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Ugochukwu Etudo, Virginia Commonwealth University

Christopher Whyte, Virginia Commonwealth University

Victoria Yoon, Virginia Commonwealth University

Niam Yaraghi, University of Miami

Diving into state-sponsored influence operations (IO) on social media and challenging the notion that their sole purpose is to create division, this study reveals a strategic link between these operations and domestic events, such as protests, to manipulate social media for gain.

Examining the Russian Federation’s 2015-2016 trolling campaign, researchers found a connection between their Facebook ads and social unrest. Most importantly, this link is not casual, highlighting the strategic use of fear appeals in response to societal events.

Let’s take a closer look with a brief Q&A session with a member of the research team, Assistant Professor of Information Systems, Ugochukwu Etudo, Ph.D.:

What did you discover about social media manipulation in the Russian Federation’s trolling campaign, and how does this impact our understanding of cyber influence tactics?

We began our work with the informed assumption that fear tactics were at play in the Russian Federation’s social media influence operation leading up to the 2016 election. We discovered that the ordering of their messages and ad buys over time were strongly resonant of appeals to fear. Their strategy, interestingly, closely mirrored the famed stop-smoking ad campaigns. That is, on the one hand reinforcing the target audience’s sense of self efficacy, while concurrently emphasizing harms and building on fear. This approach is known as fear appeals. Our study finds convincing evidence of its use in the Russian influence operation. We found that their use of this strategy is also modulated by an apparent close monitoring of polling data.

Read the full research paper:

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