How social media posts from foreign actors fuel domestic polarization.

By Blaire Hobbs
11/12/2021 • 07:42 AM EST

The Twilight Zone, the classic science fiction series that aired on CBS from 1959 to 1964, often showcased apocalyptic scenarios of ordinary people in extraordinary situations. While fictional, every episode can be said to hold a kernel of truth that strikes at our deepest fears or most primal instincts.

"The Monsters Are Due on Maple Street" of the The Twilight Zone. Original air date: March 4, 1960.

Season one's "The Monsters are Due on Maple Street" watches a peaceful suburban neighborhood descend into chaos, with neighbors accusing neighbors, a frenzy of weapons grabbed, and people running around in aimless panic. The camera then pans out to reveal two otherworldly figures standing on a hillside in front of what looks like a control panel. In a brief dialogue, we learn the observers are conducting an experiment, with one saying, "just stop a few of their machines and radios and telephones, and lawnmowers…throw them into darkness for a few hours… and then, sit back and watch the pattern". The pattern being, when unexplained activity occurs and people feel threatened, they will almost certainly turn on "the most dangerous enemy they can find" — each other. 

While this may seem farcical, its parallels to reality are plausible when you scroll through the average American's social media feed and see an emphatic message or post with hundreds of angry comments, generating a multi-thread heated argument that leads to personal attacks. What may not be so obvious though is that, all too often, this chaos is engineered by professional trolls - our nonfictional indifferent figures on a hillside, whose messages are carefully crafted to drive a wedge into already polarized ideological lines and undermine trust in democratic institutions.[1]

It's been well documented that a single organization, Russia's Internet Research Agency, is behind much of this deception.[2] The U.S. House of Representatives Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence has been monitoring this activity since the 2016 election, when advertisements specifically undermining the Hillary Clinton campaign appeared frequently on social media in the lead up to the election. Since then, the Committee has indicted 13 individuals in 2018 and has identified hundreds of other fake accounts.[3] But even more exist today. 

Facebook post created by a Russian troll account.[4] The quote, "I think Sharia Law will be a powerful new direction of freedom" was also falsely attributed to Clinton and widely circulated during the presidential campaign.[5]

So how can ordinary Americans differentiate between the post of other Americans and that of foreign actors? Get in the habit of asking yourself the ten following questions:

  1. Can you identify the person behind the post?
    Trolls don't offer information about jobs, family, hobbies, local events, etc., or post threads that contain conversations with a friend, relative, or coworker, - because those things don't exist. When personal information does exist, to appear more genuine, the information is often sparse and nonsensical.

  2. Does the account include a particular state's name in its title? 
    Troll accounts often attract voters in swing states by using the name of the state in the account title or description. Similar to the prior point– these accounts are often sparse on content about the state. For example, an account supporting "Nevada Boys in Blue" may be lacking any news or issues from Nevada.

  3. Do the majority of their posts espouse the same extreme view?
    Because the purpose of these accounts is to push an agenda, the political direction and intensity of the posts rarely stray. The feed from these accounts will position every political, social, or cultural issue in aggressive, disparaging 'us vs. them' terms, with no room for compromise.[6]
  4. Is the account following significantly more people than are following it?
    In an effort to gain followers quickly, most troll accounts will follow as many people as possible, generally leading to a skewed ratio of followers-to-followees. This generally only applies, however, to new accounts looking to gain traction, or to less successful accounts that were unable to go viral.

  5. Do they show a sub-par or overly formal grasp of English?
    While foreign trolls have more recently become savvier English writers, in terms of tone, they tend to be more formal, especially on Twitter.[7]

  6. Does the account have several posts removed from the platform?
    Many troll accounts are already under observation from their home platform for sharing misleading information.

  7. How many times a day does the account post?
    Bots can post upwards of a post per minute – hundreds of times a day. These are almost always retweets/reposts of other bots faked posts or the same prominent figure's posts in what is known as amplification.[8] 

  8. Are the people in the picture(s) extremely attractive?
    Trolls often use above-average looking people (usually women in their 20's) to attract attention and to engender a sense of trust.[9][10]

  9. Does the account proclaim to be managed by someone of a minority community?
    Trolls tend to pretend to be of a minority race or class in order to leverage their appeal to emotions about larger institutions.[11]

  10. Does the account begin with uplifting content before diving into uncompromising messages?
    Using a honeypot strategy, trolls often perform a bait and switch, by posting uplifting, though fake stories to help an account gain followers, before posting more extreme targeted stories. Using this approach, these accounts can reach more people and appear more trustworthy when posting extreme stories.[12]

While the majority of social media accounts are genuine, even those presenting some of these signs, skepticism of accounts that meet some of the above criteria is warranted. If you are wary that a social media account is fake, the best course of action is to simply unfollow or notify the platform. Without 100% certainty of who is behind a post, trying to expose the hoaxer could lead to engaging a genuine person behind the scenes and causing unnecessary strife. The goal of professional trolls is to sow discord and malevolence; thus, by confronting an account holder, you are unwittingly expanding the scope of their work.

In the final words of the otherworldly visitors, “Their world is full of Maple Streets, and we'll go from one to the other and let them destroy themselves, one to the other, one to the other, one to the other." Like those on Maple Street, this kind of modern-day information warfare is drawing American citizens into a hotbed of confusion and paranoia, turning 'ordinary' people into online "monsters." More than that, every day these posts appear more and more genuine. And if recent history is a bellwether for the future, it may be only a matter of time before the malevolence and disorder online, spills its way into the streets - unless 'ordinary' people become better at recognizing who's behind the controls.

Note: The list of questions was derived from Clemson University professors' Darren Linvell's and Patrick Warren's clever "Spot the Troll" game, where they review all this information in more detail with specific examples. Moreover, through their Media Forensic Hub, Linvell and Warren have synthesized a wealth of information to help the public identify fake social media accounts.

1. "Russian trolls can be surprisingly subtle, and often fun to read". The Washington Post. Published: March 08, 2019.

2. "Why are Russian trolls spreading online hoaxes in the U.S.?". PBS News Hour. Published: June 08, 2015.

3. "Exposing Russia's Effort to Sow Discord Online: The Internet Research Agency and Advertisements". U.S. House of Representatives Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence. Published: January 06, 2017.

6. ""THE RUSSIANS ARE HACKING MY BRAIN!"". Science Direct. Published: October 01, 2019.

7. "How Many Bots in Russian Troll Tweets?". Science Direct. Published: November 01, 2020.

8. "Engaging with others: How the IRA coordinated information operation made friends". Harvard Kennedy School. Published: April 06, 2020.

10. "Rice study suggests people are more trusting of attractive strangers". Rice University News and Media Relations. Published: September 21, 2006.

12. "That Uplifting Tweet You Just Shared? A Russian Troll Sent It". Rolling Stone. Published: November 25, 2019.