How Russian trolls fooled the media

How Russian trolls fooled the media

By Luke Vargas   
Published
A selection of Twitter accounts identified by the social media network as possessing ties to the Russian government-backed Internet Research Agency. Graphic: Talk Media News
A selection of Twitter accounts identified by the social media network as possessing ties to the Russian government-backed Internet Research Agency. Graphic: Talk Media News

A new report by The Guardian uncovers more than 100 instances in which Russian social media trolls were quoted by major international news outlets.

UNITED NATIONS — A new investigation by The Guardian finds that fake social media accounts created by an infamous “troll farm” with ties to the Russian government have been quoted more than 100 times by prominent news outlets in recent years.

Buzzfeed, The Telegraph, The BBC and The Guardian each embedded or mentioned Twitter posts from fraudulent accounts in their reporting. Those accounts — which purported to back the Black Lives Matter movement or advocate for President Trump’s impeachment — were mere imposters, their messages crafted at the Saint Petersburg-based Internet Research Agency.

“The Russian presence in social media is deep and complicated and that’s old, Cold War-era active measures playbook.”

Christopher Paul is a senior social scientist at the Rand Corporation.

“Even back in the ‘60’s they would place a source in kind of a low-visibility place and then hope that someone would pick that up and echo it and bring it out to the mainstream.”

Paul says social media platforms could address the problem of social media trolls by implementing new identity verification measures.

“So in the same way that we have a one person-one vote, wouldn’t it be great if we had a one person-one voice paradigm?”

Tying social media accounts to verified identities could clean up some spam. It could also have unintended consequences.

“That sounds great in functioning, healthy democracies. What about in nascent democracies, proto-democracies or pre-democracies – places where it’s still a bit authoritarian – where anonymous internet voices are a way to be safe and to have political discourse without having the personal risk associated with your own actual verified name?”

For now, Paul says social media firms are unlikely to take steps that could slash their active-user base, leaving the media as a key defense against trolls.

That starts with talking to real sources and leaving the business of curating social media posts to entertainment sites, not news outlets.

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