Last week, nearly 700,000 Twitter users were told that they unwittingly interacted with the Internet Research Agency, a Russian troll farm that tried to influence the 2016 election. “Twitter said that it had identified 3,814 IRA-linked accounts, which posted some 176,000 tweets in the 10 weeks preceding the election, and another 50,258 automated accounts connected to the Russian government, which tweeted more than a million times,” The Washington Post reported.
The news gave University of Washington Professor Kate Starbird and her academic colleagues an idea. They had recently authored a paper analyzing how Americans discussed police shootings on Twitter in 2016, focusing on the hashtag #BlackLivesMatter. Their lab even created a “shared audience graph” that mapped out individual accounts participating in that political conversation: One cluster was organized around #BlackLivesMatter and another around #BlueLivesMatter.
Were any of the folks in those conversations Russian trolls?
In fact, “When Twitter released the 1st batch of accounts related to the RU-IRA troll factories, we cross-referenced those with our #BlackLivesMatter & #BlueLivesMatter data,” Starbird wrote on Twitter, and sure enough, “some of the most active & most influential accounts ON BOTH SIDES were RU-IRA trolls.”