Meet the Indiana dad who hunts Russian trolls

When it comes to hobbies, Josh Russell concedes he gets a little obsessive. No matter his interest, be it vi...

Posted: Aug 22, 2018 11:19 AM
Updated: Aug 22, 2018 11:19 AM

When it comes to hobbies, Josh Russell concedes he gets a little obsessive. No matter his interest, be it videogames or miniature figurine board games, he always wants to be the best. Perhaps that explains the dedication he's shown to his latest pastime: Hunting Russian trolls.

By day, the 39-year-old father of two works as a systems analyst and programmer at Indiana University. Once the kids are tucked in, he spends hours scouring social media to unmask the operatives behind the disinformation campaigns roiling Facebook, Twitter, and other platforms.

2016 Presidential election

Business and industry sectors

Business, economy and trade

Companies

Continents and regions

Disinformation

Eastern Europe

Elections (by type)

Elections and campaigns

Europe

Facebook

Government and public administration

Indiana

Internet and WWW

Journalism and news media

Media industry

Midwestern United States

North America

Political candidates

Politics

Russia

Social media

Societal issues

Society

Technology

The Americas

Twitter

United States

US Federal elections

US Presidential elections

Russell is part of a growing network of online sleuths using public information to conduct open source investigations into Russian accounts posing as Americans. Officially, their work is called open-source intelligence, or OSINT, and it often identifies trolls before the platforms do. Russell's work in particular has helped journalists at CNN, NBC News, The Daily Beast, and other outlets cut through the lies and disinformation.

"My main motivation is to kind of help people understand what happened," Russell says. "Just documenting what happened and that what different bots may have been up to on Twitter, so people can see and look at the data for themselves and maybe think, 'I've been consuming this disinformation and maybe I should stop."

Russell's interest in troll hunting started in the waning weeks of the 2016 presidential campaign, when he started investigating some of the most slanderous lies circulating online about Hillary Clinton. He'd been leaning toward voting for Donald Trump, but realized he could not find any evidence supporting some of the most outlandish allegations against Clinton circulating on Twitter.

"I had been consuming alt-right news for three or four years without knowing," he says. "Someone had been lying to me."

That got him thinking about how people's perceptions of the world, and their decisions about whom to vote for, can be shaped by what they see online.

That interest deepened a few months later when, in January 2017, the United States intelligence community released a report stating that Russia used an aggressive social media campaign to sow discord and interfere in the in the 2016 US presidential election.

Authorities later revealed that a Kremlin-backed organization called the Internet Research Agency (IRA) played a key role in that effort. CNN and other news organizations began unmasking networks of pages on Facebook, Twitter and other platforms run by the IRA; the pages were designed to look like they were created and run by American citizens. In some cases, the Russian trolls even created and promoted real-world protests throughout the US.

As journalists started outing Russian accounts, Russell began digging. In one example of his tenacious sleuthing, Russell dove into a CNN report about a group called "Blacktivist," a Facebook page designed to look like it was run by Black Lives Matter but actually run by the Internet Research Agency.

Poring over "Blacktivist" posts on Facebook, Russell found more suspicious accounts. His "collector's curiosity" led him to begin listing them and diligently document anything suspect. He searched for patterns in the posts of confirmed Russian accounts, examining the sites they link to most often and the hashtags and accounts they retweet. That led him down a rabbit hole of additional websites, accounts, and social media platforms.

Russell's tenacity often reveals trolls that others miss. In November, when Twitter gave Congress a list of thousands of accounts it identified as being run by the IRA, Russell identified dozens of others that Twitter had overlooked. He posted the list to Reddit. A few months later, when Twitter provided an updated accounting of IRA trolls on the platform, many of those accounts appeared on it.

Like other amateur troll hunters, Russell posts his findings as soon as he's made them. But without sources at the big tech companies or within the intelligence community, Russell can't always be sure of his work. In those cases, he often turns to journalists. His emails are a familiar sight in the inboxes of reporters at several news organizations, including CNN.

Occasionally reporters get a tip from someone else, or independently discover a suspected Russian account and start digging -- only to find that Russell already has posted extensive notes about the account to his Reddit and Twitter pages.

Russell finds himself excited by the hunt, and says he's been known to spend as many as eight hours a day digging into Russia's ongoing disinformation campaign. He'll often squeeze in a few hours before his kids, who are 4 and 11, wake up, and resume the search after they go to bed.

Chasing trolls has made Russell a target of his own quarry. He says his wife, although supportive of his work, "gets nervous sometimes because I've got death threats and stuff like that."

Russell isn't worried. Such threats usually come through a private message, and he has a ready reply: "I usually snap a photo of my gun."

Mississippi Coronavirus Cases

Data is updated nightly.

Confirmed Cases: 115763

Reported Deaths: 3263
CountyConfirmedDeaths
Hinds7973177
DeSoto703979
Harrison522384
Jackson457884
Rankin394086
Madison383194
Lee357380
Forrest304678
Jones292484
Washington258399
Lafayette250443
Lauderdale2478135
Lamar225538
Oktibbeha202454
Bolivar201677
Neshoba1849111
Lowndes179962
Panola170040
Leflore167187
Sunflower162349
Warren154855
Monroe150673
Pontotoc147220
Marshall143129
Lincoln140157
Pike138456
Copiah137536
Scott125429
Coahoma124937
Grenada122638
Yazoo122234
Simpson121549
Union118825
Tate116839
Leake115041
Holmes114760
Itawamba113925
Pearl River113660
Adams108544
Prentiss106120
Wayne101722
Alcorn100112
George99218
Covington97527
Marion95042
Tippah90322
Newton86627
Chickasaw85526
Tallahatchie84526
Winston84121
Hancock84028
Tishomingo81241
Attala79426
Clarke75851
Clay69321
Jasper68717
Walthall63927
Calhoun62612
Noxubee59817
Smith59416
Montgomery54923
Yalobusha54514
Claiborne53716
Tunica53517
Lawrence51814
Perry49423
Carroll49312
Greene47818
Stone47514
Humphreys43816
Amite42513
Quitman4206
Jefferson Davis41011
Webster37613
Benton3416
Wilkinson33820
Kemper32615
Sharkey28514
Jefferson27610
Franklin2423
Choctaw2086
Issaquena1074
Unassigned00

Alabama Coronavirus Cases

Confirmed Cases: 158701

Reported Deaths: 2680
CountyConfirmedDeaths
Jefferson23292377
Mobile16916315
Tuscaloosa10345140
Montgomery10250197
Madison935096
Shelby739063
Baldwin665869
Lee654665
Calhoun459961
Marshall439550
Etowah428551
Houston417034
Morgan416435
DeKalb342629
Elmore320853
St. Clair295542
Limestone287230
Walker279492
Talladega266435
Cullman248024
Lauderdale229442
Jackson215915
Autauga205931
Franklin205531
Colbert202132
Russell19493
Blount193225
Chilton188432
Dallas186627
Coffee177111
Dale176351
Covington174729
Escambia172730
Clarke135217
Chambers135044
Pike134113
Tallapoosa132987
Marion108129
Barbour10339
Marengo101922
Butler101140
Winston92913
Geneva9067
Lawrence85832
Pickens85218
Bibb84014
Randolph82716
Hale76830
Washington74912
Clay74412
Cherokee73814
Henry7176
Lowndes71328
Bullock64917
Monroe64610
Crenshaw60830
Perry5926
Fayette57713
Cleburne5698
Wilcox56812
Conecuh56113
Macon53620
Lamar4965
Sumter47221
Choctaw39212
Greene34216
Coosa2043
Out of AL00
Unassigned00
Tupelo
Overcast
68° wxIcon
Hi: 67° Lo: 54°
Feels Like: 68°
Columbus
Scattered Clouds
72° wxIcon
Hi: 73° Lo: 56°
Feels Like: 72°
Oxford
Overcast
61° wxIcon
Hi: 63° Lo: 50°
Feels Like: 61°
Starkville
Overcast
64° wxIcon
Hi: 69° Lo: 52°
Feels Like: 64°
WTVA Radar
WTVA Temperatures
WTVA Severe Weather