In Part One, we presented our initial suspicion about the #TrudeauMustGo Twitter campaign. In Part Two, we highlighted some of the features of the data that jumped out at us while investigating the Canadian elections.
I grew up in Canada, so there was something, to me personally, that felt distinctly un-Canadian about the tone and tenor of the campaign, despite the preponderance of Canadian flag icons in usernames (>50,000) and user descriptions (>45,000 Tweets).
Maybe it was the heavy dose of United States flags icons in usernames (>13,000 Tweets) and user descriptions (>18,000 Tweets) that tipped me off that something fishy was going on.
Let’s be honest, you never hear about Canada in the United States unless there is a scandal like Trudeau in blackface.
How to Spot a Russian Troll Army a Mile Away
I did not go looking for bots or trolls. Actually, it feels like they came looking for me (perhaps they will now).
In fact, this is how it actually happened: my colleague at the Oxford Internet Institute (OII), Profressor Phil Howard, invited us to start a project that looks at the way powers hostile to NATO use Twitter to troll and target NATO troops. After reviewing work by Dr. Howard and his group on Brexit, Trolls, and Computational Propaganda, we were curious to see who was still spreading known Russian propaganda news sites in English on Twitter. Moreover, we were also interested in investigating whether those users were also involved in United States and now Canadian politics.
So, we gathered mentions of SouthFront.org and VeteransToday, two known propaganda outlets for the Russians, as well as some contemporaneous Twitter US-focused datasets, to see where the users overlapped. The raw data is summarized below:
Back in August 2019, we were curious to see if the accounts spreading Russian propaganda in English via Twitter were also active in trends like #KamalaHarrisDestroyed or #ImpeachJoaquinCastro.
Indeed, we discovered that there was some overlap. So, we started looking at whether accounts spreading Russian propaganda sites were also in #MAGA, the rising new #KAG (Keep America Great), but also the discussions around the meeting of the G7, NATO, and even the bizarre QAnon movement.
What We Found
We found 2,232 distinct user accounts propagating links to VeteransToday, and 2,117 spreading content from SouthFront between August 23 and September 6, 2019.
Moreover, we noticed that across the two collections, there are 3,551 distinct user descriptions, with the top 50 most active accounts responsible for just less than half of all the posts where the user actually has a description.
Additionally, there are 718 users for which there is no user description, another red flag.
After that, we examined the prevalence of the 4,269 users who spread Russian propaganda in the other datasets. As a result, we found the below counts of the screen_names in both.
Some will look at these numbers of accounts and conclude that they are too small as a percentage of the total number of accounts to have an impact on an election outcome, or even to shape the discourse leading up to the election. Indeed, a reporter reviewed much of this data, heard our analysis, and came back with “interesting, but so what?”
We think it may take 8-10 blog posts to properly make the case. However, the “so what” answer is that pro-authoritarian Twitter accounts are instigating and amplifying conversations in democratic societies globally for a reason.
Therefore, to better understand these accounts, I assembled the 3,551 user descriptions and presented a video summary of them below. For now, let’s see how some of these accounts are presenting their public face.
Based on a fast evolving model, let me introduce you to a group of fairly active and very likely trolls and bots who are involved both in spreading Russian propaganda, as well as tweeting about the affairs of western democracies:
Coming up Next
In Part Four, we will explain how these and other pro-Russian Twitter users are involved in the fast-approaching Canadian election.
Finally, check also Part Five of our blog series on foreign interference in the Canadian elections on Twitter.