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Tumblr Is, Almost by Accident, Our Best Glimpse of How Russian Trolls Work

Throughout the roiling scandal of Russian sock puppets attempting to influence the 2016 election on social media, an uncertainty has lingered over what employees of the Internet Research Agency, a notorious “troll farm,” actually did. This is because platforms like Facebook, upon undertaking internal investigations about foreign activity on their platform, wiped any evidence of it as soon as they found it. Facebook in particular has punted when asked whether or not it will make the posts in question public, stating that it needed to seek permission in order to do so.

What we do know about Russian troll activity is that these users made posts about controversial social issues — like Black Lives Matter and immigration — in the same manner as everyone else, attempting to shift the balance of online discourse one way or the other. Their reported aim was to shift the election in Trump’s favor not by inventing ridiculous fake-news stories, but by stoking social tensions (e.g., if you got mad about Black Lives Matter online, you might have voted for Trump). The effects of this — even if we had a complete record of every troll post — are impossible to discern at a glance. And we haven’t even had have access to those posts. Until now.

Last week, the blogging platform and social network Tumblr released the names of 84 IRA-linked accounts, and their past aliases (you can change your username on a whim on Tumblr). The transparency is laudable, particularly compared to other social networks. Facebook’s tool only tells you if you actively engaged with an IRA account, and what that specific account was.

But Tumblr also provides our best glimpse of the IRA’s actual practices, what they posted, and how these users inserted themselves into American discourse. That’s because Tumblr’s primary interaction, reblogging, requires users to duplicate another user’s post onto their own profile. User B reblogs User A, and on User B’s blog, User A’s comment remains. In essence, the structure of Tumblr is millions of users copy-pasting each other. If Tumblr were to wipe every instance of Russian activity, it would also “break the reblog chain,” wiping every user interaction that came after an IRA one. Tumblr opted against that, which means that, armed with a list of aliases and the indexing power of Google, you can find plenty of old posts from IRA trolls.

Mostly, it appears, the IRA’s Tumblr strategy was to rip popular Twitter posts and re-upload them to Tumblr.

As identified IRA user “destinyrush” puts it “this is EXACTLY why representation matters.” It’s a bunch of innocuous posts like this — socially conscious, but not explicitly political. Many of the accounts appear focused on boosting Black Lives Matter, which would make sense given Tumblr’s highly active, left-leaning crowd.

Here’s a reblog chain that destinyrush participated in deploying an image of a featherless chicken running away, below a viral video of a woman challenging her street harassers.

Fun fact! The first account in this chain, nevaehtyler, was also identified as an IRA account. They boosted each other. Given how often people on social media are just posting other people’s shit, it’s not surprising to see the exact same low-effort strategy replicated for influence operations. Sometimes you can land a big whale, like when Star Trek actor Wil Wheaton reblogged a woke post from Russian user bellygangstaboo.

It’s not just the causes of the left, however. Here’s a post in which Rick, a Tumblr user and self-described “Conservative from north Louisiana” who has “lived long enough to know that the Liberal and Socialist agenda, has never and will never work for society,” reblogged a Crooked Hillary meme from IRA user skullofjustice (previous aliases: ryanbutlersstuff, usnationaldebt, and … naughtykermit). Browse enough of these posts and what is made plain is that the Russian influence campaign is indistinguishable from American left-wing and right-wing activity.

But it’s not indistinguishable because the IRA did such a good job studying American habits. The strategy wasn’t to be the loudest people in the room, it was to be one of millions chattering in the crowd. This sort of activity is appealing because it’s not difficult to imitate and — more importantly — because online life is based around the activity of sharing things others made. “I saw this posted somewhere and had to share.” “Some neat points here.” Without the full context of a user’s identity, all you have is the one thing they said at one point in time, single units of sentiment that can be spread and shared without worry. It’s easy to meddle with politics abroad when you just have to download and re-upload a few things, or click reblog or retweet a few times, rather than come up with propaganda from scratch.

Tumblr Is Our Best Glimpse of How Russian Trolls Work