Acting the Part: Examining Information Operations Within #BlackLivesMatter Discourse

Privacy and Security, Internet, Networks, the Internet, and Cloud Computing and Media and Content

Article Snapshot


Ahmer Arif, Kate Starbird and Leo G. Stewart


Proceedings of the ACM on Human-Computer Interaction, Vol. 2, pp. 1-27, 2018


Governments and non-state actors use inauthentic social media accounts to manipulate public opinion. In 2016, Russia's Internet Research Agency joined discussions of the #BlackLivesMatter movement.

Policy Relevance

Inauthentic social media accounts foster mistrust. Researchers should draw attention to this manipulation.

Main Points

  • The term "Information operations" describes actions taken to degrade an adversary's decision-making capabilities using deception and psychological warfare, and includes measures taken during peace-time to affect civil affairs.
  • The Internet Research Agency (RU-IRA) is a Russian organization that hires employees to pretend to be United States citizens on social media; following police shootings in 2016, RU-IRA accounts joined online discussions of the #BlackLivesMatter movement.
  • This study focused on 29 particularly active RU-IRA accounts, including their profile data, the content of tweets (such as embedded images with memes), retweets, and followers.
  • RU-IRA contributors appeared divided along political lines into two distinct groups, left-leaning and right-leaning.
  • The RU-IRA contributors’ intent was to foster antagonism and mistrust.
    • Some took an adversarial stance towards law enforcement, perhaps to amplify discontent.
    • Contributors injected false and inflammatory information into the discourse.
    • Both left-leaning and right-leaning RU-IRS contributors attacked the mainstream media
  • Inauthentic accounts appear to represent real people by referring to the value of self-expression and caring for others.
    • They “fit” by invoking stereotypical thinking about African-American and White Americans.
    • They sought connections with real people and organizations.
  • Social media platforms like Twitter and Facebook focus on removing inauthentic accounts, to avoid censoring true believers.
    • Twitter suspended many RU-IRA accounts in 2017.
    • Information operators will work harder to appear authentic.
  • Researchers should consider how social network content and actors can best be evaluated; researchers should help the public and social media companies understand information operations.

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