BuzzFeed News has uncovered a new network of suspected Twitter propaganda accounts – sharing messages about Brexit, Donald Trump, and Angela Merkel – that have close connections to the Russian-linked bot accounts identified by the social media platform in its evidence to the US Congress.
The 45 suspect accounts were uncovered through basic analysis of those that interacted or retweeted accounts cited by Twitter to Congress, yet none of them appeared on the company’s list.
The relative ease of discovery raises serious questions as to just how many Russian-linked bots may still be active on Twitter, how the company identifies and removes such accounts, and whether its process for identifying accounts for its evidence was inadequate.
Until BuzzFeed News approached Twitter on Tuesday afternoon with details of the accounts, they all remained active on the platform, though dormant. But within 24 hours, all 45 had been suspended.
The network of propaganda accounts was identified using a database of 17 million Brexit-related tweets collected by the University of Sheffield. They tweeted predominantly in German and were primarily focused on jumping on German hashtag games and other trending topics, often inserting negative messages about the German chancellor, Angela Merkel.
However, 20 of the accounts also tweeted about Trump, and 21 about Brexit – with a huge spike of activity on the day of the referendum, 23 June 2016. The tweets about Trump and Brexit were often the only ones the accounts posted in English.
Damian Collins, the Conservative chair of the UK parliament’s culture, media, and sports committee – which is holding an inquiry into fake news and online propaganda – said the findings showed the information handed over by the social media platform so far was “only the tip of a very large iceberg”.
“This BuzzFeed investigation clearly calls into question the evidence that Twitter provided to the US Senate judiciary and intelligence committees and demonstrates that whatever process the company undertook to identify Russian-backed fake accounts was simply not rigorous enough,” he said.
“The findings of this report raise serious questions about the methodology used by Twitter to identify fake content on their platform, and how seriously they are taking investigations by governments and parliaments around the world.”
He added: “The technology exists to aid the identification of fake accounts based on their shared characteristics and use of language. Twitter should be deploying this to identify other accounts linked to organizations like the Russian Internet Research Agency.”
The existence of a bot network directly connected to the accounts identified by Twitter is also likely to raise concerns among US regulators and members of Congress investigating possible Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election.
Twenty of the 45 suspected bot accounts identified by BuzzFeed News tweeted about Donald Trump a total of 198 times in the summer of 2016, in a mixture of English and German. These included several tweeting a selection of bizarre memes around supporting Trump “because he is gay”, and aims to boost the hashtag #WirLiebenTrump (#WeLoveTrump).