Josh Russell works as a systems analyst and programmer at Indiana University, has two daughters, and exposes Russian internet trolls in his spare time.
Russell first became interested in the phenomenon of Russian trolls during the 2016 presidential election, when he noticed a large amount of misinformation distributed about Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton. He noticed how many accounts spreading misinformation, ostensibly run by American activists, were, in fact, operating from abroad, and were linked up to now notorious Russian “troll farms.”
Today Russell collaborates with many American journalists in the fight against fake information on the internet.
Question: We recently learned that Russian hackers attacked some conservative U.S. organizations, the Hudson Institute, for example, and the International Republican Institute. What, in your opinion, is driving this?
Joshua Russell: Any organization that investigates Russian interference in U.S. politics is a potential target for these kinds of attacks.
Q: According to Microsoft, the attacks themselves failed.
JR: Yes. But the result is not what’s most important here. Hacker attacks and misinformation are being used to sow confusion and discord in our society.
Q: You noticed this all the way back in 2016, when the majority of Americans did not grasp this. How did you realize what was happening?
JR: I began to monitor the activity of fake activists online. For example, I found a group pretending to be a black activist group—but something was weird about it. If you track the activities of the individual members of such groups, you realize they are being coordinated. When you dig deeper, you understand that they are operated from abroad. Trolls often make mistakes—maybe their English will be suspect, or, for example, an Instagram tied to a particular account is filled with suspicious info. The whole tangle is unraveled when you tug at loose strings.
Q: How can an ordinary internet user spot a fake account?
JR: If you see dubious information being posted, look at where it may have originated. What’s the source, and who else is distributing this information? Follow the trail of clues these guys inevitably leave behind.
Q: It was reported that you’ve actually been threatened over your online activities before. Is this accurate?
JR: Yes. It got to the point that someone sent me pictures of mutilated corpses.
Q: Do you think it was Russian trolls or someone else?
JR: See, we have a lot of people right here in the States who do not want to believe that Kremlin interference is real. That’s where a lot of this aggression stems from.
Q: How do you respond to attempts at intimidation?
JR: I’m more of a liberal than a conservative, but I live in Indiana. This means that I have weapons at home. I have not been threatened for a while, but when it did happen, before I blocked someone, I’d send them a photo of my gun. It tends to have a sobering effect.
Q: So this is a case of you talking to these people in their own language?
JR: Yes, this is what you have to do. I used to be a bit of an internet troll myself, so I understand how trolling works, and the intended psychological effect. If you understand how it works, you know how to respond in an effective and yet tasteful way (laughs).
This interview originated in VOA’s Russian Service.