Conference paper Open Access

Who Let The Trolls Out? Towards Understanding State-Sponsored Trolls

Savvas Zannettou; Tristan Caulfield; William Setzer; Michael Sirivianos; Gianluca Stringhini; Jeremy Blackburn

Over the past few years, extensive anecdotal evidence emerged that suggests the involvement of state-sponsored actors (or “trolls”) in online political campaigns with the goal to manipulate public opinion and sow discord. Recently, Twitter and Reddit released ground truth data about Russian and Iranian state-sponsored actors that were active on their platforms. In this paper, we analyze these ground truth datasets across several axes to understand how these actors operate, how they evolve over time, who are their targets, how their strategies changed over time, and what is their influence to the Web’s information ecosystem. Among other things we find: a) campaigns of these actors were influenced by real-world events; b) these actors were employing different tactics and had different targets over time, thus their automated detection is not straightforward; and c) Russian trolls were clearly pro-Trump, whereas Iranian trolls were anti-Trump. Finally, using Hawkes Processes, we quantified the influence that these actors had to four Web communities: Reddit, Twitter, 4chan’s Politically Incorrect board (/pol/), and Gab, finding that Russian trolls were more influential than Iranians with the exception of /pol/

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