Clemson Study is Showing Trolls Win Twitter Influence With ‘Honey,’ Not Animus

A phone home screen filled with apps.

In a yet-to-be-released study, Clemson University researchers Patrick Warren and Darren Linvill are examining the strategies Russian social media trolls employ in peddling their disinformation campaigns aimed at dividing the U.S. public.

Warren recently presented early findings of their most recent research into Russian Twitter trolls at a Clemson online research symposium this summer. In it, he reported their initial studies are revealing that creating friendships, not instigating fights, appears to be the trolls’ most successful path toward influencing political discourse in the U.S.

Social media trolls are defined as people who deliberately provoke others online, oftentimes angering people by making inflammatory statements. But in his and Linvill’s ongoing study of hundreds of thousands of tweets, Warren said labeling these purveyors of disinformation as trolls is a misnomer.

“They’re called trolls, but they don’t fit the description. As we continue examining many of these Twitter accounts, what is becoming clear is what they don’t do is start fights. They make friends,” said Warren, an associate professor in the John E. Walker Department of Economics. “The way they divide us is by pulling, not pushing, people in the direction they were already leaning. You catch more flies with honey, and they’re growing influence by making friends.”

Since late 2017, Linvill, associate professor of Communication, and Warren have been compiling and analyzing the tactics and strategy of social media accounts created by a Russian agency whose goal it is to negatively sway political discourse in the U.S. The Russians’ “troll factory” is housed in St. Petersburg, within the government’s now-famous Internet Research Agency (IRA).

From the university’s Social Media Listening Center in Daniel Hall, the pair have probed the Russian agency’s Twitter archive, and they continue to monitor accounts linked to the agency. They have compiled approximately 3 million tweets through more than 3,000 Russian government-backed Twitter accounts before and after the 2016 presidential election.

Their current examination of the IRA Twitter accounts is collecting all the mentions in which one of the troll accounts was referenced in the month before the 2016 election. Warren and Linvill gathered more than 200,000 mentions and then coded a randomly selected 5,000 of the mentions, along with Amanda Moore, senior manager of Integrated Marketing & Partnerships.

“An early key finding of the study is that 70 percent of the mentions are supportive and say something positive about the troll,” Warren said. “We also trained a computer to examine those hand-coded 5,000 tweets, through use of Artificial Intelligence, to recognize what supportive tweets looked like.”

In looking at the bigger data set, Warren and Linvill are examining individual troll accounts on each day of the month to determine whether the trolls get more engagement through positive interactions.

“The results are showing these trolls do, indeed, catch more flies with honey. Our analysis is revealing that when they fight with followers, they don’t pick up as many retweets,” Warren said.

Warren’s and Linvill’s social media trolling research has not only attracted international media attention, it has spawned a growing interest on campus, which is leading to the opening of a new center in the Watt Family Innovation Center this fall. The two researchers will be the academic leads on the Media Forensic Hub, an interdisciplinary venture that will combine research, teaching and service.

“Research, including Creative Inquiries, will be a big part of the Media Forensic Hub,” Warren said. “Researchers and policymakers will play a major role in the Hub, which will provide context around media in helping users know the origin and content of something they see on social media.”

Written by Rick Uhlmann, Clemson University College of Business.