The article details how known mouthpieces for the alt-right led the way with spreading anti-Franken allegations, and how these messages were spread via thousands of posts on Twitter that caused the #alfranken and #frankenfondles hashtags to trend heavily.
The article describes how the alt-right accusations launched against Franken were spread in the alt-right press, and how these articles were amplified by bots. In contrast, a statement of strong support from eight former staffers got very little exposure and died in the dark.
This is because the alt-right is in possession of a very powerful two-stage media weapon:
- Publication of propaganda in numerous far-right news outlets
- Coordinated use of social media bots to link to the publications and to make the news “trend” on Twitter and Facebook.
The destructive capabilities of this weapon can not be understated.
It’s natural for people to believe what they keep hearing. It’s easy to think that if everybody’s talking about it, it must be true.
Unfortunately, this natural instinct can become a liability in this new age of social media. We don’t really know who “everybody” is anymore. On the internet it is very difficult to differentiate a man from a machine, it’s hard to know which of the voices that pop up in our feeds and on our timelines are sentient beings with their own beliefs, and which are simply dumb clones whose sole purpose is to align you with false beliefs wrapped in a crispy coating of deep-fried rhetoric.
“All that matters is repeated exposure to the message”. That’s exactly what an army of Twitter bots provides.
Roger Stone says it’s Al Franken’s “time in the barrel”. Franken next in long list of Democrats accused of “grabby” behavior.
That same day the web domain realusa.site was registered in Japan developer named Atsufumi Otsuka (if the registration info is to be believed) and a pseudo-news website was established.
On November 16th Leeann Tweedon went public with her story of having been sexually assaulted by Senator Al Franken.
On November 20th Charles Johnson, a prominent member of the alt-right, said the following in a Twitter thread:
Thinking of offering money to people who go on tv saying Al Frank is a predator
On the same day, a second domain, votyus.me was registered by Atsufumi Otsuka, and another pseudo-news website was established. Both websites use the same Google analytics account ID and Apple app ID, and the name servers and registration information of the two are nearly identical. It was very clear that these two websites were related in some way.
On November 21st at 1:52 am, Mike Cernovich – another prominent member of the alt-right movement – tweeted the following:
I will fully cover the legal expenses of any VICTIM of a Congressman who wants to come forward
I will fully cover the legal expenses of any VICTIM of a Congressman who wants to come forward to tell her story. Break the secrecy. #UnsealTheDeals
— Mike Cernovich 🇺🇸 (@Cernovich) November 21, 2017
How are these tweets and these newly built “news” websites related?
This is what we found.
The content of these tweets is the title of an opinion piece by Ijeoma Oluo published at theestablishment.co.
With a Twitter following of under 10,000 people, this site itself has modest reach.
But a Twitter search for the article’s title: “Dear Al Franken, I’ll Miss You but You Can’t Matter Anymore” revealed a huge number of Twitter accounts amplifying the title of the story, which urged women and activists to stand down and accept Senator Franken’s resignation. But rather than providing a link to the story itself, the tweets included links to the two “media” sites registered by our friend in Japan.
The interesting part of this discovery? The Twitter accounts linking to the two websites and tweeting the title of the article are all remarkably similar to each other.
These twitter bot accounts mainly tweeted mundane stories related to sports, bitcoin, and celebrity news. But sprinkled among these mundane links were a number of articles related to the Al Franken story. Not every Twitter bot account was involved with the promotion of every weaponized story. It appeared someone was dictating how much promotion would occur for any particular partisan story. This indicates that only a subset of Twitter bot accounts from a much larger pool of bot accounts were used for each tweet.
They each had 30 to 60 followers and many were not following anyone. They all had thousands of tweets, even though many of them had only been recently created. All of them had a large majority of followers whose profile and all content was in Japanese. A significant number of the suspect Twitter accounts had as their first follower either a Japanese or Russian account and many of the accounts used banner images with Russian-language text.
We began to suspect that this legitimate opinion piece had been weaponized for political gain by dozens of twitter accounts, all of them repeatedly tweeting links to the two domains registered in Japan in late November. We estimated this Twitter botnet to involve well over 400 Twitter accounts, although at any one time only a subset of this total is used to promote a particular story.
Such strong similarities amongst the accounts combined with a clear connection to the two recently established Japanese websites verified our suspicions. He had stumbled upon a sophisticated botnet being used to spread alt-right propaganda.
Our researcher named his discovery the Voty Twitter Botnet.
And it’s still going strong.
The big question is: who is paying for and running this decidedly alt-right themed Twitter botnet? Someone has to be selecting these specific articles to be promoted and deciding how much they should be promoted.
How can you tell if a twitter account is likely to be a bot?
Our security researcher provided us with some tips
- The account has significant number of tweets and / or likes in a short period of time, for instance 50-100 tweets or likes per day. You can figure this number out by dividing the total tweets by the number of days since the account was created.
- A very small number of personal tweets and media compared to the number of retweets and tweets of existing articles or other content. The account may have thousands of tweets and no media files, for instance.
- Identical tweets appearing in other accounts at the exact same time. (see below for how to spot this)
- The account’s Twitter handle is made of of a number of random letters and numbers that have no semblance of matching the account name, like the account “emily” with the twitter handle “bakchadur7eyger”. Many twitter handles that end in an 8 digit sequence that is not in a date format are fake accounts with computer generated handles. For example, if the account name is James Bundy and his twitter handle is @Jamesbu04926114 you may have a bot on your hands.
- The account has a significant number of foreign accounts as followers even though the account is only sending out content related to a completely different country. The same pattern is usually found in the accounts that follow the suspected bots.
There are public Twitter bot checks but many of these don’t identify these more sophisticated accounts.
Here are the results of a search for the tweet “Democrat Hypocrites Tell Creepy Al Franken to Stay in Senate”. It’s easy to search for a particular tweet using Twitter’s advanced search form. Notice that we circled the account with the user name “emily”, and also notice her odd, long Twitter handle: “bakchadur7eyger”.
When you click on her profile and check her followers you see something pretty odd. For a twitter account that seems to tweet about US politics and articles about whether Senator Al Franken is “creepy” or not, Emily sure has a lot of Japanese speaking followers.
Even more odd, besides having an interest in US politics, and a lot of Japanese speaking followers, Emily seems to follow a lot of Russian speaking accounts. Maybe she is half Japanese and Half Russian?
Or maybe “emily” is a weaponized propaganda-spreading Twitter bot who needs to be blocked and reported.