The New Gatekeepers

Russian trolls followed same social-media strategy as ISIS

March 8, 2018

Renee DiResta, a researcher with New Knowledge and a Mozilla fellow specializing in misinformation, argues that by using Facebook to spread fake news during the 2016 election, the “Russian troll factory” known as the Internet Research Agency was duplicating a strategy initially developed by ISIS, which used digital platforms and social-media methods to spread its message.

The online battle against ISIS was the first skirmish in the Information War, and the earliest indication that the tools for growing and reaching an audience could be gamed to manufacture a crowd. Starting in 2014, ISIS systematically leveraged technology, operating much like a top-tier digital marketing team. Vanity Fair called them “The World’s Deadliest Tech Startup,” cataloging the way that they used almost every social app imaginable to communicate and share propaganda.

Most of the major platforms made half-hearted attempts to get rid of this kind of content, but they were largely unsuccessful. What this showed, DiResta writes, was that the social platforms could be gamed in order to spread political messages, and that the same kinds of targeting techniques that worked for advertising could be turned to political use. And among those who were also learning this lesson, it seems, were some disinformation architects on a troll farm in Russia.

Mathew Ingram is CJR’s chief digital writer. Previously, he was a senior writer with Fortune magazine. He has written about the intersection between media and technology since the earliest days of the commercial internet. His writing has been published in the Washington Post and the Financial Times as well as by Reuters and Bloomberg.