The Russia Disconnection

The role of probably fake Russian bot accounts in the online shaming of Tim Hunt.

Red Square courtesy of joneybrain (https://pixabay.com/en/users/joneybrain-5003425/).

I have two obsessions, Tim Hunt and fake news. One grew out of the other. In this post I’ll show you some of the connections between the two. You’ll see some of the mechanisms used by public relations professionals to trend stories, you’ll see the involvement of some surprising figures in an amplification network and you’ll see that some journalists choose to ignore evidence.

I’ll start with some evidence being actively ignored. I’m joining in a conversation between BuzzFeed and Louise Mench, attempting to draw their attention to evidence I submitted to the House of Commons Select Committe on Culture, Media and Sports’ Inquiry into Fake News.

You can read the submission I was pointing to here:

I received no response to that tweet from either BuzzFeedBen or Louise Mensch. Noting their coverage of Russian bots I sent them another tweet to pique their interest by revealing the presence of unconfigured and semi-configured bot accounts that appeared Russian in one network that trended the Tim Hunt hashtag.

I’ve had no response as yet. I’m not holding my breath.

The screenshots show what appear to be Russian bot followers of a very spam-looking Twitter amplification account Popular Has#tags. You can see the followers list for yourself here. You will have to scroll quite a way down to spot bots, they are hidden beneath a layer of better configured accounts.

This is what I think of as a layer cake account. The composition of followers in the account is stratified into four layers.

  • A mixture of normal followers and supporters.
  • A mixture of supporters and sockpuppets.
  • Unconfigured and partially configured bot accounts.
  • Admins, sockpuppets and supporters.

The screenshots of apparently Russian supporters are taken from the third layer. Here’s an example. There are screen after screen of them.

Of course I don’t believe these are necessarily Russian. One in particular doesn’t seem to know how many Ss to use to spell its apparent nationality. There are lots of these accounts. They are in a continuous block, often lack profile pics and banners and either have missing descriptions or relatively meaningless ones.

These are bots. Other than the fact that they exist, bots aren’t that interesting. They are terrible conversationalists. Though some appear to be good listeners you get the impression that they’re not really taking anything in. What is striking about these bots is that they occur in a continuous block. This makes it less likely that they are random bot followers and more likely that they are purchased followers.

Before I go on I want to remind you that the account being followed by all these bots looks like a spam account. It’s name is a dead give away. Popular Has#tags. It says it all really.

Possibly Not Bots

Lets take a look at what ‘real’ users are following the account.

  • Here’s the SocialDisruptor account from The Social Architects who handle social media for the Tribeca Disruptive Innovation Awards.
  • More accounts from The Social Architects: LUV#Tags, GreatMindsTWEET and Hashtags4Good.
  • Here’s Tweeter Leader and TheSocialBounce from The Social Architects.
  • Global Invest Her
  • Former New Zealand Prime Minister Helen Clark who could have been the first female Secretary General of the United Nations.
  • Trendin#Tag used by The Social Architects.
  • Abigail Posner, Head of Strategic Planning at Google and a team member of The Social Architects.
  • John Patricof, who was once President and Chief Operating Officer of Tribeca Enterprises.

Here’s John’s #TimHunt call to action.

  • Here’s Prof Linda Scott of Oxford University’s Saiid Business School and The Social Architects. We’ll see more from her later.
  • Meet Don Walker of the Harry Walker Agency.
  • Andrea Sullivan, CMO of Interbrand.
  • Here’s Master#Marketing, another trending account from The Social Architects. Also Susan Pollack, president of Games for Change. And notably the Global Diversity Leadership Exchange which was cross-promoted in the #TimHunt campaign.
  • Event Organizers RELEVENTS. Also #DisruptSOCIALPR, an account associated with the Harold Walker Agency, The Tribeca Disruptive Innovation Awards and Prof Linda Scott’s Power Shift Forum.
  • The official corporate account of The Harry Walker Agency.
  • Jackie Bigford of The Social Architects.
  • Donnetta Campbell of The Social Architects.
  • A bunch of Twitter spam services.
  • Keeping close company with what appears to be a Russian bot is the official corporate account of The Disruptor Foundation, together with Irwin Kuka.

Irwin was very keen to share his point of view with Sky News

The Guardian

and The Daily Telegraph.

  • The official corporate account of Games for Change and Kelly Le Brock, star of Weird Science.

And, last in the list, the first two follows of this Twitter spam account are Women in Technology whose profile proclaims “We RT!” and, last but not least, Donnetta Campbell, founder of The Social Architects, again.

Not the Russians!

It’s highly unlikely that the bots we see in the middle of the follower list are in any meaningful sense Russian. They may have been bought from Russians, or they may have been created somewhere else and given the appearance of being Russian. They don’t strike me as being likely members of Putin’s Troll Army. Not with the company they keep.

What It For?

Why are all the great and the good rubbing shoulders with a bunch of bots in the follower list of a spam account. My guess is it works. It trends hashtags. The bots push up the follower numbers while the earned influencer accounts provide social signals to algorithms indicating that the spam account had undeserved credibility. I can’t confirm that as Twitter’s algorithms are opaque, but it seems like a reasonable guess.

What About Tim?

I was getting to that. Here’s one example of Popular Has#tags retweeting a #TimHunt post from Prof Linda Scott (third item). There are many others, and you’ll recognize many of the retweeters from above.

And that’s just the retweets of one tweet in the #TimHunt campaign. There are very many others.