Ruben Recabarren, Bogdan Carbunar, Nestor Hernandez, and Ashfaq Ali Shafin, Florida International University
Studies of online influence operations, coordinated efforts to disseminate and amplify disinformation, focus on forensic analysis of social networks or of publicly available datasets of trolls and bot accounts. However, little is known about the experiences and challenges of human participants in influence operations. We conducted semi-structured interviews with 19 influence operations participants that contribute to the online image of Venezuela, to understand their incentives, capabilities, and strategies to promote content while evading detection. To validate a subset of their answers, we performed a quantitative investigation using data collected over almost four months, from Twitter accounts they control.
We found diverse participants that include pro-government and opposition supporters, operatives and grassroots campaigners, and sockpuppet account owners and real users. While pro-government and opposition participants have similar goals and promotion strategies, they differ in their motivation, organization, adversaries and detection avoidance strategies. We report the Patria framework, a government platform for operatives to log activities and receive benefits. We systematize participant strategies to promote political content, and to evade and recover from Twitter penalties. We identify vulnerability points associated with these strategies, and suggest more nuanced defenses against influence operations.
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