On Sept. 10, 2018, @PoliteMelanie tweeted to her more than 20,000 followers: “Criticizing Trump in a book is just unfair. It’s like criticizing the Amish on television.” The next day, this tweet won the Chicago Tribune’s “Tweet of the Week” contest. What the Tribune’s readers didn’t know when casting their votes, however, was that “Melanie” was a Russian troll.
PoliteMelanie appears to be part of a well-coordinated network of Russian troll accounts that we monitored in the run-up to the 2018 elections. Examining a range of data points, including source material and the timing of tweets, told us that this account was most likely operated from Russia’s Internet Research Agency (IRA). This secretive St. Petersburg-based organization, financed by Russian oligarch Yevgeny Prigozhin (known as “Putin’s chef” because he catered dinners for the Russian president), has worked for years to influence political conversations on social media around the globe. One may have assumed that the Russian trolls’ posts would be crass, vitriolic, vodka-fueled attacks featuring broken English and spreading fake news or simple pro-Putin propaganda. Most Americans probably believe that they could spot a Russian troll from a mile away — and that they would certainly never engage with one. These assumptions, however, do not give credit to what Prigozhin’s people have built.
We’ve spent the past year studying Russian IRA disinformation on Twitter with the goal of better understanding its strategy and tactics. Like KGB disinformation operations of the past, this campaign has two overt goals. First, it seeks to further divide and polarize the United States along ideological lines. As long as we are fighting among ourselves, we aren’t paying attention to what Putin is doing in Ukraine and elsewhere. Second, it attempts to undermine our trust in the institutions that sustain a strong nation and a strong democracy. The media, science, academia and the electoral process are all regular targets of troll venom. The Russians want to push us further apart while causing us to lose trust in what has traditionally made us strong.