Who Do You Think You’re Fooling? Examining the Internal Russian Disinformation Campaign

Sean Norton (University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill)

Abstract: While an extensive literature in both the academic and popular presses has examined the Russian state’s use of Twitter to influence the 2016 US presidential election, comparatively little literature has focused on the Russian state’s use of social media to influence their own population. This is despite the fact Russian language disinformation campaign makes up greater than half of the Twitter accounts identified as Russian state actors, as well as considerably more than half of all associated tweets. The sheer magnitude of the campaign and its peak in the months surrounding the Russian annexation of Crimea raises a puzzle: existing literature on authoritarian use of social media focuses on its use for distraction and demobilization, but in the context of the “Russian Spring” and record approval ratings for Vladimir Putin, distraction seems counterproductive at best. Using Russian Twitter data from 2015-2017, textual and visual topic models, sentiment analysis, and survey experiments, this paper uncovers the purposes, targets, and effects of a modern authoritarian disinformation campaign. I find that the goal of the internal IRA Twitter campaign was not to distract, but rather to amplify the existing surge of nationalism within Russia. This finding demonstrates the power of social media as a unique tool for actively reinforcing feelings of national pride, fear of others, and other emotions that play a key role in support for authoritarian rule.

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