How Russia’s Online Trolls Engaged Unsuspecting American Voters — And Sometimes Duped The Media

Data and R code for the analysis supporting this Oct. 25, 2018 BuzzFeed News post analyzing engagement with English-language tweets from the Kremlin-backed Internet Research Agency. Supporting files are in this GitHub repository.


On Oct. 16, 2018 Twitter released a trove of data on accounts it had flagged as Russian trolls and shut down. Data on most of the 3.26 million English-language tweets from these accounts was released in July through FiveThirtyEight by researchers Darren Linvill and Patrick Warren of Clemson University in South Carolina. They also categorized the trolls into account categories including LeftTroll, and RightTroll. Many of the Left Trolls posed as liberal supporters of Black Lives Matter, tweeting about aspects of black culture as well as politics. Right Trolls posed as supporters of Donald Trump.

Download the Twitter data on Internet research agency tweets from here, unzip, and place the file ira_tweets_csv_hased.csv in the data folder. Run the script data_prep.R to download the Clemson data, filter the Twitter data for English langauge tweets only, join the Clemson account categories to the Twitter data, and save as the file en_ira_tweets.csv in the data folder.

This file will contain the following fields:

From the Twitter data:
  • tweetid Tweet identification number.
  • userid User identification number (anonymized for users which had fewer than 5,000 followers at the time of suspension).
  • user_display_name Name of the user (encoded as userid for anonymized users).
  • user_screen_name Twitter handle of the user (encoded as userid for anonymized users).
  • user_reported_location User’s self-reported location1.
  • user_profile_description User’s profile description1.
  • user_profile_url User’s profile URL1
  • follower_count Number of accounts following the user1.
  • following_count Number of accounts followed by the user1.
  • account_creation_date Date of user account creation.
  • account_language Language of the account as chosen by the user.
  • tweet_language Language of the tweet.
  • tweet_text Text of the tweet (mentions of anonymized accounts have been replaced with anonymized userid).
  • tweet_time Time when the tweet was published (UTC).
  • tweet_client_name Name of the client app used to publish the tweet.
  • in_reply_to_tweetid The tweetid of the original tweet that this tweet is in reply to (for replies only).
  • in_reply_to_userid The userid of the original tweet that this tweet is in reply to (for replies only).
  • quoted_tweet_tweetid The tweetid of the original tweet that this tweet is quoting (for quotes only).
  • is_retweet Is this tweet a retweet (“true” or “false”)?
  • retweet_userid For retweets, userid that authored the original tweet.
  • retweet_tweetid For retweets, tweetid of the original tweet.
  • latitude Geolocated latitude, if available.
  • longitude Geolocated longitude, if available.
  • quote_count Number of tweets quoting this tweet.
  • reply_count Number of tweets replying to this tweet.
  • like_count Number of likes that this tweet received2.
  • retweet_count Number of retweets that this tweet received2.
  • hashtags a list of hashtags used in this tweet
  • urls List of urls used in this tweet.
  • user_mentions List of userids mentioned in this tweet (includes anonymized userids).
  • poll_choices If a tweet included a poll, this field displays the poll choices separated by “|”.
From the Clemson data:
  • account_category “LeftTroll”,“RightTroll”,“NewsFeed”,“HashtagGamer”,“NonEnglish”,“Fearmonger”,“Unknown”. See Linvill and Warren’s research paper for definitions.

1 At the time of account suspension.

2 These engagement counts exclude engagements from users suspended, deleted, or otherwise sanctioned by Twitter at the time of the data release.

Setting up

Load required packages and tweets data; extract date elements from timestamps.

# load required packages

# Set default timezone for session to UTC
Sys.setenv(TZ = "UTC")

# load data, extract date elements from timestamps
en_ira_tweets <- read_csv("data/en_ira_tweets.csv", col_types = cols(tweetid = col_character())) %>%
   mutate(tweet_date = as.Date(tweet_time),
          tweet_month = month(tweet_time),
          tweet_year = year(tweet_time))

Tweets per month, by account category

tweets_category_month <- en_ira_tweets %>%
  group_by(tweet_year,tweet_month,account_category) %>%
  count() %>%
  filter(tweet_year >= 2014) %>% # there were very few tweets in earlier years
  mutate(date = as.Date(paste0(tweet_year,"-",tweet_month,"-15"))) # allows plotting in middle of month on date axis

ggplot(tweets_category_month, aes(x = date, y = n, color = account_category)) + 
  geom_point() +
  geom_line() +
  xlab("") +
  ylab("Tweets") +
  geom_hline(yintercept = 0, size = 0.3) +
  geom_vline(xintercept = as.numeric(as.Date("2016-11-08")), linetype = "dotted") +
           x = as.Date("2016-07-01"), 
           y = 160000, 
           label = "Election",
           family = "BasierSquare-SemiBold",
           size = 4.5) +
  theme_minimal(base_size = 16, base_family = "BasierSquare-SemiBold") +
  scale_y_continuous(labels = comma) +
  scale_color_brewer(palette = "Set1", name = "") +
  theme(legend.position = "top")