Study: Russian Trolls Supremely Effective At Exploiting American Fear, Anger Online

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BOULDER, Colo. — Divisive and toxic social media posts created by Russian trolls have become all too common over the past five years or so. You know the kind: they’re poorly worded, sloppily constructed, and serve to spread a message of hate and controversy. But, are these thinly veiled attempts at manipulation actually effective at influencing Americans? According to a recent study conducted at the University of Colorado, Boulder, the answer to that question is an emphatic yes.

Of course, the main purpose of posts by Russian trolls is to incite arguments among different groups or ideologies: conservatives versus liberals, pro-life versus pro choice, pro-immigrant groups versus border wall enthusiasts, etc. Researchers say as outrageous as much of this content appears to be, Americans can’t help but to click.

After analyzing over 2,500 of these Russian posts, researchers discovered they generated clickthrough rates as much as nine times higher than the norm in digital advertising campaigns. In a rather poor reflection of human nature, it seems that controversy, lies, and fear mongering do very much equal clicks.

“We found that fear and anger appeals work really well in getting people to engage,” says lead author Chris Vargo, an assistant professor of Advertising, Public Relations and Media Design at CU Boulder, in a release.

This is the first ever study to examine the infamous Russian troll company known as the Internet Research Agency (IRA). Researchers based their work on posts and ads put online leading up to the 2016 presidential election, but these findings are still very relevant today.

“As consumers continue to see ads that contain false claims and are intentionally designed to use their emotions to manipulate them, it’s important for them to have cool heads and understand the motives behind them,” Vargo adds.

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In total, the study’s authors examined 2,517 Facebook and Instagram paid posts available via the U.S. House of Representatives Permanent Select Committee On Intelligence. Back in 2018, the committee made all of that content publicly available to raise awareness about IRA’s clearly underhanded tactics intended to “sow discord” among Americans.

Using a variety of computational tools and coding techniques, researchers examined every single ad and looked for inflammatory, obscene, or threatening words, as well as language clearly hostile towards a particular race, religion, or sexual orientation. They were also able to look up which demographic were targeted by each ad, the number of clicks each ad generated, and the amount of money IRA spent on these campaigns.

For the price of $75,000, IRA generated 40.5 million impressions and 3.7 million clicks – a clickthrough rate of 9.2%. For reference, typical online marketing campaigns usually only reach clickthrough rates between .9-1.8%.

Interestingly, ads that used flat out racist language didn’t do well, but posts that were threatening or contained verbiage like “terrorist,” “sissy,” “idiot,” and “psychopath” did do very well. Ads that invoked fear and anger performed the best, according to the research team.

Here’s the text from one ad that targeted the Black Lives Matter movement: “They killed an unarmed guy again! We MUST make the cops stop thinking that they are above the law!”

Meanwhile, another ad that appealed to white conservative groups read: “If you voted for Obama: We don’t want your business because you are too stupid to own a firearm.”

Rather surprisingly, only 110 ads mentioned Donald Trump by name.

“This wasn’t about electing one candidate or another,” Vargo says. “It was essentially a make-Americans-hate-each-other campaign.”

“We as a society need to start seriously talking about what role the platforms and government should play in times like the 2020 election or during COVID-19 when we have a compelling need for high-quality, accurate information to be distributed,” co-author & assistant professor of advertising Toby Hopp concludes.

The study is published in Journalism and Mass Communication Quarterly.

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