Assessing the St. Petersburg troll farm’s Reddit activity
On April 10, Reddit announced that it had found and suspended 944 accounts suspected of being run by the Internet Research Agency, otherwise known as the infamous St. Petersburg “troll farm”.
With welcome transparency, the curating platform left the accounts visible, “to allow moderators, investigators, and all of you to see their account histories for yourselves.”
The behavior of these accounts closely mirrored the troll farm’s operations on Twitter and Facebook. They posed as supporters of American communities, especially the far right and the Black Lives Matter movement. Many were ineffective, but a few substantially prolific.
Their goals seem to have been to attack Hillary Clinton, support Donald Trump, and — most importantly — set Americans against each other.
Over two thirds of the accounts passed unnoticed, grossing a total of zero karma. A few, however, grossed over 10,000 points, while the most influential, u/rubinjer, reached 99,493. This number is the aggregate of karma yielded by comments and posts, meaning that those accounts with 0 karma were largely inactive.
Reddit’s post was careful to stress how little impact the accounts likely had on the 2016 U.S. election.
Overall, 662 of these accounts had zero karma, suggesting their impact was negligible. Eight had negative karma; 274 scored from 1 to 100,000. Only thirteen accounts — less than 1 percent — had a karma of over 10,000.
According to Reddit’s statement, over half of the accounts with positive karma scores were banned before the 2016 election, mostly in 2015. Of the thirteen best-performing accounts, seven were banned before the election.
“Ultimately, we have seven accounts with significant karma scores that made it past our defenses.” — Reddit
Some of the account names read like old friends to those researching Russia’s influence operation because of notorious usernames, which the troll factory operated on other platforms.
One, for example, was u/SouthLoneStar, which had the same name as a celebrated troll farm account on Twitter. Unlike its namesake, the Reddit version only made one post, a reply to far-right commentator Milo Yiannopoulos posted around March 1, 2016.
Posing as a Trump supporter, the account accused the U.S. political establishment and media of trying to “stump the Trump,” and called for a wholesale change to the U.S. political system. This correlates with known Russian troll accounts on other platforms, which supported Trump, attacked U.S. mainstream politicians and media, and targeted Yiannopoulos — in particular — as a potential amplifier of their messaging.
There is no indication that Yiannopoulos replied. The comment only achieved two points, a minimal impact.
Some accounts were also attached to accounts run by the troll farm on other platforms. These include u/jenn_abrams, u/DorothieBell, u/hyddrox, and u/Ten_GOP (all linked to Twitter accounts of the same names), as well as u/LGBTUnited (Facebook) and u/BleepThePolice (Instagram).
Apparently left-wing account u/LGBTUnited also posted only once, but it was a particularly significant message, claiming that it formerly supported Democratic candidate Bernie Sanders, but had decided to “join the Trump Train” after the shooting at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando, Florida.
This appeared to be a ploy by the troll farm to draw potential Sanders supporters towards Trump, shortly before Clinton secured the Democratic candidacy.
u/DorothieBell, the same name as a Russian Twitter troll, scored a little better, with 89 points. Most of its posts were innocuous shares of cats, jokes and recipes, but a few political posts emerge from the mix, such as this story on Clinton’s health on September 13, 2016. The date was two days after Clinton left a ceremony because influenza, an incident heavily hyped by Kremlin accounts.
In addition to sharing original anti-Clinton posts, u/DorothieBell also posted anti-Clinton comments in response to pro-Clinton posts by other users.
Troll account u/hyddrox was much more effective, with 1,889 points, although this is still a relatively low level of influence. Its content contained an unusual combination, partly referencing Russia, partly focusing on American race relations, and partly attacking Clinton.
It also took an anti-Islam and anti-migrant stances, best exemplified by its comments under others’ posts.
For Russia, against Clinton, for division
Other accounts scored far higher. The best-performing, u/rubinjer, which did not have a Twitter equivalent, managed almost 100,000 karma points over its lifetime, and made its last post — an imgur clip calling Trump the “man who upvotes everything” — in May 2017, six months after the election.
This account posed as a vocal Trump supporter. Many of its posts were shared to r/the_donald, a pro-Trump platform and a notorious insertion point for far-right disinformation (@DFRLab tracked one case study here); others were shared to r/HillaryForPrison, which was equally polemic.
As well as sharing links, the account posted a wide range of memes, mostly attacking Clinton and her supporters while boosting Trump.
The behavior of this account mimicked that of many genuine American Trump activists, who saw “meme warfare” as their chance to impact the election; its ability to amass karma points, and to influence users, likely stem from that successful impersonation.
The second most influential account, u/shomyo (48,619 points), posed as a conspiratorially-minded user, attacking U.S. foreign and domestic policy in general, and its attitude to Russia in particular. Remarkably, having been created in 2010, it was only suspended on April 10, 2018.
Like so many other Kremlin trolls, it also shared posts terming the U.S. investigation into Russia’s interference “Russiamania” and accusing the West of “vilifying” Russian President Vladimir Putin.
It shared Kremlin propaganda outlets RT and Sputnik, as well as consverative outlets such as Brietbart, on a range of themes, including the Syrian conflict.
Notably, it also posted a significant amount on the Dakota Access Pipeline controversy, and it shared a Sputnik article alleging that Google was rigging its autocomplete suggestions to favor Clinton — a claim which Sputnik ran in September 2016, and which was later repeated by then-candidate Trump, even though it had been debunked in June (@DFRLab analyzed the incident here).
The fourth most influential account, u/WhatImDoindHere (33,095 votes), attacked the Black Lives Matter movement with memes which achieved a wide resonance.
The account’s hostility to Democrats in general, and President Obama in particular, is clear from its final post, made on November 9, 2016, the day after the election.
However, many accounts took the opposing stance, focusing on police violence against African Americans. They included the third most successful account, u/Kevin_Milner (42,752 points), which posted to groups such as r/Blackpeople, r/Blackculture, and r/Liberal , with its latest post — on an 80-year-old South African designer — made in October 2016.
Many of its posts, especially those links shared to multiple groups, seem designed to increase racial tension between various communities, as the below examples show.
It particularly targeted the law-enforcement community and amplified claims of police brutality and assault.
Few of its shares were overtly political; those which were, criticized then-President Barack Obama and Secretary Clinton.
Many of the other Russian Reddit accounts with the highest karma scores shared similar or identical stories, in what appeared to have been a targeted attack on the anger felt by the African American community.
This apparently contradictory behavior, both attacking and supporting the Black Lives Matter movement, is entirely characteristic of the troll farm’s approach on other platforms, where they posed as Trump supporters, backers of Bernie Sanders, Black Lives Matter advocates, police supporters, Native American activists, LGBT groups, Christian conservatives, pro- and anti-Islam groups, and veterans.
Their goal was evidently to polarize American communities, exacerbating partisan divides and fanning the flames of America’s existing conflicts.
Division over politics
Reddit stated that relatively few of the accounts survived into the 2016 election. Some of those which did exemplified the troll farm’s approach to the vote: attack Clinton, divert potential Clinton voters towards Bernie Sanders or abstention, undermine the credibility of U.S. democracy, and support Trump.
However, their attitude to the election was not uniform, especially in the early days. The account u/ErivMalazilkree, for example, posted anti-Trump memes in late 2015 (its last post was on October 30, 2015).
It also posted comic memes such as this, with a spelling error — “Dart Vader” — which may betray the user’s lack of English-language knowledge (the Cyrillic transliteration of the Star Wars villain is Дарт Вейдер, “Dart Veyder”).
These accounts ceased activity before the end of 2015, so it is unclear whether they should be viewed as attempts to win the trust of specific communities which could then be led in a direction favorable to the troll operation, or accounts which were abandoned as the troll farm settled on its support for Trump.
Reddit’s publication of the list of accounts, and their posts, sheds a welcome light on a hitherto unknown aspect of the Russian information operation. We applaud the transparency shown, and would welcome such an initiative from other social platforms.
The behavior of the Reddit accounts mirrors that of known Russian accounts on other platforms. The primary goal appeared to have been to exacerbate America’s social divisions, especially the tensions between the African-American community and law-enforcement groups: many of the most effective accounts focused on this issue.
The accounts attacked Clinton, and came to praise Trump, especially in later 2016. Some also promoted Sanders, although this appeared to have been to a lesser degree.
Their impact, in the great majority of cases, was limited. Few of the accounts scored substantial karma points overall, and few posts were significantly upvoted. Many were shut down well before the election.
Nevertheless, a few accounts achieved significant engagement, measured in the tens of thousands. They spread the Kremlin’s preferred narratives to users who may have missed them elsewhere, working harmoniously with Russian troll accounts on other platforms to spread the message of disharmony.
The Reddit revelation complements and confirms the pattern of behavior observed on other platforms. It reinforces our understanding of how the Russian operation spanned the full range of major platforms — and how it targeted both sides of America’s most painful divisions.
Ben Nimmo is Senior Fellow for Information Defense at the Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Lab (@DFRLab).
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