Russia is Recruiting People to Become Unwitting Twitter Bots. But is it Working?

In March, the Russian embassy in the United Kingdom rolled out a new, interactive “online diplomacy” program in an apparent attempt to promote a more favorable image of the country in the West. The program, described by the embassy as the “Russian Diplomatic Online Club” asks users to turn over control of their personal Twitter accounts using a third-party web app called Tweetsquad. The app allows embassy staff to periodically retweet tweets from Alexander Yakovenko, Russia’s Ambassador to the UK, from the personal accounts of any users that have signed up.

The existence of this online diplomatic club was first reported on by the technology magazine Motherboard, which signed up to be part of the online club on Tweetsquad using a dummy account. Moments later, the dummy account successfully retweeted one of Ambassador Yakovenko’s own tweets.

Tweetsquad itself has a bit of a mysterious background. Its website describes the company as a “platform for managing a community of super-fans” that was founded in 2014, according to Crunchbase, an online directory of start-up companies. A profile of the company published on the technology website Tech.co lists Michael Mayernick, a start-up entrepreneur who founded the data analytics firm Spinnakr, as the original co-founder. It is unclear whether he is still involved with the company.

Tweetsquad’s own Twitter account has been recently suspended, though Motherboard reported in mid-March that the site’s account had been inactive for some time.

It is also unclear whether the Russian embassy’s program has been effective in promoting Russia’s brand online, and the number of members of Yakovenko’s tweet “squad” is unknown. An attempt by Media File to sign up for the club on Sunday afternoon was met with an error message. The same message was displayed when trying to sign up on Tweetsquad’s main website.

Since March 15, when Motherboard first broke the story, only two of Ambassador Yakovenko’s tweets garnered more than one hundred retweets. These include a tweet from March 23rd expressing solidarity with the British people after a deadly terrorist attack in London, and another from March 18th that was highly critical of Britain’s participation in a NATO mission in Estonia.

 

Nonetheless, there has been a growing public fear that social media bots – some of which could be linked to Russia – may be having an influence on the politics of Western countries. Though a direct link to a Russian disinformation efforts are notoriously difficult to prove, an independent journalist in the UK uncovered a pro-Russian Twitter bot network attempting to influence a February by-election in the country.

For a look at these social media bots, go here (tweets in Russian).

A study from the Oxford Internet Institute found a major uptick in political bot activity during the 2016 U.S. Presidential campaign. In France, Buzzfeed recently reported on a loosely organized social media campaign organized by supporters of far-right candidate Marine Le Pen that is apparently attempting to influence upcoming elections in April and May. Organizers admitted to trying to manipulate voters’ social media feeds by using bots and shell accounts to post false information and “create as much chaos on social media as possible.”  

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