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Twitter Trolls Try to Roil Pipeline Debate, and CBC Trolls Greenpeace Canada Campaigner

Lenny K Photography/Flickr

Twitter trolls played a minor role in amping up public divisions on pipeline policy in January 2017, when Donald Trump signed an executive order clearing the way for construction of the Keystone XL and Dakota Access pipelines.

But in reporting the story, CBC/Radio Canada may have inadvertently trolled Greenpeace Canada climate and energy campaigner Mike Hudema.

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The news investigation sifted back through 9.6 million tweets from fake Twitter accounts and tracked suspected foreign influence campaigns aimed at dividing Canadians on issues like pipelines, refugees, and immigration. “The troll accounts, which have since been deleted by Twitter, are suspected of having originated in Russia, Iran and Venezuela,” CBC reports. “Since 2013, 245 of these accounts retweeted messages from Canadian activists, politicians, and media reports about various pipeline issues, from potential environmental impacts to grassroots movements against the projects.”

The review unearthed 9,420 tweets on pipelines, and a total of 21,600 directed at Canadians. But while the word cloud accompanying the story did not identify pipelines, climate, energy, or any related term among the 30 most frequently-used words in the Canadian Twitter traffic, the news report singles out Hudema, who received a total of 53 retweets.

CBC News was the account that saw the most troll retweets,” with 196, the national broadcaster states. But “the trolls appeared well-versed in Canadian debates about pipelines, quoting and retweeting prominent figures. The account of Greenpeace Canada climate and energy campaigner Mike Hudema, for instance, was the eighth-most retweeted by trolls.”

But curiously, the analysis left out two other Twitter handles—@TheRebelTV, with 191 retweets, and @ezralevant, with 148—which placed second and third in the list of most-frequently-retweeted accounts. Those numbers show a pro-pipeline provocateur far exceeding Hudema’s retweet count, as well as CBC’s.

One analyst told CBC that tweets originating in Iran may have aimed to undercut competing pipeline projects in Canada and the U.S. Another said the fake accounts may have sought to shape anti-pipeline activists’ online narratives.

“Their goal is to integrate into a politically active community, amplify and reflect that behaviour back at them, and slowly try to shape that behaviour towards things that they’re interested in,” said Kate Starbird, assistant professor in the University of Washington’s Department of Human Centered Design and Engineering. She acknowledged that “not all accounts are going to be successful, but every once in a while, they are.”

But if that was the intent, the trolls’ efforts may have fallen a wee bit short: Hudema said the 53 fakes represented about 0.01% of his retweets in 2018.