Information operations · Information Warfare · Russia

NATO Stratcom COE: Robotrolling 2017/2


The press is already jumping on this report, with one article highlighting the large use of bots by Russia.

This puts additional pressure on Twitter to develop ways to detect and deal with bots. This puts pressure on governments to legislate bots out of existence while still maintaining some flexibility in a counter-response by Western governments. This also adds pressure to private individuals to mistrust unverified, ‘extremist’, or single-focused tweeters.

Bottom line, Angela Merkel called it correctly. “We know what you’re doing and it won’t work.”

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PREPARED AND PUBLISHED BY THE NATO STRATEGIC COMMUNICATIONS CENTRE OF EXCELLENCE

Report available at: https://www.stratcomcoe.org/robotrolling-20172

Executive Summary

Robotic activity is highly dynamic. The online discussion about the NATO presence in Poland and the Baltics shows sharp changes in focus and intensity. The current reporting period August–October has been comparatively free of large-scale, politically motivated robotic interventions. In contrast, the period March–July stands out as one in which content was heavily promoted online.

Political actors use bot accounts in the social media space to manipulate public opinion about regional geopolitics. According to our estimate, such accounts produced 5–15% of the activity about the NATO presence in Latvia and Estonia in the period March–July 2017. Bot-generated messages differ depending on the target audience. Messages aimed at the West suggested that Russian exercises pale in comparison with NATO operations. Messages targeted to the domestic audience rarely mentioned the Russian exercises.

Russian-language bots create roughly 70% of all Russian messages about NATO in the Baltic States and Poland. Overall, 60% of active Russian-language accounts seem to be automated. In comparison, 39% of accounts tweeting in English are bots. They created 52% of all English-language messages in the period August–October. Our data suggest Twitter is less effective at removing automatically generated Russian content than it is for English material. Nonetheless, we have seen improvement in social media policing by the platform. A ‘cleaner’ social media is good not only for individual users, but also for businesses. Pressure should continue in order to ensure further improvements. 

The Big Picture 

Since March 2017 we have observed sharp changes in focus and intensity of robotic activity. The period August–October is comparatively free of large-scale, politically motivated robotic interventions. In contrast, the period March–June stands out as one in which content about NATO in the Baltics and Poland was heavily promoted online. Given the lower levels of activity, observations for the current quarter may offer a snapshot of what ‘normal’ levels of automation look like. During the nine months we have monitored to date, we have yet to observe any attempt to flood the space with messages to suppress organic discussion. Even so, this picture of ‘normal’ remains bleak—the majority of messages about the keywords we have selected are from mainly or fully automated accounts.

Russian-language bots created roughly 70% of all Russian messages about NATO in the Baltic States and Poland. Overall, 60% of accounts active in Russian were predominantly automated. In comparison, 39% of accounts tweeting in English are bots. They created 52% of all English-language messages in the period August-October. Compared to the first issue of Robotrolling, we find a sharp drop in bot activity this quarter for Russian language bots. Bot activity declined by 13 percentage points.1

This issue of Robotrolling analyses Twitter-mentions of NATO and one or more of the host countries Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, and Poland. The period considered is 1 August–31 October 2017. The total number of posts considered is 6 200 , of which 1 in 3 are in Russian. The number of active users is 3 500. In this issue we 1 compare current levels to those observed during the previous six months as reported in the first issue of Robotrolling. Compared to Spring 2017, the current level of activity in both language spaces is muted, but this is especially pronounced for Russian. In the first issue of Robotrolling we found Russian users were more active; data for this quarter shows almost exact parity between English and Russian language activity.2

According to our latest estimates for automated activity, we under-reported the levels of automated English-language activity in the first issue of Robotrolling. Our current estimates are 36 % for the previous 6 months, and 39% for the period August–October.

Report available at: https://www.stratcomcoe.org/robotrolling-20172

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