Kill moose and squirrel: Russians pretend to be Americans online

Boris, Natasha, and Fearless Leader from an episode of The Adventures of Rocky and Bullwinkle and Friends“Justin” set his Twitter location as Austin, Texas, but his time zone was set to Moscow Standard Time.

When a Smart Data Science Friend (hi Scott!) shared this in October 2017, I knew that organizations in Russia had mounted used social media to support Donald Trump’s presidential campaign, but I hadn’t realized the scale or effectiveness of their efforts. Looking back, we can see that “Justin” wasn’t alone. How many other Russians were out there on Twitter pretending to be Americans?

I’d like to find out.

Last Wednesday, I wrote about an article published on “Why We’re Sharing 3 Million Russian Troll Tweets. As I said there, I downloaded the dataset that they generously made available on GitHub (technically, I forked the repository into my own GitHub space) and then loaded it into the SciServer online science suite. Let me know if you’d like to join this effort.

I used Python’s regular expression features to do a quick search through 1,849,687 million English-language tweets in the FiveThirtyEight dataset. I looked for tweets that showed evidence of claiming to be Americans – featuring “I’m” or “I am” plus some form of “USA” or “America” or “American”. The screenshot below shows me running that command inside a Jupyter notebook in SciServer Compute:

Python commands using the re and pandas modules
Python commands to find tweets like “I’m American”

The search returned 177 tweets from 84 separate authors – counts that should in no way be considered scientific or used for any kind of analysis, either quantitative or qualitative. I then read through all 177 tweets and selected only those that unambiguously claimed to be American citizens/voters.

I was left with 29 tweets from 20 separate Twitter handles, covering the period from December 2014 to August 2017. (Of course, there is no reason to think that Russians impersonating Americans suddenly stopped in August 2017.) Here are five selected randomly:

  • @ISRAEL_WILLS on February 9, 2015: Hope everyone had a great day yesterday. I’m happy we don’t have a war on the American soil. Thank you to all the military serving today. 🙂
  • @JANI_S_JAC on July 4, 2015: #HappyIndependenceDay I’m a patriot and it’s sad for me to see what’s happening to America today
  • @TEN_GOP on February 3, 2016: If I were a dem I’d be embarrassed by who represents my party. But I could never be a dem. For I’m American! #TCOT
  • @TEN_GOP on March 25, 2016: ‘@COJeepGirl well b/c I’m American and Hussein is the President atm’
  • @JANSKEESTR on August 15, 2017: I voted for Trump because I knew he’s the only man who could save America from liberal degeneracy. I’m still sure that I made a right choice

It’s worth reiterating: all of these people are claiming — directly, unambiguously — to be American citizens. All of them are Russian. It is not illegal in most circumstances to claim that you are someone else online. Nor is it illegal for a foreign citizen to have an opinion on a U.S. election. But I find it profoundly disturbing that we are only now realizing the full extent of these Russian operations. The best we can do right now is to try to understand how these trolls have operated in the past in hopes of preventing similar incidents in the future.

One thing is clear: America has never been so ready for your Rocky & Bullwinkle references. Russian catfisher @TEN_GOP says it best:

Trump was a strong & fearless LEADER today. I’m proud to be an American.

P.S. Here is an Excel spreadsheet containing the tweets that I identified, if you’d like to play with the data yourself.

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