Analyzing Five Alleged IRA Reddit Accounts

Word cloud showing five alleged IRA accounts’ most-discussed topics topics on Reddit. This graph was generated using a frequency analysis of selected comments and submission from Reddit. 

This piece was authored by an anonymous SSP student


The Russian Federation’s alleged interference in the 2016 presidential election has been the subject of much media fanfare, academic speculation and public conspiracy. The Senate Select Committee on Intelligence released an unclassified version of its report on Russia’s alleged activities, Russian Active Measures, Campaigns and Interference in the 2016 Election, volume by volume,between 2019 and 2020.[i] The report’s second volume, Russia’s use of social media with additional views, documented the U.S. Intelligence Community’s assessment of Russia’s alleged election interference operations through its St. Petersburg-based Internet Research Agency (IRA). The IRA allegedly conducted a sophisticated influence campaign “designed to spread disinformation and societal division in the United States.” IRA operatives reportedly achieved this goal by “masquerading as Americans” online, leveraging targeted advertisements, and distributing “fake news” and other provocative content on social media platforms and elsewhere online. These activities reportedly sought to influence American social media users on the “basis of societal, ideological, and racial differences.” By exploiting these opportunities online, IRA operatives allegedly operated a pro-Trump disinformation pipeline while remaining hidden in plain sight.

Russia’s alleged endgame, however, wasn’t just to secure their favored candidate as President of the United States. The Senate Select Committee found that the operation was part of a broader strategy to “sow discord in American politics and society.” Moreover, the campaign reportedly wasn’t the first of its kind. According to the Senate Select Committee’s report, these types of operations have been observed as early as at least 2014. The report detailed sophisticated analyses of social media activities allegedly associated with the IRA, claiming that they “exploited the context” of elections-related issues in 2016. Their operational focus, messaging, and targeting exploited socially divisive topics such as race, immigration and second-Amendment rights in order to “pit Americans against one another and against their government.” Also of note was a displayed negative bias towards then-Democratic front-runner Hillary Clinton as well as less-popular Republican candidates like Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio. According to the report, black Americans were targeted disproportionately via an “overwhelming operational emphasis on race”, especially via Facebook advertisements, 66% of which leveraged racially divisive issues.

These types of influence operations reportedly did not stop after 2016. According to an October 2018 study cited by the Senate Committee’s report, more than 80% of the accounts included in analyzed election maps were still active by 2018, continuing to publish over one million tweets per day. More recent allegations of Kremlin-directed meddling in the 2020 U.S. presidential elections were documented in a March 2021 report released by the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI).[ii]  The report assesses with high confidence that Russia’s 2020 activities focused on pushing influence narratives unflattering to then-presidential candidate Joe Biden to media organizations, U.S. officials, and other “prominent individuals”. The report makes no mention of the IRA specifically and claims that “greater public and media awareness of influence operations in 2020 compared to past election cycles probably helped counter [them] to some degree.”

However, the report finds that while Russia may have adjusted its tactics and strategy from 2016 to 2020, it still likely favored Donald Trump over Joe Biden, and sought alternative means to support this candidate. The ODNI report alleges that, prior to the 2020 election, “Russia’s intelligence services, Ukraine-linked Individuals with ties to Russian intelligence and their networks, and Russian state media, trolls, and online proxies engaged in activities targeting the 2020 US presidential election.” No less opportunistic in their approach, these alleged pre-2020 narratives concerned now-President Biden, his family and their alleged ties to Ukraine as well as conspiratorial COVID-19 content and racial justice protests. This is a markedly different strategy from the pre-2016 themes of race, social division, and identity politics. Needless to say, this shift in Russia’s alleged targeting strategy and operational focus was followed by a vastly different outcome in 2020

Weaponizing “Suggestibility”

The mechanisms that make social media influence operations successful may not be completely clear to laymen or even experts. After all, advertisements for consumer products are commonplace in democratic societies, and while some marketing campaigns may be more successful than others, companies cannot compel, but can only encourage, consumers to purchase their products or services. According to academic research cited by the Senate Intelligence Committee’s report, an individual is “more likely to recall and internalize the initial information they are exposed to on a divisive topic.” In a marketing context, this can be observed via “provocative marketing” campaigns that leverage an adversiement’s “shock value” in order to make an impactful first impression upon potential buyers.[iii] In a disinformation context, this mechanism may be present when topics such as race, immigration and other hot-button issues are weaponized in the wake of a hotly anticipated democratic election between two diametrically opposed candidates. Another factor relevant to the 2016 campaign was the sheer volume of Russian “troll” accounts, which allegedly disseminated information at a “rapid, continuous, and repetitive” pace using a variety of means, including “text, video, audio, and still imagery propagated via the internet, social media, satellite television and traditional radio and television broadcasting.”

This isn’t the first time that influence operations have been accused of swaying the result of a democratic election, and the United States is not the first nation state to be affected. Moreover, these operations are not as simple as one state launching an attack upon another. These operations are complex in nature, and can employ proxies, intermediaries and substate actors.[iv] It’s also important to note that influence operations can be conducted by private organizations and corporations as well. But regardless of who the actors are, it appears that some of the most effective tactics remain the same. Cambridge Analytica, the infamous British political consulting firm implicated in aiding much of the data collection and targeting involved in former President Donald Trump’s 2016 campaign, was described as a “full service propaganda machine” by one of its former employees.[v] Cambridge Analytica allegedly collected data through a custom application called “This is Your Digital Life”.[vi] The app deployed a sophisticated personality test that some Facebook users filled out, helping the app to build custom “personality profiles” for each user, even going so far as to measure that user’s “suggestibility.”[vii] This metric was reportedly used to identify Facebook users whose opinions were most amenable to change, especially in swing states, prior to the 2016 election. The app also allegedly collected Facebook friends and other information through Facebook’s Open Graph platform, a protocol intended for use by developers to interact with Facebook’s global mapping tool. Cambridge Analytica reportedly used the data collected by this tool, leveraging up to 87 million Facebook profiles, to provide “analytical assistance” to the 2016 campaigns of Ted Cruz and Donald Trump.[viii][ix]

The “This is Your Digital Life” app was developed by Alexander Kogan, an American data scientist and researcher with a background in psychology. Kogan allegedly received funding from the University of St. Petersburg in Russia for his research on social media data mining and gave at least three lectures there since 2014.[x] Cambridge Analytica’s weaponization of “psychographics” has been implicated in other democratic elections, especially in “fragile democracies” where ethnic tensions were vulnerable to exploitation.[xi] Cambridge Analytica was allegedly involved in Kenya’s elections in 2013 and 2017 via employment by then-candidate Uhuru Kenyatta’s political campaign. Both of these elections were plagued by political polarization on both sides, contested results, and even violence. Cambridge Analytica’s CEO, Alexander Nix, allegedly bragged to undercover reporters that his company “rebranded [Kenyatta’s] entire party twice, written their manifesto, done two rounds of 50,000 surveys…Then we’d write all the speeches and we’d stage the whole thing. So just about every element of their campaign.”

Cambridge Analytica has also been implicated in elections processes in Nigeria, Latvia, Trinidad and Tobago and others. In Trinidad and Tobaga, the company was accused of supporting the National Congress (UNC) party and its affiliates which sought to defeat the incumbent People’s National Movement (PNM) in 2010.[xii] The PNM party was reportedly composed of primarily Afro-Trinbagonian voters, and Cambridge Analytica sought to sway a younger part of this demographic to support the UNC instead through a manufactured grassroots campaign called “do so”. According to audio from a Cambridge Analytica sales presentation, young black voters were targeted through its manufactured “do so” campaign, which sought to “increase apathy” among young black voters as a “a sign of resistance against […] politics” In the end, the UNC candidate, Kamla Persad-Bissessar, won that election over the incumbent Patrick Manning.[xiii]

If Cambridge Analytica’s alleged services were indeed successful, that begs the question: what, in general, makes elections interference operations successful? Is it possible that the IRA could have employed similar tactics?

The IRA’s Alleged 2016 Reddit Activities and Reddit a “testing ground”

 According to an expert witness cited in the Senate Select Committee’s report, the Russian government has utilized nearly every social media platform including “Instagram, Reddit, YouTube, Tumblr, 4chan, 9GAG, and Pinterest” in its influence activities. The report claims that alleged IRA activities occurred on Reddit less often than on larger platforms such as Facebook and Twitter. Interestingly, the Report contends that IRA influence operatives were partially active on Reddit in order to serve as a “testing ground” for future disinformation campaigns before being deployed on other, more popular, platforms. According to Reddit, 944 accounts in total were flagged as “suspicious” and were responsible for 14,000 posts containing socially or politically divisive content such as police brutality, the disparagement Hillary Clinton, as well as negative sentiment geared towards certain Western politico-military developments such as Montenegro’s accession to NATO. Operating upon the “shock factor” paradigm, one of these accounts promoted a custom video game called “Hilltendo”, which allowed the main player, as Hillary Clinton, to evade FBI agents and delete emails.[xiv] These provocative accounts reportedly intended to “go viral” with such content. According to Reddit, IRA activities were largely unsuccessful because Reddit is a “difficult platform to manipulate.” However, the Senate Committee’s report notes that the “anonymous and self-regulating” nature of Reddit makes it difficult to identify foreign influence operations. The report claims it is “probable” that Reddit remains a “testbed for foreign disinformation and influence campaigns.”

Analysis and Methodology

This analysis examines five separate Reddit accounts that were, according to Reddit, allegedly associated with IRA operations. These accounts were flagged as “suspicious” by Reddit and were suspended, but much of their content still remains online.[xv] These accounts include: “blacktolive”, “Leprechaun_yura”, “bill_jonson”, “clawsima” and “FaurnFlamebreaker.” The data considered in this analysis came from Reddit and was analyzed using a custom Python program with data collection, analysis and visualization capabilities. This analysis considers “hot” comments and submissions well as “new” comments and submissions for the selected Reddit accounts, calculates sentiment analysis scores for those comments and submissions, and performs visualization via wordcloud of the most frequently-discussed topics, excluding superfluous words for a cleaner dataset. The tool’s sentiment analysis capability performs a sentiment analysis and then graphs sentiment scores for chosen accounts as “negative”, “neutral” or “positive” as well as compound net scores for each account. It is important to note that the analysis is limited to these accounts because of their availability, and do not represent a comprehensive picture of all of the IRA’s alleged Reddit activities prior to the 2016 election.

Often writing positively about U.S. interests, national unity, and democracy, President Obama’s reddit account was used as a data corpus with which to compare the alleged IRA accounts’ activities on Reddit. By comparing President Obama’s most-used words and sentiment scores to those of the suspicious accounts, we can observe what differences are present between the alleged IRA activities and those of the presidential administration so politically dissimilar to its successor. Because of this, we can hypothesize that the sum of Obama’s data will yield a net positive sentiment score based on the content he likely posts, while the alleged IRA accounts will likely yield more negative sentiment scores if they post more often about divisive topics. This tool was used twice against two different use cases. The first use case compares a conglomerate database of the suspicious Reddit accounts’ activity with that of President Obama’s Reddit account. The second use case compares the alleged IRA accounts to each other in terms of sentiment and word choice. It then explores why some of these accounts may have posted some of the things that they did.

This experiment sought to answer several different questions:

  • Does there appear to be a marked difference in sentiment between President Obama’s Reddit account and the accounts allegedly linked to IRA operatives?
  • Does there appear to be a marked difference between the topics and themes most noted by President Obama’s account and the suspicious accounts, and if so, what are they?
  • What topics are most common among the suspicious accounts and how could they be used to sow dissent and encourage votes for the Republican candidate?

This analysis also employed structured analytic techniques to validate findings:

  • Can we attribute any observed agenda among the suspicious accounts to ordinary views of conservative American Redditors and not necessarily to malign behavior, subversion and/or an attempt to sway the election by foreign agents?
  • Is it possible that our foreknowledge of Reddit’s investigation and findings by the Senate Intelligence Committee contribute to our analytical bias in interpreting these results?
  • Are there any other alternative hypotheses for our findings? If so, what are they?

Key Findings

  • A sentiment analysis revealed a slight overall negative compound (net) sentiment score for Reddit activities associated with the five alleged-IRA accounts and an overall slight positive compound (net) sentiment score for President Obama’s Reddit activities.
  • Among the five alleged IRA accounts, the following topics of conversation were correlated with negative sentiment: Hillary Clinton, some U.S. and/or NATO military operations (notably British military strategy in Syria, one of Russia’s areas of involvement in the Middle East, and the U.S. Deployment of Nuclear Bombers (B-52Hs) in the Baltic States) and Hillary Clinton’s policies towards black Americans.
  • Among the alleged IRA accounts, positive sentiment was associated with Russia, Donald Trump, some U.S. military operations, conditions in Syria under the Assad regime and racial equality for black Americans, but only where Hillary Clinton was also described as disingenuous to black Americans.
  • Interestingly, one account displayed negative sentiment towards Western strategy in Syria, but positive sentiment towards Russian strategy in Syria. This account also criticized alleged plans for a U.S. deployment of Nuclear Bombers (B-52Hs) as part of BaltFor15 on NATO’s eastern flank in 2015.
  • According to automated open-source data and research tools, it appears that the five accounts discussed in this report were also active across the following online platforms: Blogger, Reddit, Disqus, Facebook, Steam, Twitter, YouTube, Pastebin and others. Most of these accounts are now disabled, but there are records of these account names having been registered as well as additional corroborating information. 

These findings are in line with much of the Senate Intelligence Committee’s conclusion that the IRA’s accounts were used to sow dissent and division above and beyond encouraging support of President Donald Trump. By speaking positively of topics in support of Russia’s national interest and negatively of western activities in Syria and the Baltic states, these accounts display a broader operational focus in line with defending Russia’s activities abroad and discouraging NATO activities in territory close to its western border.

Data Collection and Frequency Analysis

As shown below, a cursory qualitative analysis via word cloud shows us much of what we suspected. Most of President Obama’s Reddit comments and submissions had to do with political topics, business, space exploration, and positive terms such as “inspiration”, “wonder”, “international”, “access”, “potential” and “united.”

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Figure 1: Word cloud of President Obama’s most-frequently discussed topics on Reddit.

There are also many positive verbs represented here such as “invest”, continue”, “make” and “work.” Much of President Obama’s content had to do with topics such as space exploration, internet freedom, and tax cuts for small businesses.[xvi]

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Figure 2: Screenshot of one of President Obama’s posts on Reddit.

The word cloud representing the suspicious accounts paints a much different picture:

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Figure 3: Word cloud of five suspicious Reddit accounts’ most-discussed topics

Here we see words like “military”, “aggression”, “war”, “ploy”, “ties”, “aggression”, “whining” “strike” and “secrets.” Much of these words were used to allude to special operations and alleged espionage. These topics were often in reference to conspiracy theories spread by these accounts on Reddit. We also see Mitch McConnell mentioned, as well as 2016 democratic contender Hillary Clinton. Documentaries were often discussed and recommended, as well as politico-military issues relevant to Russia, Israel and Iran. If these suspicious accounts are indeed linked to the IRA, this provides an interesting cursory first glance into the kinds of topics they like to discuss without having to read through hundreds of Reddit comments.

Considering separate word clouds for each of the five alleged IRA Reddit accounts provides more context around these topics:

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Figure 4: Reddit user “blacktolive” most-used words

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Figure 5: Reddit user “Leprechaun_yura” most-used words

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Figure 6: Reddit user “bill_jonson” most-used words

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Figure 7: Reddit user “clawisma” most-used words

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Figure 8: FaurnFlamebreaker most-used words.

The prior dataset was a conglomeration of these five accounts. However, it’s helpful to see how each topic was differentiated. Without having to read the posts, we can see that the content posted by “bill_jonson” involved Navy SEALS, Iran, and Mitch McConnnell, while the “Clawisma” account posted content with words like “Israel”, “Iran” and “Ploy.”

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Figure 9: Screenshot of a video posted by alleged IRA account “Bill_Jonson”

Interestingly, user “Bill_Jonson” posted this video to Reddit five years ago, prior to the 2016 election. The video has been removed by YouTube. “Bill_Jonson” touted this video as “one of the best seal documentaries.” This account, according to the wordcloud, was also associated with military topics, and may have been promoting patriotism and support of U.S. troops with a pro-Trump agenda.

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Figure 10: Reddit posts by u/BlacktoLive criticizing Hillary Clinton.

Much of “blacktolive”’s content seems to be geared towards racial justice movements, but was also linked to anti-Hillary Clinton sentiment. The account’s post “Hillary’s War on Black Americans” was posted four years ago. This post was made to several different subReddits including r/blackpower, r/Liberal , r/HillaryClinton, and other similar accounts. Many of “blacktolive”’s submissions link articles from the now-defunct “blacktolive[.]org” website. According to The Tactics & Tropes of the Internet Research Agency, a report released by the Austin, Texas-based “information integrity” company New Knowledge (now Yonder), blacktolive[.]org was an IRA-created domain designed to spread disinformation.[xvii]

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Figure 11: Screenshot from the now-defunct “blacktolive[.]org” website.

While the account’s intention may not have been explicitly pro-Donald Trump, it certainly wasn’t pro-Hillary Clinton. This may explain the negative sentiment. If we take the information presented by The Russia Tweets at face value, an anti-Hillary but still left-leaning strategy may have aimed to encourage “suggestible” voters on the fence, especially black voters, not to vote for Trump. It’s no secret that negative sentiment was directed towards Hillary Clinton in this case.

Redditor “BlackToLive” also posted more “mainstream” content in line with movements such as Black Lives Matter, without an anti-Hillary bias, possibly to recruit more supporters from those movements.

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Figure 12: Post by u/BlackToLive criticizing the “double standard in the way America responds to the death of black and the death of cops.”

“BlackToLive” also posted a link to a Whitehouse petition to create a “nationwide, elected and publicly reviewed “Policy Oversight Agency.”

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Figure 13: Screenshot of a post by “BlackToLive” sharing a petition to create a “nationwide, elected and publicly reviewed “Policy Oversight Agency.”

User “FaurnFlameBreaker” also posted incendiary comments about the U.S. justice system in response to an article about the acquittal of an ex-BP executive:

“Well, in this country it’s either you are a top executive and can get away with anything or you are a common American and can get in jail for literally anything.” Additionally, the phrase “get in jail” is grammatically incorrect, and sounds unnatural.

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Figure 14: Post by Redditor “FaurnFlamebreaker” criticizing the fairness of the U.S. justice system.

According to the report by New Knowledge, one of the IRA’s “themes” was “Syria and ISIS, pro-Assad, anti-U.S. involvement.” The Redditors “Clawsima” and “FaurnFlamebreaker” are perhaps the most interesting in this context. In the post below, a now-deleted user posted a link to an article with the headline “Britain to send 125 troops back to Iraq to fight ISIS and train Iraqi forces on how to deal with ISIS explosives” five years ago.

FaurnFlamebreaker commented:

“Only 125? Why not 10? Islamic state has captured half Syria, they are close to Baghdad and keep advancing while all western leaders do is simply taking some minor measures. Smh”

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Figure 15: Reddit comment by “FaurnFlamebreaker” to a Reddit post on alleged British operations in Iraq.

Here “FaurnFlamebreaker” appears to be undermining British military strategy in Syria, claiming that action there is futile since the Islamic State “has already captured half [of] Syria” and that “they are close to Baghdad and keep advancing.” The account also criticized Western leader’s actions in Syria as “only taking minor measures.” Given that this account was flagged by Reddit for its purported association with the IRA, this negative sentiment towards Western strategy in Syria is certainly interesting.[xviii]

Redditor “Clawisma” also posted content involving Syria, notably undermining the brutality of the Assad regime. The screenshot below shows a post by “Clawisma” sharing an article suggesting that Syrian “emigrants” weren’t really fleeing from war. The website “butthis[.]com” is now defunct and, like “blacktolive[.]org”, was linked to the IRA by New Knowledge and is no longer online.

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Figure 16: Screenshot of user “Clawisma” sharing an article undermining humanitarian conditions in Syria.

While this article is no longer online, its title clearly suggests that Syrian refugees were not “really” fleeing from war. The word “emigrant” seems to be a particularly euphemistic way of referring to Syrian refugees who have been fleeing a humanitarian crisis and civil war that has reportedly displaced over 6.6 million people.[xix] Moscow has had an interest in Syria since the 1970’s when it started providing that country with aid and arms.[xx] In the 2000’s, Putin began to expand the Russian military and bolster its ties with Assad as part of re-establishing Russia as a “great power.” According to researchers at Oxford, the overthrow of Muamar Gaddafi in 2011 disrupted several billion dollars’ worth of pending Russian arms sales to Libya. Viewing Gaddafi as “directly undermining its influence in the Arab world,” Putin reportedly sought to gain more influence in the region through Syria and has opposed the removal of Bashar al-Assad despite allegations of horrific human rights atrocities and violations of international law.[xxi]

Perhaps this messaging–that conditions in that country aren’t as bad as their portrayals by Western media–suggests that the IRA aimed to downplay the severity of the humanitarian crisis in Syria, while simultaneously criticizing Western involvement there.

This below post by “FaurnFlamebreaker” is perhaps the most blatantly pro-Russian post we observe among our five accounts. Five years ago, a now-deleted user posted a link to an article with the headline “Stratcom Deploys Bombers Near Baltics. US Deploys Nuclear Bombers (B-52Hs) as part of BaltFor15 next to Russia” to the r/worldnews subReddit.

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Figure 17: “FaurnFlamebreaker”’s reply to an article posted about U.S. Deployment of Nuclear Bombers to NATO’s eastern flank

In response to another user’s comment about Russian aggression, “FaurnFlamebreaker” commented:

“Okay, you tease the bear, the bear is likely to strike back. What’s the point of whining about Russian aggression then?”

Interestingly, there is little news coverage of this 2015 deployment beyond its mention in The Washington Free Beacon, a politically conservative website that publishes news commentary and opinion pieces.[xxii] The Washington Free Beacon has published several anti-Hillary Clinton articles, and allegedly hired the strategic intelligence firm Fusion GPS to develop opposition research on several candidates prior to the 2016 election. The publication reportedly halted this research after Donald Trump secured the Republican nomination.[xxiii] It’s important to note, however, that Fusion GPS has had clients from both sides of the political aisle as well as law firms, investors, and businesses.[xxiv] As many may remember from news coverage of the 2016 election, Hillary Clinton’s campaign also paid Fusion GPS to conduct opposition research that allegedly became the basis of the infamous “Steele Dossier.”

Sentiment Analysis

The themes repeated by the alleged-IRA accounts seem to make even more sense when we couple their most-discussed topics with sentiment analysis. Interestingly, running sentiment analysis on both datasets reveals a slightly negative compound sentiment score for the suspicious accounts and a slightly positive score for President Obama.

The scatterplot below displays sentiment scores for each suspicious account in comparison to the others. Three of the five accounts we considered displayed a negative sentiment score, and two of them displayed a positive score.[xxv]

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Figure 18: Scatterplot showing sentiment scores for each alleged IRA account

It is clear to see that Clawsima and bill_jonson display net positive sentiment scores. These two accounts discussed topics relating to Russia and U.S. military action with positive sentiment. The net sentiment scores of both of these accounts exceed 0.75, which is defined as “very positive”. Conversely, the accounts BlacktoLive, Leprechaun_yura, and FaurnFlamebreaker displayed negative net sentiment scores. Two of these scores, -0.8316 (BlacktoLive) and -0.89 (FaurnFlamebreaker) display “very negative” sentiment, while “Leprechaun_yura” displayed a score of 0.66, which is still “negative.” BlacktoLive discussed pro-left and pro-racial equality topics with a negative sentiment towards Hillary Clinton. The three accounts that displayed negative sentiment belonged to “BlackToLive” (suspicious account 1), “Leprechaun_yura” (suspicious account 2) and “Clawisma” (suspicious account 5).[xxvi]

The compound score represents the sum of all normalized lexicon ratings between -1(most extreme negative) and +1 (most extreme positive).[xxvii]

The results were as follows:

  • Sentiment score for President Obama: {‘neg’: 0.024, ‘neu’: 0.842, ‘pos’: 0.134, ‘compound’: 0.9459}
  • Sentiment score for suspicious accounts: {‘neg’: 0.154, ‘neu’: 0.764, ‘pos’: 0.083, ‘compound’: -0.935}
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Figure 19: Sentiment scores for President Obama’s Reddit account vs. alleged IRA Reddit accounts

According to the sentiment analysis, President Obama’s activity has a compound sentiment score of 0.9459, which is considered “very positive”, whereas the compound sentiment score for the suspicious accounts’ activity is -0.935, which is considered “very negative”. Our hypothesis–that the alleged IRA accounts would have a negative sentiment score, while President Obama’s compound score would be positive–appears to be correct. However, alternative hypotheses should be considered as well. Our sample size was limited to only five accounts whose information was still viewable in Reddit. Based on this data alone, we cannot make a high or even medium confidence assessment that all of the Reddit accounts used by IRA trolls had a negative sentiment score. Sentiment analysis is imperfect and subjective, and sentiment itself is a difficult thing to quantify. What we can say is that we have observed a handful of influential accounts which, according to Reddit, appeared to be suspicious, and the ones that we could get data from displayed “very negative” sentiment.

Possible Additional Social Media Activities

According to the use of automated open source data and research tools, it appears that the five Reddit accounts examined in this report were also active across the following additional social media and gaming platforms: Blogger, Disqus, Facebook, Steam, YouTube Twitter and possibly others. Most of these accounts are now disabled, but there are records of these account names having been registered. The chart below shows links between these accounts and where they may have also registered by the same operators prior to the 2016 election, according to open-source data and indicators that these were likely tied to the same Reddit accounts. The exact account names have been redacted.

Figure 20: This redacted network chart shows which accounts were likely registered to additional online platforms according to additional corroborating information. This chart was created using an open source OSINT graphical linkage tool. This chart is not exhaustive as additional, likely associated accounts could not be verified.

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The image below shows a redacted screenshot from a Russian-language online programming forum. One of the five Reddit accounts was registered to this forum on March 3rd, 2016, just eight months before election day. The account made 24 posts, and its last activity was recorded on July 26th, 2016. Although we cannot guarantee that this account is linked, the registration date, activity, and exact name match are certainly interesting considering the November 2016 election. Additional accounts were identified but were not included in this report.

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Figure 21: Screenshot of a specific Reddit account on a Russian programming forum.

Considerations and Alternative Hypotheses

Can we attribute any observed agenda among the suspicious accounts to ordinary views of conservative American Redditors and not necessarily to malign behavior, subversion and/or an attempt to sway the election by foreign agents? Is it possible that our foreknowledge of Reddit’s investigation and findings by the U.S. Senate Intelligence Committee contribute to our analytical bias in interpreting these results? Are there any other alternative hypotheses for our findings?

We certainly could attribute the comments and displayed pro-Trump sentiment displayed by these accounts to have been the result of ordinary Americans voicing their opinions online. After all, 46.1% of Americans voted for Donald Trump in 2016.[xxviii] Whether or not fewer would have done so without any alleged interference by Russian trolls via social media is unknown to anyone without vast amounts of data relevant to these alleged activities. We know that Reddit flagged these accounts as “suspicious” for reasons that are known only to the U.S. Senate Committee and Reddit’s internal teams.

While our findings seem to agree with the U.S. Senate Intelligence Committee’s assessment, it is important to note that their analyses likely utilized vastly more data, time and means than ours did. We also have foreknowledge that the Senate Intelligence Committee did find that the IRA had likely been involved in swaying the 2016 election outcome, and that could have affected our analytic interpretation of these results due to hindsight bias. It’s very likely that vastly more sophisticated tools with heuristic capabilities could develop more insights this analysis could. It is also possible that our results could have been altered by the inclusion of more data from more than five accounts. Just one additional account, for example, could have dramatically altered the compound sentiment scores. Several additional alternative hypotheses exist, and these are limited only to speculation.

As discussed earlier, we observed several instances where positive sentiment was tied to topics like some U.S. military activities and Russia, while negative sentiment was tied to Hillary Clinton, race, religion and some western military operations. This is congruent with much of the analysis from the public-facing U.S. Senate Intelligence Committee Report, which cited themes such as race, military action, and other topics we have witnessed here. According to the report, the “IRA’s trolls monitored societal divisions and were poised to pounce when new events provoked societal discord.”

Among the five alleged IRA accounts, we observed Hillary Clinton, British military strategy in Syria, and the U.S. Deployment of Nuclear Bombers on NATO’s eastern flank associated with negative sentiment. This is interesting given some of the conclusions drawn about Russia’s alleged use of social media in the Senate Intelligence Committee’s report. The observed negative sentiment towards Hillary Clinton matches the report’s assessment that “the IRA sought to influence the 2016 U.S. presidential election by harming Hillary Clinton’s chances of success and supporting Donald Trump.”

Much of the content posted by “blacktolive” corroborates the finding that “No single group of Americans was targeted by IRA information operatives more than African-Americans.” A former alleged IRA “troll” described his operational focus on race-related issues in an interview by The Guardian in 2015:

“When there were black people rioting in the U.S. we had to write that U.S. policy on the black community had failed, Obama’s administration couldn’t cope with the problem, the situation is getting tenser.”

The Senate Intelligence Committee’s report includes several additional examples of alleged IRA accounts posting similar content to accounts on Facebook, YouTube and additional social media platforms. The content posted by the alleged IRA accounts criticizing British military strategy in Syria and the U.S. Deployment of Nuclear Bombers in the Baltic states is particularly interesting. Content like this stretches beyond the IRA’s apparent primary goal of securing Donald Trump as President of the United States. Moreover, some of these accounts seem not only to defend some of Russia’s activities abroad but to attack western involvement in those regions. By criticizing the U.S. deployment of nuclear bombers in the Baltic States, perhaps these accounts sought to discourage public support of NATO activities so close to Russia’s western border. By criticizing NATO strategy in Syria and downplaying the severity of human rights violations in that country under Assad, perhaps these accounts sought to defend Russia’s activities in that country.

While the results of this analysis appear to corroborate some of the Senate Intelligence Committee report’s findings, we cannot make a high-confidence assessment based upon qualitative data obtained from five alleged Russian troll accounts. Within our small and limited scope, however, we can assess that the accounts we evaluated displayed negative sentiment and discussed topics that, in line with the U.S. Senate Intelligence Committee Report, were certainly in favor of Donald Trump in 2016. An attempt at inciting division through posting racially divisive and other incendiary content was clearly apparent, as was an anti-Hillary Clinton bias. A qualitative assessment also suggests that some of these accounts sought to support Russia’s strategic goals abroad, while criticizing NATO involvement within its areas of interest. These tactics, if they were indeed implemented as is suggested by the Senate Committee’s report, the New Knowledge report, and other sources, appear to be similar to those allegedly employed by Cambridge Analytica. By weaponizing “suggestibility”, these operations display a narrow targeting strategy and operational focus, which may speak to the specificity of their intentions. Perhaps the most successful influence operations target those whose opinions are most amenable to change, in the areas where they matter most. By exploiting this “sweet spot”, these operations seem to tell us what we already know–that the best way to change someone’s mind is to make them think it was their idea.



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