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Troll Factory Contributes To Russia's Worldwide Interference

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

In many ways, the United States of America is like no other nation on Earth. But there is one way this country is not unique at all. It's just one of the places where Russia interfered in elections. In 2016, Russians worked to oppose Hillary Clinton and support President Trump, according to the bipartisan findings of a Senate committee. NPR's Tim Mak reports on other Russian disinformation efforts.

TIM MAK, BYLINE: Russian disinformation specialists have been masquerading online as Americans since the last U.S. presidential campaign began. But the Russian government also imitates Brits and Germans and Italians and the French.

MARK WARNER: There are 29 nations affiliated with NATO. Every one of those nations have indicated that they have seen Russian cyber incursions or Russian misuse of their social media.

MAK: That's Senator Mark Warner. He's the top Democrat on the Senate Intelligence Committee. Warner says that Russia focused on the strategy after the Soviets lost the Cold War.

WARNER: We can go back to 2011 when the Russian, in a sense, chairman of their joint chiefs of staff indicated that Russia could never keep up with the West in terms of planes and tanks and trucks. But in terms of misinformation and cyber, they could be our equals or betters.

MAK: Russia has operated a so-called troll factory in St. Petersburg known as the Internet Research Agency. Clemson University professors Darren Linvill and Patrick Warren have been combing through 9 million tweets from accounts linked to this troll farm. What they found was that fully two-thirds of the troll farm's tweets were in languages other than English. Here's Linvill.

DARREN LINVILL: So it really is a global phenomenon now.

MAK: The two professors discovered a global campaign of propaganda - more than 115,000 tweets in German, 42,000 in Arabic, more than 18,000 in Italian, 1,400 in French and another 1,200 in Spanish. But the most common language was Russian. The Internet Research Agency tweeted out more than 5.5 million times in its native language.

RENEE DIRESTA: The Internet Research Agency was started originally to comment on websites and to operate Twitter accounts targeting Russia's own people.

MAK: That's Renee DiResta, a researcher for New Knowledge who investigates the spread of narratives across social networks. She said Russia's efforts were an extension of propaganda but...

DIRESTA: Instead of seeing the position in a propagandist article, you're seeing those same sentiments expressed by what look like real people, your fellow citizens.

MAK: Russia's disinformation operations are also meant to sow discord in other countries so that President Vladimir Putin can reinforce his own domestic narrative. Here's April Doss who worked on the Senate Intelligence Committee's investigation into Russian interference.

APRIL DOSS: So a big part of the Putin narrative for years has been that Western liberal democracies are really not all they're cracked up to be. He wants to be able to say to people at home I can give you stability. I can give you predictability. I can give you security at home. And if you look at the West, there's chaos.

MAK: The Clemson professors are also finding imitators from other autocratic regimes following the Russian model - Iranian accounts tweeting in Hindi, for example, or Saudi Arabian accounts tweeting about the death of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi. Here's Linvill again.

LINVILL: This is just a new form of propaganda.

MAK: A technique the Russian government started as a way to sway its citizens has expanded as a way to sway the world, and other like-minded regimes are following suit.

Tim Mak, NPR News, Washington.

(SOUNDBITE OF HANDBOOK'S "REAL FEEL") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.