New report: actors manipulating the online conversation are changing tactics

New Robotrolling report by NATO Strategic Communications Centre of Excellence suggests that actors manipulating the online conversation are changing tactics. The cause might be  Twitter’s actions against automated Russian-language ‘bot’ accounts.  The report observes a sharp rise in the use of fake, human-operated ‘troll’ accounts and corresponding decrease of bot accounts.   

Robotrolling is a quarterly product that focuses on automation on Social Media. This issue analyses how automation on Twitter interferes with the conversation about the NATO presence in the Baltics and Poland. The latest issue considers November – January 2017. For the first time we include messages from the Russian social networking platform VKontakte.

The report argues that malicious activity on social media is undergoing generational change. Primitive bots indiscriminately promoting links to news sites are on the decline. They are being replaced by coordinated ‘troll’ accounts that target conversations centred upon individual media outlets or members of different elites.

In recent months on Twitter, the volume of automated content about NATO activity in the Baltics and Poland has declined at an increasingly rapid pace. The number of bot-tweets dropped by 15 percentage points for Russian and 20 percentage points for English.

We infer that this reduction is best explained by changes introduced by the platform. Our findings are verified by drawing on thirty times more data than for previous Robotrolling issues. Simultaneously, we see a pronounced rise in coordinated activity conducted by humans using fake accounts. As a consequence of heightened trolling activity, as much as 50% of all Russian-language messages are targeted directly ‘at’ other Twitter users. 

As social media companies intervene to clean up automation, they should take care that changes they introduce may enable new forms of manipulation. The ability to ‘tag’ up to 50 users in a single Tweet is already being misused. Russian-language bot activity is in decline in absolute terms, but Twitter in Russian remains more polluted than Twitter in English.

For enquiries: linda [dot] curika [at] stratcomcoe [dot] org