Russia’s trolling on Ukraine gets ‘incredible traction’ on TikTok

Russia’s online trolling operation is becoming increasingly decentralised and is gaining “incredible traction” on TikTok with misinformation aimed at sowing doubt over events in Ukraine, a US social media researcher has warned.

Darren Linvill, professor at Clemson University, South Carolina, who has been studying the Kremlin-linked Internet Research Agency (IRA) troll farm operation since 2017, said it was succeeding in creating more authentic-seeming posts.

He has identified the sharing of faked factchecking posts and accounts which amplify disinformation by linking between platforms such as Instagram, TikTok and Telegram, as current tactics by the IRA which it now believes is operating across different locations.

On Sunday, the UK government claimed it has identified a former factory in St Petersburg as a new base for trolling operations where “cyber soldiers are ruthlessly targeting politicians and audiences across a number of countries including the UK, South Africa and India”.

The Foreign and Commonwealth Office cited government-funded research, which it has not published, that reportedly shows paid staff in Russia are “using Telegram to actively recruit and coordinate new supporters who then target the social media profiles of Kremlin critics – spamming them with pro-Putin and pro-war comments.”

Linvill said this was “highly consistent with what we have seen the IRA previously do, given how it understands the power of authenticity”.

It was reported that targets have included Boris Johnson’s social media accounts as well as accounts of bands and musicians including Daft Punk, David Guetta and Tiësto. The government said it had shared the research with the social media platforms.

It said the Russian operation was searching for “organic content” posted by genuine users consistent with its messaging, and then working to amplify these messages.

“This means that, provided the content they post is not too offensive, they are unlikely to be subject to de-platforming interventions,” an official said.

Liz Truss, the foreign secretary, said: “We cannot allow the Kremlin and its shady troll farms to invade our online spaces with their lies about Putin’s illegal war. The UK government has alerted international partners and will continue to work closely with allies and media platforms to undermine Russian information operations.”

Linvill said trolls using comments under legitimate accounts was a common disinformation tactic and was not new, adding: “The IRA has a long history of taking advantage of legitimate voices.”

One benefit of a troll posting comments under an account with large numbers of followers is that they do not need many followers themselves to be seen.

He said the IRA almost always posted in Russian and the main goal appeared to be influencing Russian public opinion, but the UK government said its latest research suggested Moscow’s operation was “designed to manipulate international public opinion” in favour of its military campaign in Ukraine.

TikTok and Twitter have closed scores of accounts in recent months which Linvill believes may be linked to the IRA. He said the impact of TikTok was particularly startling, with some accounts having hundreds of thousands of followers. “They were very, very effective,” he said. “They got an incredible amount of traction in the nationalist Russian space.”

Twitter said it proactively assesses for inauthentic behaviour and since the start of the war in Ukraine it has removed over 100,000 accounts for violations of its platform manipulation and spam policy. It has labelled or removed 50,000 pieces of content.

TikTok and Meta, which operates Facebook and Instagram, have also been approached for comment.

Linvill said the IRA’s strategy was not to cause people to believe something new, but rather to sow doubt and cause distrust in information sources that are usually seen as legitimate, in particular to deter domestic opposition to the Russian president. “If you don’t believe in anything, you’re not going to fight for anything and you are more likely to go along with Putin,” he said.

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