As Special Counsel Robert Mueller recently re-emphasized, there is no doubt that the Russian government interfered in the 2016 election. But was the goal of that interference to elect Donald Trump, or simply to sow discord and drive already-polarized Americans even farther apart?
A new analysis of tweets produced by Russian troll farms suggests the answer is both.
Russia's state-sponsored Internet Research Agency "made coordinated efforts to drive a wedge between conservatives and liberals," writes a research team led by Darren Linvill of Clemson University. But the IRA's efforts in 2016 "went beyond ideological division to include supporting the candidacy of Donald Trump."
"The IRA accomplished both of these goals by communicating with different ideological groups, and their accompanying social media echo chambers, using different tactics," the researchers write in the journal Computers in Human Behavior.
Linvill and his colleagues analyzed the language of just over 100,000 Russian-generated tweets from October 7th to November 8th, 2016. They identified seven categories of tweeting behavior: Attack left, support right, attack right, support life, attack media, attack civil institutions, and "camouflage."
Fifty-two percent of the tweets they analyzed fell into that last category: non-political messages designed to lull users into accepting the Twitter handles as legitimate sources of information. These "mundane tweets" ranged from comments about television programs and video games to inspirational messages such as, "Start each day with a grateful heart."
The most numerous political tweets were those attacking left-leaning candidates and policy positions. These made up 12 percent of the total. Tweets supporting liberal ideas and personalities made up a significantly smaller 7.4 percent of the total.
Another 7 percent supported right-wing figures and causes, while only 5.4 percent attacked conservatives and their ideas. From those figures, the outline of the Russian plan is clear: Attack all sides, but use more of your ammunition on the left than on the right.
Further analysis revealed that the effort's anti-left tweets were more likely to be specifically anti-Hillary Clinton than the anti-right tweets were to be overtly anti-Trump.
Then there was this noteworthy difference: "While the right[-wing] trolls overwhelmingly support their candidate, with 15 times as many tweets supporting Trump as attacking him, the left[-wing] trolls are much more lukewarm in their support, with nearly as many tweets attacking Clinton as supporting her."
So the Democratic nominee was attacked from both the left and right—or, rather, by Russians impersonating left- and right-wing Americans.
Of the remaining tweets, 7 percent attacked American institutions, and 2 percent attacked the news media. The researchers note that this pattern is highly reminiscent of Russian propaganda of decades past.
"The IRA worked to delegitimize knowledge" around the 2016 election, they write. "Just as the KGB historically spread conspiracies regarding the Kennedy assassination and the AIDS epidemic," today's successor organization is attempting "to undermine scientific consensus, civil institutions, and the trustworthiness of the media.
"These attacks could have the potential for societal damage well beyond any single political campaign," they warn.
There is every reason to believe the Russian government is gearing up to repeat or expand this effort during next year's presidential election, and other hostile nations may follow Russia's lead. While social media companies say they're attempting to identify and take down these bot accounts, none of them has yet developed a foolproof plan.
There is an urgent need for greater understanding of how, and why, our Twitter and Facebook feeds are being manipulated to shape our thoughts and behaviors. Perhaps before the political campaign begins in earnest, America need a different sort of campaign: one that will teach its citizens social media literacy.