Some of the most successful trolls were the ones with the longest-standing identities, said François. Some online identities, which were likely managed by multiple people or whole teams, had roots going back as long as a decade.
"I was really baffled by the length of the campaign," said François, "with some accounts being opened in 2009 and ending in 2018. You see these accounts, over multiple years, trying to target the American political conversation, and it's a very polarizing conversation."
Data scientists may not be able to get directly inside the heads of voters. But they can track how much American political conversation was swayed by these fake voices.
"The metric that people can sometimes miss is this: are the people that are doing this misinformation really reaching their audience or are they screaming to themselves in a corner? One useful comparison is looking at Russian influence in the [French] Yellow Vest movement versus Russian influence on the [American] presidential campaign. What really matters is, for the fake accounts that are commenting on a topic, how ingrained are they in the fabric of the communities they are trying to manipulate?" she explains.
By that measurement, Russia's 2016 campaign was genuinely successful, she said.
"What's really interesting is those fake accounts for the [American] election were very much integrated into the communities. From there, we can graph the American political conversation and reconstruct where those troll accounts really were. And they were right in the center."
That kind of success is rare. By contrast, Graphika's observations of the French Yellow Vest movement have shown that Russian influence campaigners have estabilshed a comparatively shallow existence. Those accounts are not firmly rooted in the middle of the wider movement's social activity, she explained. The political conversation there, she said, is not being redirected at the behest of troll accounts as it was, often, in the U.S.
The insights will be helpful, she said, in Graphika's bid to help stop misinformation and foreign influence campaigns in the U.S. and other jurisdictions in the future, she said. "It's difficult to nurture a fake account. Trolls and troll farms invest a lot of time in creating influential accounts. As a result, it's very difficult to detect on first observation," she said. "But if you have a very strong measurement framework, and look into the structure of a coordinated, manufactured campaign, that's when you can ... identify these patterns."
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