A Cyber Vault study of social media activity by the Internet Research Agency (IRA) during the violent Charlottesville protests in August 2017 demonstrates how the controversial Russia-based organization targeted social divisions in the United States at an extraordinarily tense political moment. Researchers with the Cyber Vault project at the nongovernmental National Security Archive used two publicly released datasets to bring into relief at least a part of the IRA’s operations, providing a level of clarity into that organization’s tactics.
The existence of social media campaigns connected by U.S. intelligence to the Russian Government and aimed at destabilizing American politics continues to be the topic of much discussion and study, but case studies accessible to most social media users in America are difficult to produce given the scope of these operations. This posting seeks to provide such a case study as it relates to the IRA’s tactic of playing up both sides of a critical issue. While Russian support to the Trump campaign on social media and through the release of information obtained through cyberattack is well recognized, less well known is IRA amplification of political beliefs and voices specifically selected to increase polarization in American discourse.
In February of 2018, the IRA, along with two related Russian organizations and thirteen individuals, was indicted for activities related to social media manipulation campaigns. The indictment alleges that the Russian organizations and individuals, “posing as U.S. persons and creating false U.S. personas, operated social media pages and groups designed to attract U.S. audiences. These groups and pages, which addressed divisive U.S. political and social issues, falsely claimed to be controlled by U.S. activists when, in fact, they were controlled by Defendants. […] Over time, these social media accounts became Defendants’ means to reach significant numbers of Americans for purposes of interfering with the U.S. political system, including the presidential election of 2016.”
As a part of the House Intelligence Committee’s own investigation into Russia’s use of social media, Facebook and the House Intelligence Committee released data from advertising purchases made by the IRA, and in late 2018 Twitter released their own data on IRA-connected accounts. While these releases demonstrated at scale the degree to which the IRA attempted to leverage a diverse set of political beliefs against political controversies in the United States to exacerbate partisan divides, the size of the datasets (3,613 accounts and 1.2 gigabytes of data from individual tweets) was prohibitive to most social media users and makes it extraordinarily difficult to form accessible case studies with which to educate the American electorate.
To address this, the Cyber Vault project matched identifying account data from Twitter’s October 2018 release with data produced by software developers in The George Washington University library system to produce a list of tweets during the Charlottesville protest from IRA-linked accounts. As Twitter’s release included a list of IRA-linked accounts but hashed, or anonymized, the identifying fields of many accounts, this is by no means a comprehensive list of IRA-linked tweets. Twitter’s explanation for anonymizing data in its release is as follows:
Why hash some of the information?
For accounts with fewer than 5,000 followers, we have hashed certain Identifying fields (such as user ID and screen name) in the publicly-available version of the datasets. While we've taken every possible precaution to ensure there are no false positives in these datasets, we've hashed these fields to reduce the potential negative impact on real or compromised accounts - while still enabling longitudinal research, network analysis, and assessment of the underlying content created by these accounts.
Account data from the Twitter data release was used along with data produced by Justin Littman. Littman (then a software developer with The George Washington University) used the Social Feed Manager tool, developed by a project team at George Washington University Libraries, to track Twitter activity related to events in Charlottesville during August of 2017. By matching the portion of User ID information publicly released by Twitter for accounts connected to the Internet Research Agency against the approximately 7.6 million tweets tracked in Littman’s data, 47 tweets were isolated.
The following is a tiny fraction of the information Twitter and other social media organizations have in their possession. It is by no means enough to do more than draw preliminary hypotheses or demonstrate previously identified trends, but the exercise shows how social media analysis can probe beyond what is immediately obvious in order to approach questions of what occurs, who plays a role, and with what effect, on social media networks.
Tweets from Internet Research Agency-Linked Accounts
During and About the Charlottesville Protest, August 2017
Note of warning: These tweets include vulgar language and racial epithets.
The information below comes from the original Twitter accounts and the tweets themselves. The list is structured as follows:
Tweet Time and Date
Southern. Conservative. Pro God. Anti Racism
.@dbongino on #Charlottesville protests: "Why are we trying to pin this on @POTUS? He came out and condemned it." https://t.co/9ERXr8vw5u
Sun Aug 13 00:37:07 +0000 2017
Both sides are responsible for this #Charlottesville mess. This is what Identity Politics leads to.
Sun Aug 13 01:24:11 +0000 2017
BREAKING Helicopter crash in #Charlottesville https://t.co/v5DLsMn20z
Sat Aug 12 21:37:54 +0000 2017
Media and Corrupt Politicians can be proud of themselves. They've radicalized Americans to the point of killing each other. #Charlottesville
Sat Aug 12 20:28:21 +0000 2017
RT @CollinRugg: Took less than an hour for Trump to condemn the far Right in #Charlottesville It's been 8 months & NO Dem leader has conde…
Sun Aug 13 02:01:34 +0000 2017
The legacy of hate and division that Obama left for us all is on full display in #Charlottesville
Sat Aug 12 18:58:57 +0000 2017
Virginia governor & #Charlottesville Mayor let Antifa raise their flag at city hall. https://t.co/Tdd4yrSDpu
Wed Aug 16 01:36:02 +0000 2017
Freedom is never given; it is won. #BlackLivesMatter
#Charlottesville shows everything that's wrong with America. Racists know they are losing this country and desperately want to take it back
Sun Aug 13 01:51:14 +0000 2017
Nazi fuckers 'protesting' right now in #Charlottesville fighting for white supremacy. "Racism is a thing of the past" yeah, right...
Sat Aug 12 18:41:15 +0000 2017
The racist organizer of the #UniteTheRight rally in #Charlottesville was chased by protesters during a press conference. https://t.co/qY6lllQ1Oy
Fri Aug 18 22:21:14 +0000 2017
Unite the Right nazi retards in #Charlottesville organize torchlight procession just like in Hitler times. How is this even allowed? https://t.co/1u4g1QD491
Sat Aug 12 18:48:47 +0000 2017
Proud American and TEXAN patriot! Stop ISLAM and PC. Don't mess with Texas
#Charlottesville and other leftist chimpouts taught us one thing: leftists hate our history and love foreign communist butchers https://t.co/sVXwETsPIB
Tue Aug 15 02:16:42 +0000 2017
That's all you need to know about the left. #Charlottesville https://t.co/5927Gimr7d
Sun Aug 13 02:34:17 +0000 2017
Today's actions in #Charlottesville are horrible. But we have NEVER seen this outrage when it comes to islamists or BLM attacks...
Sun Aug 13 01:10:32 +0000 2017
We want equality and justice! And we need you to help us. Join our team and write your own articles! DM us or send an email: BlackToLive@gmail.com
#Powerful 89-year-old Marianne Rubin came to protest and stand in solidarity with #Charlottesville https://t.co/qbJ6T2JHSJ
Wed Aug 16 20:31:01 +0000 2017
Unofficial Twitter of Tennessee Republicans. Covering breaking news, national politics, foreign policy and more. #MAGA #2A
.@bakedalaska was badly pepper sprayed during the #UnitetheRight rally. #Charlottesville https://t.co/Vp7iyVfOhJ
Sat Aug 12 16:17:54 +0000 2017
A very sad day for America. This is not who we are. #Charlottesville
Sat Aug 12 18:49:55 +0000 2017
BREAKING: At least 2 people injured in violent clashes at #EmancipationPark ahead of the #Charlottesville rally https://t.co/1d3ccJe1WW
Sat Aug 12 15:18:16 +0000 2017
BREAKING: Car just rammed through crowd of protestors in #Charlottesville. Heavy injuries. https://t.co/U6JcWtxdLh
Sat Aug 12 18:07:02 +0000 2017
BREAKING: State of emergency declared for #Charlottesville because of #UniteTheRight rally chaos. https://t.co/I36rVeN4gA
Sat Aug 12 15:46:25 +0000 2017
BREAKING: Video has emerged showing the moment a car was driven into protestors in #Charlottesville. This is horrific! https://t.co/OQoNRdoyAO
Sat Aug 12 18:17:52 +0000 2017
HAPPENING NOW: Violence breaks out at the #Charlottesville solidarity march. https://t.co/Y3bZze6av4
Sun Aug 13 22:43:36 +0000 2017
I feel like this is a good time to remind ourselves that the only colors that matter in America are red, white, and blue<f0><U+009F><U+0087><U+00BA><f0><U+009F><U+0087><U+00B8> #Charlottesville
Sat Aug 12 19:21:40 +0000 2017
Riot police on scene. #Charlottesville officials have declared the #UniteTheRight rally an unlawful assembly. https://t.co/4lrIECMlMw
Sat Aug 12 16:10:56 +0000 2017
RT @johncardillo: One lunatic kills someone in #Charlottesville, the right is condemned wholesale. Muslims kill 13 in #Barcelona, the left…
Thu Aug 17 21:49:49 +0000 2017
RT @KTHopkins: #Charlottesville https://t.co/uQ9w7EEOec
Sun Aug 13 21:58:20 +0000 2017
RT @RyanAFournier: What's happening in #Charlottesville is not only un-American, but also disgraceful to the values and principles that for…
Sat Aug 12 18:55:33 +0000 2017
RT @Timcast: People chanting "Love has already won" in #Charlottesville. Sorry but no, ya'll hate just as much as the other side.
Sat Aug 12 17:02:26 +0000 2017
The violence that’s happening in #Charlottesville is getting crazy! Totally out of control. https://t.co/ePFoEgaszy
Sat Aug 12 16:49:11 +0000 2017
Two police officers died in a helicopter crash while protecting Antifa in #Charlottesville. Antifa today: "Cops and Klan - Hand in Hand!" https://t.co/1UD0hjaA1X
Sun Aug 13 23:28:52 +0000 2017
Watching America destroy itself.. #Charlottesville https://t.co/bNJ4YO3JzF
Sat Aug 12 18:31:33 +0000 2017
Whatever your political view is, you have to condemn the violence, regardless of who's committing it. #Charlottesville
Sat Aug 12 17:11:08 +0000 2017
It is our responsibility to promote the positive things that happen in our communities.
Monson Hotel's owner pours acid into pool while black children swimming in there. Unite the Right wants these times back. #Charlottesville https://t.co/uZyYT6kUHk
Sat Aug 12 18:50:33 +0000 2017
RT @_NellyCat: When the cops show up at the white supremacist rally #Charlottesville https://t.co/vJRS61HItd
Sat Aug 12 22:31:49 +0000 2017
RT @tariqnasheed: Armed white supremacist groups in #Charlottesville are assaulting ppl & NO cops are in sight, but when unarmed Black prot…
Sat Aug 12 21:42:32 +0000 2017
To those who wonder why cops defend #WhiteNationalists in #Charlottesville https://t.co/wUu4yX1oow
Sat Aug 12 23:18:42 +0000 2017
Business Owner, Proud Father, Conservative, Christian, Patriot, Gun rights, Politically Incorrect. Love my country and my family #2A #GOP #tcot #WakeUpAmerica
#BlackLivesMatter: "I hope they kill all the white babies" But conservatives are domestic terrorists ¯\_(<U+30C4>)_/¯ #Charlottesville https://t.co/2xLnUvqqQ7
Tue Aug 15 14:57:42 +0000 2017
Last #Charlottesville updates https://t.co/9vegzEafcI
Tue Aug 15 14:51:35 +0000 2017
It's hard to spot the difference #Charlottesville #Virginia #ThisIsNotUS https://t.co/puZzPmFh05
Sun Aug 13 00:00:59 +0000 2017
Let's face it. If car was driven by Muslim in Europe, Trump would be loudly condemning & calling terrorism. #charlottesville
Sat Aug 12 20:57:05 +0000 2017
Why cops show up to #BlackLivesMatter "riots" in riot gear but not to these #Charlottesville "rallies"?
Sun Aug 13 00:12:59 +0000 2017
Why do we have to deport hard working immigrants but we get to keep the neo nazi and KKK members? #Charlottesville
Sun Aug 13 21:24:23 +0000 2017
Truth is strong, and sometime or other will prevail!
#Charlottesville happening are not only un-American, but also disgraceful to the values and principles that formed this nation.
Sat Aug 12 19:04:01 +0000 2017
#Charlottesville victim's mom thanks Donald Trump! https://t.co/EJJkNYiiIT
Tue Aug 15 04:39:31 +0000 2017
Globalists want to divide and conquer. #Charlottesville was created by the leftists. And only @POTUS can make our country united again!
Sat Aug 12 18:35:37 +0000 2017
I condemn everything that's going on in #Charlottesville and so does our President. But leftists calling everyone a Nazi are just disgusting
Sat Aug 12 23:25:26 +0000 2017
WHERE ARE ALL THE PATRIOTS? Why aren't they protecting the confederate statues from LEFTIST BARBARIANS? #Charlottesville
Fri Aug 18 00:42:45 +0000 2017