By David Klepper -
By David Klepper -
The Associated Press
In the last 11 months, someone created thousands of fake and automated Twitter accounts, perhaps hundreds of thousands of them, to offer a series of eulogies to Donald Trump.
But in addition to posting words of adoration about the former president, the fake accounts ridiculed Trump critics from both parties and attacked Nikki Haley, the former South Carolina governor and UN ambassador who has already announced she will challenge her former boss over the 2024 Republican presidential nomination.
When it came to Ron DeSantis, the bots determinedly suggested that the Florida governor couldn't beat Trump, but would make a great running mate.
Republican voters are weighing their 2024 candidates, and whoever created the botnet is looking to tip a toe in the balance, using Russian-initiated online manipulation techniques to influence the digital platform's conversation about the candidates while it exploits Twitter algorithms to maximize its reach.
Investigators have uncovered a network of tens of thousands of fake Twitter accounts created to support former President Donald Trump and attack his critics and potential rivals.Gregory Bull / AP
The extensive botnet was discovered by researchers at Cyabra, an Israeli technology company that shared its findings with The Associated Press agency.
While the identity of those behind the fake account network is unknown, Cyabra analysts determined that it was likely created within the United States.
To identify a bot, researchers will look for patterns in each account's profile, its follower list, and the content it posts.
Human users often post on a variety of topics, with a mix of original and repeat material, but
bots often post repetitive content on the same topics
That was the case for many of the bots identified by Cyabra.
“One account will say: 'Biden is trying to take our guns;
Trump was the best,' and another will say, 'January 6 was a lie and Trump was innocent,'” said Jules Gross, the Cyabra engineer who first discovered the network.
“Those voices are not people.
And for the sake of democracy, I want people to know that this is happening,” he remarked.
"Republican sentiment is being manipulated"
Bots, as they are commonly called, are fake, automated accounts that became notorious after Russia employed them in an effort to meddle in the 2016 election. While big tech companies have improved their detection of fake accounts , the network identified by Cyabra shows that they remain a powerful force in shaping online political discussion.
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The new pro-Trump network is actually
three different networks of Twitter accounts
, all created in large batches in April, October, and November 2022. In all, researchers believe
hundreds of thousands of accounts
could be involved.
All accounts include personal photos of the alleged account holder, as well as a name.
Some of the accounts posted their own content, often in response to real users, while others republished content from real users, helping to expand it further.
wrote one of the accounts, in response to an article in a conservative publication about Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell, one of several Republican Trump critics targeted by the network in his posts.
One way to measure the impact of bots is to measure the percentage of posts on any topic generated by accounts that appear to be fake.
The percentage of typical online discussions is usually low, in the single digits.
Twitter itself has managed to get less than 5% of its daily active users to be fake or spam accounts.
However, when Cyabra researchers examined negative posts about political figures or personalities who are critical of Trump, they found much higher levels of inauthenticity.
Nearly three-quarters of the negative posts about Haley, for example, can be traced back to fake accounts.
The network also helped popularize a call for DeSantis to join Trump as his vice-presidential running mate, something that would serve Trump well and allow him to avoid a potentially bitter showdown if DeSantis enters the race.
The same network of accounts
shared overwhelmingly positive content about Trump
and contributed to a general misrepresentation of his support online, the researchers found.
“Our understanding of what is mainstream Republican sentiment by 2024 is being manipulated by the prevalence of online bots,” the Cyabra researchers concluded.
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The triple network was discovered after Gross analyzed tweets about different national political figures and noted that
many of the accounts posting the content were created on the same day.
Most of the accounts remain active, though they have a relatively modest number of followers.
A message left for a Trump campaign spokesperson by The Associated Press was not immediately returned.
Most bots aren't designed to persuade people, but
to amplify certain content for more people to see
, according to Samuel Woolley, a University of Texas professor and disinformation researcher whose most recent book focuses on propaganda. automated.
When a human user sees a hashtag or piece of content from a bot and reposts it, they are doing the work of the network and also sending a signal to Twitter's algorithms to further drive the spread of the content.
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Bots can also be successful in convincing people that a candidate or idea is more or less popular than reality, he said.
More pro-Trump bots can lead to people exaggerating his overall popularity, for example.
“Bots have an absolute impact on the flow of information,” Woolley said.
“They are built
to fabricate the illusion of popularity
Replay is the central weapon of propaganda and bots are really good at replay.
They are really good at putting information in front of people's eyes,” he explained.