Characterizing Search-Engine Traffic to Internet Research Agency Web Properties

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The Russia-based Internet Research Agency (IRA) carried out a broad information campaign in the U.S. before and after the 2016 presidential election. The organization created an expansive set of internet properties: web domains, Facebook pages, and Twitter bots, which received traffic via purchased Facebook ads, tweets, and search engines indexing their domains. In this paper, we focus on IRA activities that received exposure through search engines, by joining data from Facebook and Twitter with logs from a major internet company’s web browsers and search engine.

We find that a substantial volume of Russian content was apolitical and emotionally-neutral in nature. Our observations demonstrate that such content gave IRA web-properties considerable exposure through search-engines and brought readers to websites hosting inflammatory content and engagement hooks. Our findings show that, like social media, web search also directed traffic to IRA generated web content, and the resultant traffic patterns are distinct from those of social media.