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Foreign trolls are trying to sway SC voters. 2 Clemson profs made a new game to spot them.

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  • 3 min to read

Earlier this year, a Russian-backed troll farm in Ghana tried to set up a satellite office in Charleston.

At the same time, Russian operatives used fake social media accounts to castigate South Carolina U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham.

And they pumped out posts touting Bernie Sanders over Joe Biden in South Carolina's Democratic presidential primary.

Now, as the November election nears, two Clemson University social media disinformation experts are warning South Carolina voters to be extra vigilant.

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Clemson professors Patrick Warren and Darren Linvill work to find the methods used by foreign trolls on social media at the Social Media Listening Center at Clemson University on Wednesday, December 18, 2019. File/Grace Beahm Alford/Staff

Russian operatives have struck here in the recent past. And they're likely working now to confuse, inflame and weaken the country, said Darren Linvill, a professor in Clemson's communications department.

Russian trolls work especially hard to amplify existing racial divisions, he said.

"Russia sees this very real issue our state continues to grapple with as a button to press to continue to sow division, just as they do in many other parts of the country."

A new federal indictment highlights work Russian operatives did to penetrate South Carolina's activist circles this year.

Last week, federal prosecutors alleged a Russian named Artem Lifshits, 27, stole identities of Americans and opened bank, Paypal and Bitcoin accounts.

Prosecutors said the thefts were part of Project Lakhta, a campaign to influence November's election. Lifshits managed the troll farm's translators, a key post, a U.S. Secret Service agent said in an affidavit.

As part of its influence campaign, Project Lakhta members were told to focus on racially motivated shootings, including the murders of nine churchgoers at Emanuel AME Church, the agent said.

Prosecutors also said the project created a bogus group called Eliminating Barriers for the Liberation of Africa, or EBLA, in Ghana.

The group recruited Ghanaians to create fake social media accounts and then expanded: In late January, the group advertised on LinkedIn about a job in Charleston as a "chapter coordinator." The post described the group as "a network of strong advocates of human rights."

Working with CNN, Linvill and Patrick Warren, a Clemson economics professor, exposed the Ghana operation in February. It's unclear whether the group successfully recruited anyone here. But it wasn't the first time this happened.

A Post and Courier investigation earlier this year revealed how a bogus Russian-backed group, Black Matters US, tried to stage a divisive rally in Charleston in 2016 on the anniversary of the Emanuel AME Church shooting.

"Russia clearly took an interest in Charleston as a particular target for their disinformation efforts," Linvill said, referring to the recent federal charges against Lifshits. "The decision to hire an EBLA employee in Charleston was likely made in Russia by Project Lakhta, and the money for the position, like the money for the entire EBLA project, came from Russia."

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Professors Patrick Warren (pictured) works with Darren Linvill to find the methods used by foreign trolls at the Social Media Listening Center at Clemson University on Wednesday, Dec. 18, 2019. File/Grace Beahm Alford/Staff

The internet has long been populated by trolls — people who start quarrels and post inflammatory messages. But foreign governments, especially Russia and China, have deployed trolls to amplify the voices of Americans with extremist views.

Linville shared tweets Clemson culled earlier this year from accounts they believe were controlled by Russian operatives. Some attacked Graham and his change from Donald Trump detractor to ardent supporter.

"Please continue to retweet to humiliate Lindsey Graham," several said.

"These comments simply point to the importance of both on the national stage. Lindsey Graham is a powerful senator who commands influence on the national stage. South Carolina is an early primary state," Linvill said.

Russians often add fuel to already burning diatribes on social media, he added.

"Where the conversation goes, so go the trolls. They often follow rather than lead."

Foreign trolls aren't easy to peg, Linvill and Warren said. But understanding some of their patterns can help you identify suspicious posts, they said.

To that end, they created an interactive "Spot the Troll" game. (https://spotthetroll.org)

"There will always be more trolls," Linvill said. "If we can help teach the public what to be wary of, we can make disinformation less effective."

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Clemson social media experts created an interactive "Spot the Troll" website to help the public recognize suspicious accounts. Matthew Fortner/Staff

Reach Tony Bartelme at 843-937-5554. Follow him on Twitter @tbartelme.

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