The Internet Research Agency (IRA) is a Russian organization well known to disinformation specialists. It has carried out numerous propaganda operations throughout the world, often with success. The objective is to manipulate public opinion by carrying out online actions, notably through the use of false accounts that are often very credible.

Researchers at the University of Buffalo have been looking at this very structure in an exciting study. This research focused on the action of the IRA during the 2016 American election. Their analysis thus focused on 2700 fake accounts used during the campaign by the Russian organization.

Journalists, who have little time to write, are attracted by these good clients

They then spotted that four English-language accounts, two Democrats and two Republicans, were particularly prominent throughout the months leading up to the vote. By cross-checking the growth of these profiles with the pick-ups made by 200 media outlets of all ideological spectrums, they were surprised to find that the latter had played a very large role in their rise.

In the end, the operation worked very well as these accounts, which were almost anonymous at the beginning, exceeded 100,000 followers a few months later. As is often the case, the IRA had calculated its move very well since each tweet was often relayed en masse, which ensured a certain authority to these fakes and surely influenced the media in their editorial choices.

Yini Zhang, one of the authors of this study, also states:

We did not observe the same effect on progressive and conservative accounts. The two conservative accounts got a huge boost from mainstream and hyperconservative media who quoted tweets in their articles, but we didn’t see mainstream and hyperprogressive media doing the same for the two liberal accounts.

To explain this media appetite for these profiles, the authors make an economic argument. While they have less and less time to investigate, journalists are attracted by these good customers with well-chiseled punchlines that generate a lot of traffic.

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If you’re interested in the subject, you can also read our detailed article on a troll factory.