Pointer infiltrated a Dutch troll army of over 750 members. In a Telegram group disinformation about the corona vaccine and anti-corona demonstrations is shared. Thanks to social media analysis, Pointer finds out which accounts are involved in this troll army. On a daily basis, they share the links that are shared through this group. Pointer went undercover in this group, discovered the accounts behind it and found out who is driving this troll army. Publications include an online scrolly production, a news article, a making-of and a TV broadcast.
With this project, we were the first to encounter a Dutch-speaking troll army and analyze it from within.
We presented our research in a number of different forms to reach different audiences including an online scrolly, news article, making-of and a TV broadcast. The latter had the most impact because we showed on TV how these groups were organized. It did very well for Dutch Television, attracting 370,000 viewers with competition from the Eurovision Song Contest.
The three largest Dutch news media took over our news including public broadcaster NOS, RTL and the nieuws site nu.nl.
For our investigations into misinformation, I keep an eye on several Telegram groups. Through some searches on the open web, I end up with a spider web of strange Telegram groups: pedo hunters, dark markets, expo’s groups, and the group called The Digital Army.
We wanted to follow this troll army for three months to see how they were organized. During this period, we scanned all the posts in the group several times to accurately analyze the conversations. This gave us a good idea of who the main characters are in this group. Through the data analysis in R we also got an idea which topics were often discussed, and which urls were shared.
Often these were links to websites that had not been distributed before. We also scrapped Twitter to see which accounts were spreading this misinformation right after it was shared in the troll army. Again, you can compare the language used by the group and social media accounts side by side. Over time, you can link a number of accounts together, and estimate the size of the troll army.
In addition to this data analysis, we conducted an extensive OSINT investigation of the three protagonists. This constantly revolves around linking information and data we find online. For each of the three protagonists, we created an extensive research document, in which we place each clue. Through OSINT investigation, we were able to link the founder, leader and most loyal follower of this troll army to individuals with 100% certainty.
Via the open web you can search for invite links on Telegram. Then it also becomes clear how Telegram groups are structured: you can find all kinds of dubious groups via a kind of Starter-page like channels with countless links. The Digital Army is one of them.
What was the hardest part of this project?
The OSINT investigation provided the most headaches. These individuals want to keep themselves anonymous, but unwittingly give away some information. For three weeks, I churned out countless leads. Sometimes it was about a specific photo: if I could find out where it was taken, you get closer to where that person lives. Or I could say with certainty what someone’s social media profile is: then you can use that to find information about someone’s email address or phone number. Each clue leads to the next (half) clue. And the ultimate goal is to find out someone’s name, hometown and contact information. With a lot of sleuthing, dead ends and luck, we were able to unmask the three main characters. We spent about three weeks on this OSINT investigation.
For The Digital Army, we went undercover in a Dutch troll army for three months. Some people will know troll armies as the Russian factories where dozens of people behind countless screens and social media accounts bombard the world with misinformation. However, this is a completely digitally organized troll army. The participants barely know each other beforehand, and try to feed each other new tactics and messages via the social media app Telegram. This is the period just after Twitter and Facebook started banning all kinds of conspiracy theorists from their platform. Not much had been written about Telegram and misinformation, and certainly not from within.
Through an innovative way of storytelling we take the viewer into the chat group of The Digital Army. To experience how it’s like to be a part of these kinds of Telegram groups. Especially now, during the pandemic we find it important to show which persons are behind the spreading of disinformation and misinformation.
What can others learn from this project?
In 2015, an office building in St. Petersburg was still the image we had of a troll factory: a physical office building where dozens of people with hundreds of fake accounts try to steer public opinion. But in 2021 that image is outdated. Coordinated troll armies are now much easier to organize digitally. And that includes The Digital Army.
Pointer discovered this troll army in early 2021, and spent some time investigating how they spread disinformation about the corona vaccine. In addition to online campaigns, they also created and distributed actions to physically intimidate mental health professionals, politicians and scientists.
With every big investigation Pointer publishes a making-of article. Other journalists will thus get an inside look at how we work at Pointer. Often with the described methodology and challenges we face during the research process.
This time we exposed the tactics of these misinformation spreading groups. This may also give other journalists ideas for their own investigations.
Although these ‘behind-the-scens’ articles are being read by very few people compared to our fancy online scrollytelling articles or TV broadcastings, we find it important to be transparant about how we work on our investigations.