linvill and Warren’s work are as excited and dismayed by their findings as they are. In the end, Linvill says he’s glad he jumped down this particular rabbit hole, but some people have grown weary of his troll whispering.
“My wife has gotten tired of hearing about trolls,” Linvill said, laughing. “We never expected this list of trolls and tweets to keep increasing in the way that it has. But I had no choice; doing this was me fulfilling my patriotic duty.”
Linvill and Warren view this work as ongoing; unfortunately, they don’t think the trolls are going to stop any time soon. And why would they? According to Warren, their efforts thus far have been wildly successful.
For the foreseeable future, the trolls will still be out there, albeit in a subtler, more effective form. Instead of sharing sensational or downright untrue posts that attack a side, they’re resorting to sowing doubt or galvanizing one side against another. It’s all the more reason to have well trained whisperers who continue to weed the trolls out and study their behavior.
Linvill and Warren tend to discuss their ongoing “troll whispering” and “patriotic duties” with a wink, but their behavior suggests they’re far from joking. When Warren discusses these data points, he raises his voice a little more than usual to drive them home. Linvill hits the table a little harder when he talks about the hours he’s spent in front of the computer, and the arms of his desk chair take a beating with every statistic he throws out.