Did Twitter trolls try to meddle in the Canadian election and influence voters?
The jury is still out, but in the last week of the federal election campaign, three independent researchers sounded alarms about an uptick in online activity that could have been part of a campaign to sway opinions.
When looking at tweets that used the popular hashtag #TrudeauMustGo, these researchers found that some of the most active users had in their profiles the acronym “MAGA” — for “Make America Great Again”, the slogan of Donald Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign.
Marc Owen Jones, an assistant professor in Middle East studies at Hamad bin Khalifa University in Doha, Qatar, found that about 12 per cent of users who used that hashtag had “MAGA” in their user descriptions.
If you include other terms linked to the American right wing — like “KAG” (Keep America Great), “Trump” and “QAnon” (a reference to a widely-debunked American online conspiracy theory), the number jumps to 20 per cent, Jones said. These accounts featuring terms associated with the American right also were found to have tweeted a lot about Brexit.
The fact that Trump supporters held forth on Canadian and British politics is puzzling, since adherents of the MAGA movement tend to be more focused on domestic issues in the U.S.
“It could mean right-wing activists who have banded together to be extremely vocal, but it could also mean some malicious agency working for a client to promote a certain message,” Jones told CBC.
“What we can be sure about is that they are an extremely vocal community engaging in a seemingly co-ordinated activity, that make up a distinctly large, cohesive community on #TrudeauMustGo.”
Stuart Shulman, CEO of the analytics company Texifer, found similar results in the 640,000 election-related tweets he collected since early September.
“When I look over a lot of these user descriptions, I don’t see Canadians,” said Shulman, who lives and works in Amherst, Mass.
About 5,000 of 42,000 users who were tweeting #TrudeauMustGo had “MAGA” in their profiles, said Shulman — about 12 per cent of the total.
“That MAGA folks are participating in the Canadian election doesn’t make sense. Other than the blackface scandal, you don’t hear about Canada here. People in the U.S. don’t talk or think about Trudeau,” he said.
Reihaneh Rabbany, a professor of computer science at McGill University, has been observing since April how Twitter users discuss Canadian politics.
Her team found groups of users that seemed to behave in an organized fashion — amplifying each other and tweeting similar things around the same time.
“These groups are likely to be coordinated,” she said. “This is not what you observe in the rest of Twitter.”
Rabbany said the most suspicious accounts she identified were four times more likely than other users to be suspended by Twitter for violating the site’s terms — by, for instance, tweeting in high volumes in a seemingly automated way. Rabbany said this supports her hunch that coordinated trolls are involved.
It’s nearly impossible to know where the tweets are coming from, since researchers don’t have access to metadata like IP addresses that can pinpoint a location. This is data that Twitter doesn’t disclose.
Power of trolls overblown?
These findings contradict what other researchers and Twitter itself have said — that the role of organized trolls in the Canadian election was overestimated.
After hearing about these reports, the Digital Democracy Project, a joint initiative by the Ottawa-based Public Policy Forum and McGill University, did its own review of anti-Trudeau tweets by users with “MAGA” or “MCGA” (Make Canada Great Again) in their profiles. It didn’t find evidence of a coordinated campaign.
“It is likely that this is a population segment that is very interested in Canadian politics and identifies with American and British politics. As these are major trading and cultural partners whose politics are covered extensively in Canada, this engagement is completely reasonable,” the Digital Democracy Project said in a statement.
Tarma Small, associate professor of political science at the University of Guelph, said “MAGA” now symbolizes a broader political movement no longer limited to the United States.
“I’m in the camp that believes the influence of trolls is probably overblown. This is a small country, not a big player on the international scene,” she said. “I’m not sure the financial gain is as big here as a county 10 times our size.”
Twitter itself has said that its internal research didn’t show signs of trolls amplifying hashtags like #TrudeauMustGo.
A long game to polarize society?
But Jones said he feels it’s naive to downplay the possibility of a coordinated campaign, especially when the accounts he spotted are this productive, consistent and on-message.
“It is possible that people can be reduced to promoting simplistic slogans, and groupthink has taken over, but it would be unclear as to why this seems to be so extensive in the MAGA Twitter community,” he wrote.
How much of an impact these users had on voters is unknown. Shulman said he suspects the goal wasn’t to influence votes, but rather to push a long-term strategy to polarize and weaken Western democracies.
“There are attempts underway to corrode or undermine the civility of public discourse and push it to extremes,” he said. “It’s not so much to make people disagree with each other, but dislike each other.”
Rabbany said that measuring the effect of these possible trolls — how much engagement they got from normal Twitter users, for instance — will form the next phase of her research. She said she hopes to develop tools for political scientists to detect these efforts earlier in future elections.