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What we learned from millions of Russian and Iranian troll tweets

Daniel Howley
Technology Editor
Twitter’s trove of data including millions of tweets from Russian and Iranian trolls reveals how the countries manipulate social media users.

Twitter (TWTR), on Wednesday, released a comprehensive trove of data it collected from accounts Russia’s Internet Research Agency and Iran used to try to influence the opinions of social media users in the U.S. and abroad.

The datasets — which include millions of tweets, videos photos and GIFs — could help researchers and investigators better understand how the IRA and Iran use social media to meet their own goals, and what can be done to stop them in the future.

The gist of it? Russia and Iran played both sides of the American political spectrum, and were more effective in impacting American users than those in other countries. What’s more, the Russians and Iranians both got better and better at creating convincing fake social media accounts over time.

The data will undoubtedly help fight some of this misinformation, but one intelligence expert says it’s not going to end Russia’s or Iran’s efforts to interfere in U.S. politics.

“I think this is going to be normal for a while largely because the Russians are very smart in what they do,” explained Jeff Bardin, chief intelligence officer at cyber intelligence firm Treadstone 71 and expert on social media-based threats and propaganda.

What we’ve learned from the data

Prior to making its data available to the rest of the world, Twitter shared its millions of tweets with select research groups including the Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Lab.

In its findings, the think tank explained that Russia directed much of its propaganda at Russian language readers. It wasn’t until the 2016 elections that English became the primary language for the country’s propaganda on Twitter.

The idea, Bardin said, was that Russia wanted to target individuals in former Eastern Bloc countries in an effort to undermine their citizens’ faith in America. The hope was that users who saw Russian trolls’ messages would fight any initiatives by their countries to join NATO. Russia, of course, sees NATO as its greatest existential threat.

Interestingly, the Atlantic Council found that propaganda wasn’t as effective outside of the U.S. as it was in the U.S. The reason for that, Bardin hypothesized, is that it’s easier to sow discord in a diverse place like America than it is in a more homogenous society like those of Eastern European nations.

Notably, both the Atlantic Council and Bardin point out that while much of the news about Russian trolling during the 2016 election has been about getting Donald Trump elected, the IRA played both sides of the aisle. The idea was to ensure that Americans who were most active in political groups online would become even more polarized.

Trolls also evolved their messaging over time, improving the look of their social media accounts to appear as though they were run by actual users rather than foreign operatives. The Russians and Iranians have also begun latching onto news stories as they happen, whether they be terrorist attacks or divisive political issues.

“The real factor that I think is misinterpreted is that they are constantly making adjustments,” Bardin said. “That adjustment is a core component of the deception plan. When you have the ability to see and watch what the targets are going to do, and respond to your disinformation, that’s what they want to do. It’s the core part of misinformation plans.”

How you can fight back?

With trolls evolving their strategies over time, and the 2018 midterm elections less than a month away, the question becomes how can we fight back. Tech companies like Facebook, Google and Twitter have been working to kill troll accounts, but no matter how many times they remove foreign operatives from their networks, more will take their place.

The best way for users to avoid being manipulated by online trolls is fairly easy: Follow reputable news sources and question social media posts that don’t back up what they say with facts.

Most importantly, though, users need to get out of their comfort zone. Stop following the social media accounts that match up with your particular political leaning, and seek out those that are fact-based, but offer a different perspective from the one you adhere to.

“We can always ask for evidence and truth,” Barin said. “We always have to challenge ourselves to look at things we don’t agree with as potentially truthful. What we’ve done is fall into the trap of confirmation bias.”

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Email Daniel Howley at dhowley@oath.com; follow him on Twitter at @DanielHowley. Follow Yahoo Finance on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and LinkedIn