Trolls on Twitter: How Mainstream and Local News Outlets Were Used to Drive a Polarized News Agenda

Berkman Klein Center:

I’ll attempt to summarize the main themes in this write-up, but the broader linking patterns of the troll accounts show three initial things:

Trolls are using real news — and in particular local news — to drive reactionary news coverage, set the daily news agenda, and target local journalists and community influencers to follow certain stories.

At certain points, such as the week following Hillary Clinton’s 9/11 illness in 2016, all the categories of trolls — meaning accounts focused on local, BLM, and the far-right hyper-partisan accounts— come together to push out the full gamut of polarizing news coverage. Specifically, during the time around 9/15/16 — 9/18/16, (see the Tableau image above with the volume peaks) many links to stories that were broadcast originated from Breitbart, The Daily Caller, and The Gateway Pundit. Yet a significant portion also came from outlets such as The Hill, The Washington Post, as well as the full gamut of regional “local” media.

There is a clear pattern of setting up accounts to amplify “real” local news coverage in American cities struggling with racial, class, and structural social divides. The linking activity show a concerted effort in cities like Chicago, Houston, St. Louis, Kansas City, Baton Rouge, and New Orleans. In most cases, the tweets in the data set were categorized as “original tweets” but these tweets often appear like a retweet. Some links also appeared to come directly out of local news organizations own RSS feeds. The use of Bitly, regular RSS feeds, (Google) Feedproxy, and Trendolizer were prominent themes in the local linkage patterns.