Leaders or Followers? A Temporal Analysis of Tweets from IRA Trolls

Stuart School of Business research presentation by Associate Professor of Political Science Matthew Shapiro and colleagues





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Leaders or Followers? A Temporal Analysis of Tweets from IRA Trolls

  • Associate Professor of Political Science Matthew Shapiro
  • Harold L. Stuart Endowed Chair in Business Siva K. Balasubramanian
  • Associate Professor of Computer Science Mustafa Bilgic
  • Aron Culotta, Associate Professor of Computer Science, Tulane University
  • Libby Hemphill, Associate Professor of Information, University of Michigan
  • Anita Nikolich, Director of Research and Technology, School of Information Sciences, University of Illinois


The Internet Research Agency (IRA) influences online political conversations in the United States, exacerbating existing partisan divides and sowing discord. In this paper we investigate the IRA’s communication strategies by analyzing trending terms on Twitter to identify cases in which the IRA leads or follows other users. Our analysis focuses on over 38M tweets posted between 2016 and 2017 from IRA users (n=3,613), journalists (n=976), members of Congress (n=526), and politically engaged users from the general public (n=71,128). We find that the IRA tends to lead on topics related to the 2016 election, race, and entertainment, suggesting that these are areas both of strategic importance as well as those topics of highest potential impact. Furthermore, we identify topics where the IRA has been relatively ineffective, such as tweets on military, political scandals, and violent attacks, where, despite many tweets on the topic, the IRA rarely leads the conversation, and thus has little opportunity to influence it. We offer our proposed methodology as a way to track the strategic choices of future influence operations in real-time.


All Illinois Tech faculty, students, and staff are invited to attend.

The Friday Research Presentations series showcases ongoing academic research projects conducted by Stuart School of Business faculty and students, as well as guest presentations by Illinois Tech colleagues, business professionals, and faculty from other leading business schools.

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