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The infamous Russian troll army has been in the news again for its alleged attempts to interfere in the recent US Presidential elections. However, a recent study shows that activity by professional trolls in Russia has become harder to detect since the days of Donald Trump’s election in 2016.

The study, a working paper by Douglas Almond and others of Columbia University, used a database of 2.9 million tweets released by Twitter in October 2018. The social media firm linked these tweets to trolls from the Internet Research Agency (IRA), a Russian company engaged in online influence operations for Russian business and political interests.

The suspicious tweets show that the trolling activity was strongly linked to factors specific to Russia, and completely outside the US, such as Russian holidays and weather conditions in St. Petersburg.

The study finds that trolling activity declined 35% on Russian holidays. Cold temperatures in St. Petersburg was also linked to reduced trolling. The authors find that in the run-up to the 2016 presidential elections, odds in favour of Republican nominee Donald Trump declined on Russian holidays.

However, between January 2019 and June 2020, Twitter released another 770,000 suspicious tweets. These were possibly linked to Russia, but Twitter did not explicitly attribute them to the IRA.

The authors say that the reduced number of tweets in the second list could indicate less trolling recently by Russians. But it could also mean that the Russians have got better at “covering their tracks".

Due to the smaller sample, the analysis of correlation between trolling activity and Russian holidays or the weather in St. Petersburg is weak, but the authors find no such relationship in the second list.

This finding suggests that Russian trolling may have become more subtle and discreet now, the authors conclude.

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