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Students examine Russian disinformation campaign

Fecht ’20, Nassetta analyze Russian strategy to spread falsehoods about Syria through tweets

Ethan Fecht ’20 and Jack Nassetta, a junior at the George Washington University, spent the summer analyzing over 850,000 tweets from Russia attempting to spread disinformation about Syria in the United States. This Russian strategy was launched through a number of fake Twitter accounts in an effort to fracture U.S. political groups, distort facts surrounding current events and create national discord, Fecht said.

The fake accounts’ main objectives are to stop international intervention and, more specifically, to criticize the United States for attacking Syria following the use of chemical weapons in Douma, Syria in April 2018, Fecht said.

Working at the Monterey Institute of International Studies, Fecht and Nassetta combed through Twitter tweets and to discern fake accounts, typically referred to as “bots” or “trolls.” They also worked to formulate a list of red flags that denote, to a degree of certainty, the validity of the accounts. “It’s subjective in some sense, so you have to come up with fairly objective criteria to have a strong methodology,” Fecht said.

Most of these accounts present themselves as followers of U.S. conservative viewpoints yet criticize President Donald Trump and spread false information to lessen support for the President. “(These accounts) introduce these narratives into alt-right conversations,” Nassetta said. “It creates a growing fracture among this narrative.”

The accounts also spread rumors and attempt to shift blame for the attacks. For example, the accounts claim that the White Helmets, a Syrian volunteer organization, is affiliated with Al-Qaeda. Additionally, several accounts claim that the chemical attack in Douma did not happen at all, Fecht said. “I do think it’s effective. I don’t know how effective,” Fecht said.

“It’s so cheap, and they definitely create some kind of division. It’s a success, and they’re going to keep doing it,” Nassetta added.

Fecht described the process as both “quantitative and qualitative.” The team used software such as Excel to analyze data but also looked at individual users to identify fake accounts. Characteristics including the date of the account’s creation, discussion of Russian politics from someone claiming to be American and a preoccupation with conspiratorial themes were considered to be indicative of fake accounts.

The project began when both Nassetta and Fecht were fellows at the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies in Monterey, California. Fecht has a military background with skills in data analysis and spent several years working for the National Security Agency and the Navy before coming to Brown as a Resumed Undergraduate Education student. Nassetta has a background in political communication with a focus on disinformation.

After analyzing tweets to identify common themes among these fake accounts, they produced a 50-page report on their research, Nassetta said. “You’re just looking at this (account) and (thinking), ‘I can’t tell if you’re crazy, if you’re super ideologically committed to this conspiratorial stuff or if you’re a Russian troll.’ There’s a ton of uncertainty,” Fecht said.

In addition to the 50-page report, Fecht and Nassetta published a companion piece meant for a popular audience in The Washington Post, and the team has since garnered wide-ranging praise for the work. They have even received an offer from the State Department to further discuss their findings, Nassetta said.

In the future, Nassetta and Fecht aim to delve deeper into the tweets being sent by these fake accounts and analyze which ones received engagement by looking at favorites and retweets, Fecht said. The fake accounts are “casting a wide net, but they know that one in every 20 (tweets) is going to be a hit and is going to change minds,” he added.

Russia is not the only country in which disinformation tactics are being employed, Fecht said. Saudi Arabia saw a spike in fake accounts spreading disinformation and condemnation of the arrest of a number of the country’s activists and the nation’s scandal with Canada, Nassetta said. Additionally, a rise of disinformation has been seen within Iran, which has attempted to influence the American political scene and prevent American intervention, Fecht added.

While there is still little evidence of disinformation tactics used in the United States, we may soon see a rise in this type of propaganda, particularly  in the 2020 presidential election, Fecht said. There was a suspected rise in fake accounts connected to the ongoing Senate campaign in Texas, as a number of Twitter accounts tweeted the same message supporting Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX), he added. Since it is not currently possible to determine which accounts are fake with complete certainty, there is no concrete way to combat this disinformation, Nassetta said. “You can only build up resistance yourself,” he added. “You want to be attuned to the sources of information.”

William Potter, director of the Center for Nonproliferation Studies, said their research “contributed significantly to our understanding of how these (social media) tools could be misused.” It is “unusual to have undergraduates who are relatively new to the subject gain that kind of international attention,” he added. “I was exceptionally proud of the two of them for the quality of the research, the manner in which they presented it and the attention it generated.”



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