Russian operatives often lifted photos of models for their profile photos, especially shots of young women, the professors found.
The trolls incubated their fake accounts slowly. Early posts were innocuous: tweets and retweets about favorite songs, foods and pets.
They followed hundreds and then thousands of people, prompting many to follow them back.
In short order, many of these bogus accounts had tens of thousands of American Twitter followers.
“Most of the people that are awful on social media are real,” Warren said. “And I think this is one thing that would surprise most people: The person who is most likely a Russian or Iranian or Chinese troll is the person who agrees with you.”
Linvill added: “People are persuaded by things they’re already inclined to believe, not by someone yelling at you. The trolls were trying to be your friends, not your enemies.”
“The reason that it’s so diabolical is that it sticks,” Warren said. “It’s like an infection. It spreads into the social media ecosystem. And even when you take away that vector, you’ve done lasting damage to the body.”
Over time, the trolls foster a chronic feeling of disgust.
“Destroying empathy is their end goal, and disgust is the mechanism,” Warren said.
Infect enough people, Linvill added, and soon you have friends and neighbors calling each other animals. That's the kind of rhetoric you see before genocides and wars.