What is it about?

In October of 2018, Twitter released its first dataset of all of the known fake Twitter accounts created by Iranian and Russian operatives. The data corpus has roughly 4,000 accounts, over 10 million tweets, as well as the statistics on the popularity of each tweet (e.g., the number of retweets and likes). The dataset was analyzed with two research questions in mind 1) what emotional tones were the most common in the fake tweets and 2) whether they succeeded in engaging users. The troll farms relied heavily on negative emotions. The tweets were primarily written in negative sentiments (as compared to positive sentiments). However, contrary to the saying that “bad news travels fast,” negative tweets were not well liked nor frequently retweeted by Twitter users. The research went beyond the general categories of positive and negative emotions and examined the presence of specific emotions in the tweets. The troll farms used more fearful words than other emotional words. However, fear tactics also backfired. In fact, fearful tweets tended to garner fewer likes and retweets.

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Why is it important?

The question of dissemination must have been on the minds of the Iranian and Russian operatives when they set up the fake Twitter accounts to influence the 2016 presidential election. The prevalence of negativity and fear in their tweets may be a coincidence or intentional strategies. Nonetheless, these strategies failed to engage Twitter users, akin to political canvassing ineffective at initiating contact with individuals and reaching the undecided. Much of the media’s reporting on election interference stressed the foreign operatives’ strengths but rarely acknowledged that no one really knows for sure how to popularize a social media message. That said, the Russian disinformation operation seemed more sophisticated than Iran's. The Russian troll farms spent from between early 2013 and late 2014 ingratiating themselves with upbeat tweets, only to revert to fear in time for the 2016 election. Iran’s campaign adhered to fear tactics throughout their accounts’ lifespan.


Even though “bad news travels fast” is an age-old idiom, we also intuitively know that negativity spoils friendships because such relationships can be emotionally draining and even toxic. It makes sense if negative and fearful tweets aren’t engaging because sharing them may not bode well for one’s popularity.

Violet Cheung
University of San Francisco

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This page is a summary of: Foreign disinformation operation's affective engagement: Valence versus discrete emotions as drivers of tweet popularity, Analyses of Social Issues and Public Policy, July 2021, Wiley, DOI: 10.1111/asap.12262.
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