Clemson professors become international stars for busting Russian social media trolls

Two Clemson University professors have a question for voters surfing social media during these turbulent weeks before Election Day: Load Error Is that tweet or post you’re reading from a real person . . . or a foreign troll? A troll is a fake social media account, often created to […]

Two Clemson University professors have a question for voters surfing social media during these turbulent weeks before Election Day:


Load Error

Is that tweet or post you’re reading from a real person . . . or a foreign troll?

A troll is a fake social media account, often created to spread misleading information or to sow discord.

Professors Darren Linvill and Patrick Warren have become international experts at identifying and exposing social media disinformation. And they recently created an online quiz to share some of what they’ve learned.

Their hope: To turn voters into sharper consumers of Twitter, Facebook and Instagram at a time when, according to U.S. intelligence agencies, Russia, China and Iran are flooding social media with messages from bogus accounts that are designed to further divide an already polarized American electorate.

They call their quiz “Spot the Troll.”

It presents eight profiles. Each includes a brief selection of actual posts from a single social media account. The question: Which of them are authentic and which were created by the Internet Research Agency, or IRA, a “troll factory” in St. Petersburg, Russia?

Is @HarmonyAnders really a self-described “college girl who managed to stay conservative?” Or were her tweets attacking the “DemoRat Party” concocted by a professional meddler in Russia?

What about “power_to_women_”? Is this Bernie Sanders-lovin’ Instagram account, with its logo of Rosie the Riveter putting Donald Trump in a headlock, run by a real feminist group in America? Or was it produced by a troll factory — also called a troll farm — in St. Petersburg?

In the quiz, the Clemson professors offer various signs — things to look for — in determining if it’s a troll or not.

The lack of any personal information, for example, should make one wary. “It’s important to notice what isn’t in this profile,” reads one of their tips. “Anything other than politics. There’s no identifying info about family, school/work, friends, pets, houseplants . . . nothing.”

Tweets and posts from foreign trolls may sound clever, but their purpose is insidious, said Warren, 41, a professor of economics.

“They play to our weakness,” he said. “They find divisions that are already there and inflame them or push them into less productive outcomes.”

Like violence.

In some of the earliest troll accounts targeting Americans, Warren said, the Russians even managed to set up competing political protests across the street from each other.

Releasing their quiz now, during an election, “was on purpose,” said Linvill, 44, a professor of communication. “We want to help create a savvier public, one less likely to engage and spread disinformation.”

Downloaded 3 million tweets

It was Christmastime 2017, and Linvill and Warren were playing board games with friends when the discussion turned to the Russians and how they had tried to influence the outcome of the 2016 election in the United States.

The concept of Russian trolls was just coming to light and the U.S. House Intelligence Committee had released a long list of these account names that the panel had received from Twitter.

The two professors decided to use the technical resources at Clemson to try to gain access to the tweets from these bogus accounts. It worked, and they ended up with 3 million deleted tweets — downloading 50,000 at a time.

Said Linvill: “I read tweets until my eyes bled.”

Over the next three years, they worked to discern the tactics and strategy of the IRA and other foreign organizations following in their footsteps.

Partly through their analysis of the tweets, Linvill said, “we were also able to build up a very specific understanding of various technical signals that allowed us to start to identify their ongoing works and separate the wheat from the chaff and actually attribute particular accounts to the work of the Russian Internet Research Agency.”

And in 2018 and 2019, they started piecing together networks of IRA activity.

Working with the U.S. government, Twitter and the media, they helped shut down some of these fake accounts.

They were even able to identify a troll farm the Russians had set up in the west African country of Ghana.

The trolls in Ghana pretended to be based in nine different U.S. states, including North Carolina. Their tweets and posts focused on racial strife and used incendiary language, reported CNN, which worked with the Clemson professors on its story. A Facebook account called “Roots Revival” referred to “America’s descent into a fascist police state” and wrote this about a Republican state senator: “Someone needs to take that Senator out.”

The government in Ghana closed down the troll farm, Linvill said, and “there were a couple of indictments.”

Cited by senators

The Clemson team and their work were also repeatedly cited in the Senate Intelligence Committee’s report on Russian interference in the 2016 election.

From page 52: “The 617 Right(wing) Troll Twitter accounts tweeted 663,740 times and cultivated a million total followers. Clemson researchers characterized these accounts as focused on spreading ‘nativist and right-leaning populist messages.’ They strongly supported the candidacy of Donald Trump, employed the #MAGA hashtag and attacked Democrats. . . . The accounts generally featured very little in the way of identifying information, but frequently used profile pictures of ‘attractive, young women.’”

And during a Senate Intelligence Committee hearing in September 2018, U.S. Sen. Susan Collins complained to Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey that she had to find out from Clemson University, not Twitter, that leaders like her had been targeted by Russian IRA accounts. “I shouldn’t find out from looking at Clemson University’s database and working with their researchers,” said the Republican senator from Maine, who was the target of 279 Russian-generated tweets that had gone to as many as 363,000 followers.

Linvill said the IRA — bankrolled by Russian oligarch Yevgeny Prigozhin, who is close to Vladimir Putin — has gotten more sophisticated and more adept at infiltrating social media in the United States.

In 2016, he said, the Russians were paying for Facebook ads with rubles and registering their social media accounts with Russian phone numbers.

Now celebrities and journalists are among those who unwittingly spread their messages with retweets — and more.

In September 2018, a tweet from @PoliteMelanie was named Tweet of the Week by the Chicago Tribune. The tweet, which had more than 125,000 retweets and likes, read: “Criticizing Trump in a book is just unfair. It’s like criticizing the Amish on television.”

The following March, in a column for the Washington Post, Linvill and Warren outed @PoliteMelanie as a likely Russian troll. Twitter suspended the account.

“We need to accept that we are engaged in nothing less than political warfare,” the Clemson professors ended their column. “And as we approach the 2020 election, we need to be more clever than the trolls.”

Many have taken quiz

Linvill and Warren consider “Spot the Troll,” their new online quiz, a weapon in that war.

Up to now, they have tried to identify, expose and help shut down foreign trolls. But Linvill likens that to a game of whack a mole: “Bad actors are many, and they’re varied and they’re well-sourced.”

So the Clemson professors now hope to give people tips on how to better assess social media accounts, especially those that traffic in fiery political content.

Their online quiz — built by Interactive Knowledge, a Charlotte firm — was released on Sept. 15. Clemson promoted it. The chief of information for the U.S. Navy retweeted it. So did the Canadian military and Shane Harris, the national security reporter at the Washington Post. In its first week, half a million people took it.

Warren, a trained economist, casts the decision to come up with an online quiz in terms of supply and demand.

“We’ve been working on the supply side for a long time — trying to help catch (trolls) and shut them down. That’s useful, and we’ve had a big impact there,” he said. “But if you want to really shift the market . . . address people who are consuming this stuff and make them more resilient to these sort of attacks.”

Working the demand side means helping people to not only recognize “inauthentic accounts,” he said, but also to not dismiss as fake those real accounts they happen to disagree with.

“A lot of people have this idea that anyone who strongly disagrees with me is a troll,” Warren said. “And that’s not right, either. We want to help people discriminate better. Discriminate in a good way.”

So their tips begin with an invitation to keep your eyes open.

“Most of the accounts you will meet are real people,” Linvill said, “but trolls are out there.”

And these imposters will often pretend to be your ideological or partisan friend in hopes of sliding a message to you under the radar. That’s also how they get likes, retweets, and followers.

During that Senate Intelligence Committee hearing in 2018, Sen. Collins also spoke about a Russian troll that purported to be under the control of “Tennessee GOP.” It had more than 140,000 followers, Collins said, “and would sometimes spread conspiracy theories and false claims of voter fraud.”

Once trolls have your ear, their goal is to inflame your political passions and push you to become a little more extreme. They may do this by demonizing the other side, spreading dark conspiracy theories or spinning the real news. Linvill said the hope at IRA was to elect Trump by whipping up the right and trying to lower voter turnout on the left.

Their audience is an already divided America. The foreign trolls “want to rub salt on the wounds,” Linvill said, “And make something bad even worse.”

Tips to spot trolls

The Clemson professors say beware of accounts that:

? Are anonymous. “Like in the real world, most anonymous people mean you no harm, but you still don’t treat them the same way you treat your neighbor. Be wary of anyone who doesn’t tell you who they are.”

? Don’t reveal any personal information. “Real people have anecdotes about friends, family, work, or hobbies and often share them through social media. Trolls don’t have any of these because they don’t really exist.”

? Are one-dimensional. “When it comes to issues of politics, real people often have varied opinions. You might agree with Republicans on one set of issues and Democrats on another. Alternately, you might talk about local, state, and also national issues. Trolls tend to be focused and extreme; they are often a one trick pony.”

? Feature profile images that are young and unusually attractive. “We all like to put our best foot forward on social media and choose profile pictures that make us look our best, but this is especially true for troll accounts. Trolls learned from the world of advertising to sell their lies with beauty.”

And because Russian President Putin is considered pro-President Trump, many have the mistaken notion that all IRA trolls are designed to promote the right and attack the left. In fact, said Linvill, there are as many trolls seeking to engage and egg on, say, former Bernie Sanders supporters. “They work in both directions to achieve their goals,” he said.

And increasingly, trolls out of China and Iran are showing up.

“Russians understand how to engage with these very particular (American) communities online. They put a lot more effort into the cultural element,” Linvill said. “Whereas, with the Chinese disinformation, they talk about things China is interested in: the Hong Kong protests, COVID-19, the economy.”

And Iran?

“The Iranians are getting there,” he said. “They are more akin to what Russians do. They try to engage in some of these (online) communities. But they don’t have the . . . experience of doing this like the Russians do.”

Warren, who teaches about propaganda in one of his graduate classes, said countries that use trolls to try to further divide the United States are actually most interested in advancing their own home-front goals.

Trolls “are just a means to domestic ends,” he said. “China and Russia both share the goal of wanting us to be so tied-up in all of our own internal problems that they can have free rein in their areas.”

For Russia, that’s Eastern Europe, For China, that’s the South China Sea.

“Anything that tears us apart and away from our allies strengthens their hands,” added Warren. “They don’t care about us per se.”

Want to take the quiz?

Go to


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