Pro-Trump Twitter bots tweet about… Ambassador Vitaly Churkin?
On Twitter, Eliot Higgins astutely noted that a bunch of pro-Trump Twitter bots all sent out the same tweet about Russia’s UN Ambassador passing away today.
It’s not really a big conspiracy that there exists a large, pro-Trump bot network out there. However, this presents an interesting excuse for me to play with the Twitter API and find some basic info about these bots. This is an elaborated version of my personal notes.
I used tweepy and Python to search for the headline, which was cribbed from Russia Today (RT). Notably, the tweets never mentioned RT or @mentioned the RT Twitter account, making filtering a bit easier. I gathered about 1200 tweets in total.
A bit about the bots
Here’s a histogram of tweet times from the first tweet to 45 minutes after (times in UTC). It’s easy to see the spike at left (around 5:13PM), followed by the long tail of organic user activity. It’s obvious there’s some coordination behind that.
Twitter client: Given the larger number, there are one or two real accounts caught in the spike. These can be easily differentiated because they use consumer clients, such as Twitter’s iPhone or web app. Every other tweet in the spike was sent from dlvr.it, a piece of corporate social media management software.
Handles: They are almost all obviously pro Trump, with references to Trumpian phrases like “deplorable”, “MAGA”… and, well, “Trump”. Other common references include “conservative” and “America”.
Profile appearance: Profiles are also formulaic. Names usually reference similar themes to the handles. Many contain emoji, such as 🇺🇸Daniel 🇺🇸MAGA. Pictures are usually stolen from somewhere else (easy to reverse image search). Many are scantily clad women.
Location and language: Most of the accounts list random states or cities. Curiously, Twitter’s API returns a user’s timezone, and most are listed as Pacific Time. A few are listed as Caracas, though. The API also returns the user’s default language and most are listed as es, or Spanish. Huh.
Four accounts don’t fit this mold, which are “Anonymous News, SVN Magazine, Russia Today News” and “Web Guru”. SVN and Web Guru are linked to http://svnmagazine.blogspot.nl/, a spammy looking news site that mostly reposts stuff from Russia Today and Alex Jones’ Infowars. A page on the site links to a Facebook group called “Samensterkvoornederland”, or “Together for the Netherlands”.
Anonymous news links to another news site which has much the same content, except it’s plastered with the 4chan/Anonymous logo. Russia Today News has no site, but tweets out many of the same articles as the other three outliers. All four outliers tweet the same material with few exceptions.
Who’s doing it?
I didn’t start with the aim of finding out, but a few clues did pop up. Most accounts are a stream of auto-posted news stories. Some like this account link to news through a xxx.twittcloud.com domain, which seem to be an advertising-serving redirect using adf.ly, a link monetization service.
Twittcloud’s site is currently a placeholder page in Spanish, but Googling for Twittcloud turns up a Facebook page which advertises “Easy Control, Quick response, fast followers”. My guess is Twittcloud is one of many Twitter follower or account-buying services. The WHOIS data for Twittcloud shows it’s registered to “Day Torin” in Barquisimeto, Venezuela. That would explain the Caracas thing.
Is it simple spam and monetization using popular, controversial topics? Is it a giant propaganda conspiracy? (If so, they’re pretty sloppy about it.) Why is there a guy in Venezuela involved with this? Is this a bot network hired by pro-Russia forces, or is this a byproduct of autotweeting RT?
I wish I had the data to find out.