Behaviour Change

PROPAGANDA FOR CHANGE is a project created by the students of Behaviour Change (ps359) and Professor Thomas Hills @thomhills at the Psychology Department of the University of Warwick. This work was supported by funding from Warwick's Institute for Advanced Teaching and Learning.

Wednesday, March 21, 2018

BEWARE: Russian Trolls!

BEWARE: Russian Trolls!

Although the extent to which Russia has managed to impact the 2016 Presidential elections is still debatable, there is no doubt that Russian ‘trolls’ managed to post extremely persuasive, powerful content that added even more fury to Trump’s populist campaign. This blog post will look at the different tactics used by the ‘trolls’ to convince people to vote for Trump.

The great thing about online content is that it makes individuals feel like loads of people share their opinion, even if they are only a part of a small community. Individuals overestimate how many people share their views - for example, Australian researchers found that those who surrounded themselves with like-minded climate change deniers thought that a quarter of the population are climate change deniers like them, whereas in reality the numbers were closer to 7% (Marshall, 2015). Equally, advertisements of kids using guns, as shown in fig. 1, led gun supporters to believe that their views are a lot more prominent than they actually are, which might've encouraged them to speak out about their opinions!

Figure 1: Instagram account created by Russian ‘trolls’ (White, 2017)

Not only are the supporters of Trump exposed almost solely to the targeted, right-wing media, but they also ‘contaminate’ their close ones – just as Christakis and Fowler (2007) found in their large social network experiment, if your friend or friend of a friend is obese, you are more likely to be obese. Therefore, just by hanging out with Trump supporters, it could be that you become a supporter by social ‘contamination’! The advertisement by Russian ‘trolls’ would’ve been seen by friends of Trump supporters, who would assume that such behaviour is the norm and follow the behaviour of their social circles.

There was a sense of self-threat shared by Trump supporters, which manifested itself in hate towards immigrants. According to the self- categorisation theory, individuals strive to form close relationships with those similar to them and establish differences with those dissimilar from them (Marshall, 2015). The Russian ads attempted to emphasize the need to strengthen the in-group by uniting Americans scared of immigrants on their ‘Stop All Invaders’ page. The simple, familiar messages, such as ‘Like and share if you want Burqua banned in America’ (fig. 2) and ‘Every man should stand for our borders! Join!’ (fig. 3), aimed to unite the in-group against the outside threat. It has been shown with many experiments that ‘self-threat appears to induce a state of social dependency’ (Pratkanis, 2007), thereby strengthening the need to belong, in this case, to groups that promote Trump’s values.

Figure 2: Content posted by Russian ‘trolls’ on Facebook (Parlapiano & Lee, 2018)

Figure 3: Content posted by Russian ‘trolls’ on Facebook (Shane, 2017)

The advertisements also aimed to demonize Hilary Clinton. As highlighted in research by Kanouse and Hanson (1972), negative information has a much stronger effect than positive information when making judgements. Therefore, by demonising Clinton and not praising Trump, the trolls were able to have more of an impact, as research found that negative descriptions of persons lead to much stronger negative evaluations than positive descriptions lead to positive evaluations (Hodges, 1974). A good example of this is the ad that compares Hilary to Satan. The use of a metaphor is very effective, as targeted individuals could learn to associate the negative connotation of ‘Satan’ with Hilary (Gilovich, 1981). Equally, it draws on the target audience’s pre-existing religious beliefs. One research paper found that, when messages presented to religious individuals had religious connotation, they were rated as more convincing (Cacioppo, Petty, Sidera, 1982).

Figure 4: Content posted by Russian ‘trolls’ on Facebook (White, 2017)

It is tough to evaluate how much impact the ads really had, but it seems evident that they added to fury and dissatisfaction of Trump’s supporters and their close ones, spreading the message and contributing to him winning the election.


Cacioppo, J., Petty, R., & Sidera, J. (1982). The effects of a salient self-schema on the evaluation of proattitudinal editorials: Top-down versus bottom-up message processing. Journal Of Experimental Social Psychology, 18(4), 324-338.

Christakis, N., & Fowler, J. (2007). The Spread of Obesity in a Large Social Network over 32 Years. New England Journal Of Medicine, 357(4), 370-379.

Gilovich, T. (1981). Seeing the past in the present: The effect of associations to familiar events on judgments and decisions. Journal Of Personality And Social Psychology, 40(5), 797-808.

Kanouse, D., & Hanson, R. (1972). Negativity in Evaluations. In E. Jones, Attribution: Perceiving the Causes of Behavior (1st ed.). Morristown: General Leaning Press.

Marshall, G. (2015). Don't even think about it (2nd ed.). London: Bloomsbury.

Pratkanis, A. (2007). The Science of Social Influence (1st ed.). New York: Psychology Press.
Marshall, G. (2015). Don't even think about it (2nd ed.). London: Bloomsbury.

Shane, S. (2017). These Are the Ads Russia Bought on Facebook in 2016. Retrieved 20 March 2018, from

Wagner, K. (2017). Facebook’s reliance on software algorithms keeps getting the company into trouble. Recode. Retrieved 20 March 2018, from

White, J. (2017). These are the most bizarre Russian election-meddling posts that have just been released. The Independent. Retrieved 21 March 2018, from

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