As Donald Trump’s administration, backed by France and the UK, launched a series of missile attacks on Syrian installations allegedly used in the production or deployment of chemical weapons this weekend—and the president bizarrely tweeted “Mission Accomplished!” in a worrying signal with regards to his strategic insight—the question of whether Russia would retaliate on behalf of Bashar al-Assad’s government did tend to hang over the proceedings.
So far, Russia hasn’t given any signs it intends to truly escalate the situation, possibly in part because the White House has actually not yet settled on a comprehensive strategy. But Pentagon spokesperson Dana White did trot out a bizarre statistic on “Russian trolls” on Saturday, telling reporters, “The Russian disinformation campaign has already begun. There has been a 2,000 percent increase in Russian trolls in the last 24 hours.”
As far as statistics go, this one is very strange indeed. That Russia does have assets dedicated to information warfare is well established, especially given widespread allegations Vladimir Putin directed them to interfere in the 2016 elections in favor of Trump.
In last year’s Defense Intelligence Agency report on Russian military capabilities, the agency devoted a section to making the argument that “weaponization of information is a key aspect of Russia’s strategy and is employed in time of peace, crisis, and war,” including spooky-sounding terms like “information confrontation” and “cyber-enabled psychological operations.” One section directly cited media coverage of “Russian trolls,” particularly an allegedly Kremlin-liked enterprise known as the Internet Research Agency which floods comment sections and social media with low-effort propaganda:
Russia employs a troll army of paid online commentators who manipulate or try to change the narrative of a given story in Russia’s favor. Russia’s Troll Army, also known as the Internet Research Agency, is a state-funded organization that blogs and tweets on behalf of the Kremlin. Trolls typically post pro-Kremlin content and facilitate heated discussions in the comments sections of news articles. Their goal is to counter negative media and “Western influence.” While the goal of some trolls is to simply disrupt negative content, other trolls promote completely false content.
It’s entirely plausible that Russia’s “Troll Army” did mobilize and pull some weekend shifts in response to the events in Syria. It’s much less clear where White pulled the 2,000 percent statistic from, or whether that number is particularly significant—while trolls have gathered to talk shit or simply try to hijack the discussion around the events in Syria, the same could be said of most noteworthy events.
The Pentagon did not respond to a request for comment from Gizmodo (and we’ll update this post if we hear back), but there’s some things that stand out as fishy here.
For one, the actual thing allegedly being referenced, an “increase in Russian trolls,” is vague enough to mean just about anything. For example, does that number include Russian state media? Is it a reference to sheer number of posts, in which case it would be good to know how those posts are supposedly being identified? Or is it a measure of something like impact or engagement, which is even more problematic because those metrics are usually bullshit? Moreover, how do we even know that said engagement—assuming that is what is being measured—is shifting the discussion around the Syrian intervention in any way favorable to the Russian government?
“I think there’s a basic reality check you can do on most statistical claims,” Tim Hartford, host of statistics podcast More or Less, told Vice. “You can just ask: Does that sound reasonable? ... OK, so first, if you’ve been given a number, just ask: compared to what? ... The second thing is—what does the statistic actually refer to?”
This being the Pentagon, it’s entirely possible this is sourced to some kind of intelligence gathering by the US. But as BuzzFeed noted in February, the source of virtually every story blaming Russian bots for some situation or another is Hamilton 68, a group which tries to track “Russian influence efforts online.” This more or less essentially boils down to a page full of the kind of meticulously gathered, but not necessarily meaningful and easily misinterpreted, metrics that anyone should be suspicious of when they come up in a discussion.
Researcher Clint Watts, who works on the project, essentially admitted to BuzzFeed that the group’s tools are overblown by credulous Twitter detective types who want to breathlessly wrap everything involving Trump in an elaborate narrative centered around Russia.
“I’m not convinced on this bot thing,” Watts told BuzzFeed. “... They are not all in Russia. We don’t even think they’re all commanded in Russia—at all. We think some of them are legitimately passionate people that are just really into promoting Russia ... There are certain times when it does give you great insights, but it’s not a one-time, I look at it for five seconds and write a newspaper article and then that’s it. That doesn’t give you any context about it.”
In any case, “Russian trolls” may be the least of anyone’s worries. Per NBC News, most experts are doubtful the missile strikes will do anything to weaken Assad’s grip on power or even set back his chemical weapon production capability. The strike on three facilities, one in Damascus and two in Homs, may have temporarily halted production of agents like sarin, but others like chlorine are easy to obtain industrial byproducts that can be deployed with little effort.
Though the strikes come as US officials have “all but given up on seeking the removal of Assad more than seven years into Syria’s civil war,” the Washington Post writes, the possibility remains that further strikes could drag the US deeper into another conflict in the region with limited prospect of a desirable outcome.