On March 29, Ben Nimmo, Senior Fellow for Information Defense at the Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Lab, published an article on Medium telling readers how to investigate whether certain Twitter accounts are pro-Kremlin troll accounts operated by the so-called Internet Research Agency in St. Petersburg. In the article, he warned that too often social media users are targeting other accounts as Russian trolls, and that this is a problem.
“Such accusations do more harm than good, obscuring the ways in which trolls can really be identified and increasing online polarization still further,” Nimmo wrote.
Nimmo went on to explain the difficulty of determining whether an account is a paid troll or someone just repeating Russian government messaging:
“However, these factors do allow for the reliable indication of pro-Kremlin accounts,” he wrote. “If an account shares most of the factors, but claims to be a patriotic citizen of another country (especially the United States and United Kingdom), it may well be a covert influence account, like the hundreds which Russian journalists exposed working out of the St. Petersburg ‘troll factory’.
“As with any open source investigation,” Nimmo continued, “the combination of factors is key. A single indicator is seldom enough to confirm identification. What is important is the approach: assessing a suspect account from all angles and across as long a timespan as possible.”
The Russian state-funded media outlet RT responded to Nimmo’s article with a misleading headline that read: “Grammar mistakes mean you're a paid Kremlin troll, says Atlantic Council fellow.” The RT conclusion, however, overlooks Nimmo’s main point that a “combination” of factors help identify government-sponsored influence accounts.
The RT article began: “If you’re a Russian immigrant in the United States — or anywhere else — don’t bother tweeting your opinions unless your English is flawless. Otherwise you’ll be branded a Kremlin-paid troll by influential American think tanks.”
“What gives the Russian trolls away, Nimmo advises, is their tendency to use imperfect English,” the RT piece continued. “For example, Nimmo highlights the ‘inability’ of so-called Russian trolls to use the words ‘a’ or ‘the’ because the Russian language itself does not use definite or indefinite articles.”
In reality, Nimmo’s piece included a short section about language usage that includes a number of alleged troll posts with the errors he described.
“There is, of course, a difference between a Russian account and a pro-Kremlin one,” Nimmo wrote. “Linguistic telltales are, therefore, generally insufficient to expose the troll.”
The bulk of Nimmo’s article focused not on linguistic errors, but rather on the need to follow a particular Twitter account’s activity over a long period to see if it consistently pushes a pro-Kremlin narrative during key events with special significance for Russia. Nimmo profiled a number of such accounts in an earlier Medium piece. He also spoke to Polygraph.info, which published a profile of one such account, known as “Ian56,” which has alternately posed as both a citizen of the United States and Great Britain.
The RT article did mention this section of Nimmo’s article, but devoted very little attention to its content and misrepresents its message.
“Graciously, Nimmo accepts that simply using imperfect English alone may not be enough evidence to outright brand someone as a paid Kremlin agitator, but if you’ve also been tweeting certain anti-Western ‘narratives’ or indeed articles published by RT — then it’s a sure thing,” the RT piece read.
What Nimmo actually wrote is that “linguistic cues should be combined with narrative ones.”
“An account which repeatedly shares Russian government talking points on most or all of these events can justifiably be considered pro-Kremlin,” Nimmo wrote.
Interestingly, RT neglected to include a link to Nimmo’s article for its readers.
The RT article then changed the subject completely by referencing journalist Yasha Levine, who called Nimmo’s article “anti-immigrant crap.” However, the first example that Nimmo gave of a troll account sharing pro-Kremlin narrative is known as TEN_GOP. This account claimed to be representing the Republican Party in Tennessee, hence the name TEN_GOP.
Nimmo showed how the account would publish certain Kremlin talking points on events such as the annexation of Russian Crimea in 2014. He listed other events to monitor, including the downing of Malaysian Airlines flight MH17 over eastern Ukraine in July that same year, the downing of a Russian military aircraft by the Turkish air force in 2015, the fall of Aleppo in 2016, and the chemical attack at Khan Sheikhoun in Syria in 2017.
Nimmo provided examples of accounts the DFR Lab designated as pro-Kremlin trolls, none of which claim to be Russian immigrants. In fact, most of these accounts have Western-sounding first and last names, and they typically claim to be native-born citizens of the U.S. or Britain. It is also worth noting that many such accounts are known for tweeting extreme anti-immigrant messages.
The RT article ended by claiming that Nimmo smeared Ukrainian-American pianist Valentina Lisitsa as being tied to the Kremlin. Once again, the reality is very different. In another article on Kremlin trolls, Lisitsa was mentioned because she had retweeted material from other accounts identified as Kremlin trolls. One of those accounts goes by the name Rachael Swindon and identifies as a British citizen, not an immigrant or someone of Russian heritage.
Given the vast difference between what Nimmo’s article contains and RT’s interpretation, inquisitive RT readers are encouraged to read the article for themselves.
Read the Polygraph.info article on fake Twitter troll Ian56: https://www.polygraph.info/a/kremlin-trolls-on-twitter/29148549.html