The Twitter robot network that supports the Spanish Socialist Party and insults journalists | Science and technology

In the first 16 days of November, around 20 coordinated Twitter accounts described Spain’s Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez as “beautiful” 100 times and “magnificent” 39 times. It’s a curious anecdote, which might have gone unnoticed if the same accounts had not compulsively insulted the leader of Spain’s main opposition party (PP), Pablo Casado, on the same social network. “Corrupt”, “miserable”, “you are disgusting” were the comments posted under the conservative politician’s tweets more than 400 times in the past 10 weeks.

Journalists covering the Socialist Party (PSOE), led by Sánchez, or the coalition government, led by the latter party with its junior partner Unidas Podemos, were also targeted by this mass of accounts. “You have fewer sources at the PSOE than I have at the KGB” or “salmon face” were some of the comments directed to reporters.

Repeated sentences, misspellings, post time patterns, and the tool used to post the tweets are all clear evidence of coordination. The closure of accounts by Twitter, after EL PAÍS has sounded the alarm, is confirmation of this. Barely three hours passed between this log informing the social network of the problem and the suspension of the users in question. Given the coincidences between the tweets and their frequency – none of them, for example, were posted at exactly the same time – it wouldn’t be surprising if there was only one person behind them with an obsessive interest in politics and the PSOE, not to mention any automated assistance.

PSOE sources deny having any links to or knowledge of these accounts. EL PAÍS wrote to four of the accounts in an attempt to speak to the person (s) behind them, but the only response was to be blocked by those users – this is another little clue that suggests they were being operated manually instead. than automated “robots.

“The accounts have been permanently suspended for violation of Twitter rules related to spam and manipulation on the platform,” a spokesperson for the social network told this newspaper.

With nearly 200,000 tweets posted since December 2019, these accounts are an example of the influence someone can have through Twitter, provided they have the time and the motivation. The aim, in this case, was to amplify the official PSOE message with retweets and to respond to socialists’ tweets with positive messages, as well as to voice criticism of the opposition and journalists. .

Via an analysis of 40,000 recent tweets, responses to other accounts constituted between 50 and 70% of their activity. The rest were retweets: most often messages from the PSOE and Prime Minister’s accounts, which together made up one in two retweets of the group. With such focused behavior, it’s no surprise that their total subscriber count barely reached 200. But that didn’t stop the targets of their attacks from seeing the critical responses they posted.

On November 4, for example, at 9:50 a.m. and in just 53 seconds, one of the accounts posted six messages in response to a tweet from Sánchez’s account: “Thank you Prime Minister,” “A man of the left and a good person, ”“ As you say, ”“ Good day pedro [sic], you’re the best ”and“ That’s it. ”Shortly before, at 8:06 am and within 68 seconds, the account responded with eight messages to a tweet from Pablo Casado:“ They’re going to slit your throat.[Madrid regional premier Isabel] Ayuso is going to swallow you whole, “”[Far-right Vox party leader Santiago] Abascal is going to swallow you whole “,” You are done “,” the PP Civil War Mafia “, they read, among others. The biography of one of the accounts, with the handle @loregarciacarri, was” the admirer of the most beautiful and the best Pedro Sanchez [sic]. “

These patterns were repeated in different waves of different accounts. All of the tweets were sent from Twitter’s Android mobile phone app, with the exception of a few sent from one of the accounts, @alamituara, who was still using a computer from 1 p.m. to 4 p.m.

Most of the profile photos were taken online. The names of the accounts were female and several had Basque influence: @onekaxaballa, @amaiairixarri and @naroabakea. When the reported accounts were closed by Twitter, the social network also suspended at least two others who were not on the initial list but who were part of the same campaign: @sartyfanadri and @laroadonosti. It is likely that there were more.

The impact of this type of account depends in part on how the recipient of the messages perceives them. “I was mostly puzzled because I didn’t understand them,” explained Pablo Linde, an EL PAÍS reporter who covered the coronavirus pandemic – in particular the management of the crisis by the Ministry of Health – and who was sometimes harassed because of these profiles. “They would suddenly become very aggressive and free. They were profiles very close to those of the PSOE fans, who would practically only retweet things from the PSOE, and that suddenly, with more critical stories towards the PSOE. [government’s] leadership, and sometimes with those who weren’t even that critical, their responses were to call you “I know everything” or to say “you’re kidding yourself.”

The journalist most cited in the tweets analyzed is May Mariño, who covers the PSOE for the agency Servimedia. “I don’t pay attention to these things,” she said. “You get the notifications but I ignore them. I’m not used to interacting with people I don’t know. Inma Carretero, a journalist covering the PSOE for the Cadena SER radio station, was also targeted. “There were times when there was a bit of everything,” she explained. “At one point they were very boring, and it’s especially irritating when you talk to other people and they get involved. “

A Twitter user posts: “PSOE bots are attacking again” with a screenshot of flattering comments posted in response to a tweet from Pedro Sánchez.

Part of the success of these online operations lies in their ability to make an impact from the moment they are created. Journalists ‘or users’ tweets about “PSOE bots” or replies to messages can be an incentive to keep tweeting, with the understanding that they have an effect. Often, similar messages were sent to the same reporter but from different accounts. While the efforts weren’t particularly sophisticated, the likely intention of the author of these tweets was to give the impression that a number of different people held the same opinion.

The Twitter user posted, “I think they’re trying to tell me something …” with a screenshot of comments repeatedly calling it “vile.”

This operation reveals at least three things. First, there are constant complaints about the existence of bots or automated trolls online, but it is difficult to confirm these suspicions. Second, reporting alleged bogus accounts linked to a political party can be helpful for rivals: it drags the conversation through the mud and makes it seem like cheaters are always on the other side. Third, with minimal effort to cover up activity, even a small group of accounts can tweet and be influential without any issues. While three of the 20 accounts were suspended the day this newspaper warned Twitter, the campaign manager had a good part of his arsenal intact with 200,000 tweets already posted, and could have continued.

Posts from Twitter users: “PSOE bots are working hard for Congress to worship the leader” with a screenshot of many identical comments praising Pedro Sánchez.

In terms of influence assessment, beyond the weight that every journalist wants to give to the opinion of supposed citizens who question them online, many users look at the responses to a tweet to see “what the people say ”. It is then that these messages become visible. This group of accounts responded to the original tweets but very rarely engaged in discussions or responded to people’s responses.

In a previous analysis, EL PAÍS had already detected an unusually high interest on Twitter among certain users, which we called “semibots”. This case, which involved 20 accounts, could be a devious and elaborate version of this phenomenon. This activity, which is presumably aimed at benefiting the PSOE, could end up giving the impression that it is the party itself that encourages this kind of activity.

According to a Pew Research report released this week, 25% of Twitter users are responsible for posting 97% of the content. With users as active as the owner of those accounts, it’s easy to imagine.

Posts from Twitter users: “Very interesting these pro-PSOE and anti-Podemos trolls, which I couldn’t resist checking out to see what I would find,” with a screenshot of identical comments insulting critics of the PSOE and Sánchez.

Specialists linked to Unidas Podemos commented in February on the existence of a group of Twitter accounts displaying similar behavior. After this discovery, the owner (s) of these accounts changed their name. But such a step was obviously not enough, because several days later, on March 2, they were definitively abandoned and are now suspended. Other accounts that had not been previously disclosed were used from then on.

Now something similar could happen. Twitter doesn’t just veto the email address that was used to create a suspended account. EL PAÍS consulted other users who have been subject to this type of suspension, who explain that the social network has other tools to make it difficult to recreate new accounts, although they are easy to avoid once that these methods become clear.

The platform also has a policy to tackle those attempting to evade bans, which states that Twitter reserves the right to permanently suspend any other account that it believes could be operated by the same owner of. a previously suspended account.

The PSOE reports that it has repeatedly complained to Twitter about accounts posting strange opinions from supposed voters. Spanish online fact-checking site Maldita.es has analyzed some of these profiles, which for the moment remain active on the social network.

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