National security agencies tap Clemson professors’ Russian trolling research
CLEMSON, South Carolina – Research by two Clemson University professors on Russian social media trolling has drawn the interest of U.S. agencies charged with protecting the country’s national security.
Patrick Warren, associate professor in the John E. Walker Department of Economics and Darren Linvill, associate professor in the department of communication, have shared their extensive research on Russian social media disinformation campaigns with the U.S. Senate Intelligence Committee, the Department of Homeland Security, other federal law enforcement agencies and more recently, U.S. Army Cyber Command.
A spokesman for U.S. Army Cyber Command confirmed that Linvill and Warren have provided the Army’s cyber unit with valuable information on their research into foreign cyber saboteurs’ social media campaigns aimed at influencing U.S. political discourse and electoral processes.
“Clemson professors Linvill and Warren provided a great professional development presentation to the Army Cyber team. It was an excellent exchange of information with our developers and operational planners,” said Charlie Stadtlander, communications director for the unit. “Clemson’s cutting-edge research in cyberspace and social media information activities is well-recognized. With valuable input from professors Warren and Linvill and leading thinkers from other leading U.S. academic institutions, Army Cyber Command will exhaust all avenues in defending our military networks and critical U.S. infrastructure against global cyber threats.”
Linvill and Warren were contacted by the Army Cyber Command while the agency was on campus recruiting. “They had heard about our work on the radio and contacted us about sharing our research with the Army’s cyber unit,” Warren said.
Since late 2017, the Clemson researchers have been compiling and analyzing the tactics and strategy of social media accounts created by a Russian agency whose goal is to interfere in the U.S. electoral process. The Russians’ “troll factory” is housed in St. Petersburg in the now-famous government-linked Internet Research Agency (IRA).
“What the IRA is attempting to do through social media channels is create a one-sided agenda through a marketing campaign,” Warren said. “It’s not espionage, it’s essentially a guerrilla marketing campaign.”
Linvill said their exchange with the Army’s “cyber soldiers,” about 150 total, focused on how they analyzed the strategies and behavior of the Russians’ trolling.
“We shared our statistical and theoretical approaches to analyzing the data we retrieved. Everyone sees the same data, but the data doesn’t interpret itself,” Linvill said. “Our training was different from our Army counterparts, so we were able to provide them a unique way of approaching the analysis of data.”
Warren said sharing their research with the Army’s cyber unit appealed to them for several reasons.
“The IRA’s meddling both bothered and interested us. Every faculty member wants to see their research affect the world in a positive way,” Warren added. “We believe in the Army’s mission to protect the electoral process. So it’s nice to be able to help in a mission and have an impact on something we care about.”
From the university’s Social Media Listening Center in Daniel Hall, the Clemson researchers have probed the Russian agency’s Twitter archive and they continue to monitor accounts linked to the agency. They have compiled approximately 3 million tweets through more than 3,000 Russian government-backed Twitter accounts before and after the 2016 election.
It is estimated the IRA has used social media platforms since 2013 to spread propaganda favorable to the Russian government. It is also believed that as early as 2015, the Russians launched a campaign through social media to interfere in the 2016 presidential election.
The deputy commanding general of the Army Cyber Command lauded Warren and Linvill for tailoring a presentation to benefit his team’s mission.
“Professors Linvill and Warren’s presentation to my senior leaders and their follow-up discussions with us have been invaluable,” said Brig. Gen. Joe Hartman. “We are thankful for the insights on tactics and techniques they presented that will contribute significantly to the mission challenges we face.”
Linvill’s and Warren’s work has been well chronicled by leading national and global media outlets. In addition, their research on the Russians’ social media meddling has caught the interest of Homeland Security and the Senate Intelligence Committee.
Linvill estimates the pair’s research has been written about in more than 80 international, national and regional news stories. His favorite: the Italian version of Rolling Stone magazine.
“We’ve spent countless hours responding to these media requests. Each one of them requires at least an hour of preparation and delivery, and oftentimes there’s follow-up,” Linvill said. “But Patrick and I are both passionate about this and believe we need to engage the public on what’s happening. So it’s incredibly important to get the word out to the media. If we can do something to make people aware and diligent about spotting disinformation and one-way conversations, then we’re going to do what we can to help.”
Like their presentation to U.S. Army Cyber Command, conversations with Homeland Security and the Senate Intelligence Community are ongoing.
Linvill said Twitter connected the researchers with Homeland Security’s Global Engagement Center as a result of the work they conducted with the social media platform. “We did most of our communication with DHS via email and through phone briefings,” Linvill added.
The Senate Intelligence Committee’s call came at 10 o’clock the night before a briefing that was scheduled for the next day. “That call came last September, but all of these conversations are continuing as more information is requested,” Linvill said.
Based in Fort Belvoir, Viriginia, U.S. Army Cyber Command defends Army communication networks and provides cyberspace protections against global adversaries. Its 24/7 global operations are conducted by 16,500 soldiers, civilian employees and contractors spread across four states, including Fort Gordon, near Augusta, Georgia. U.S. Army Cyber Command’s operational headquarters will move from Virginia to Fort Gordon in June of 2020.
The deputy commanding general said his unit’s move to Fort Gordon next summer will provide opportunities to engage more cyberspace thought leaders throughout the Southeast, like Clemson’s.
“Professors Warren and Linvill have remained in contact with my operations officers since their visit and have provided valuable information,” Hartman said. “As our operations move to the Southeast, we look forward to continuing our conversation with the Clemson researchers and engaging other thought leaders in the region that will better help the Army’s Cyber Command secure our country’s interests.”