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Hunting For Russian Trolls (Online)

JENNIFER LUDDEN, HOST:

As we approach the midterm elections, the U.S. government warns there is potential for Russian interference. Intelligence agencies and technology companies are on alert for social media trolls - and so is Josh Russell. By day, he's a systems analyst. But when he goes home at night, he tracks malicious Russian social media accounts. For Russell, the fight is personal. He knows he was influenced by these accounts during the 2016 campaign. Russell says he didn't know much about Donald Trump then. But when he scrolled through Facebook and read it, there were a lot of disturbing stories about Hillary Clinton.

JOSH RUSSELL: A lot of them were - had to do with people in her orbit having died or the Clinton Foundation being corrupt or things that she had done in Haiti or something like that.

LUDDEN: It was the claim that Clinton had been personally responsible for people's deaths that set off alarm bells for Russell. So he decided to do some fact-checking.

RUSSELL: I came to the realization pretty quickly that someone may have been probably lying to me on social media.

LUDDEN: It turned out there were many false stories circulating that year. But Russell was skeptical of claims that Russia had anything to do with them until lists of Russian troll accounts began to appear online. He was shocked.

RUSSELL: My god, they're right. They're exactly right. What they've been telling me about this is literally happening. I can go look this stuff up. It's right there.

LUDDEN: Russell became obsessed. He spent the last two years uncovering other Russian bots. How?

RUSSELL: It takes quite a bit of work, so...

LUDDEN: At night, after his kids are in bed, Russell investigates whether known Russian accounts have shared content on other platforms. He posts the results of his sleuthing online, and he's often one step ahead of tech journalists and social media companies themselves. He hopes to help others be skeptical about what they see online.

RUSSELL: You're never going to be able to crack down on all of the propaganda or disinformation or misinformation on all these social media platforms. So the more people that you can get to know what it looks like, the easier it is to fight back with actual real information.

LUDDEN: That's Josh Russell, systems analyst and amateur Russian troll hunter.

(SOUNDBITE OF JASSANOVA'S "FADE OUT") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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