K-pop Army Battle Royale

Billboard Music Awards’ vote process is being manipulated by inauthentic Twitter accounts, and here’s why it matters

Apr 29 · 8 min read
Network graph representation of 21,250 Twitter accounts that tweeted, retweeted, or were mentioned in tweets which include #FollowAnExoL (source data: 136,849 tweets from April 16th to April 22nd, 2019)

Twitter asserts they “proactively identify suspicious account behaviors that indicate automated activity or violations of [their] policies, including having multiple accounts” (Twitter’s Legal, Policy and Trust & Safety Lead, Vijaya Gadde, Feb 2018):

Source tweet (from Twitter’s Vijaya Gadde)

Billboard Music Awards

The 2019 Billboard Music Awards will be hosted by Kelly Clarkson on Wednesday in Las Vegas (May 1st).

This year’s ceremony includes two fan-voted categories — Top Social Artist and Chart Achievement.

Here are the 2019 nominees for Top Social Artist (voting started April 22nd and ends May 1st):

Billboard Music Awards strictly prohibits any attempt at manipulating the “legitimate operation of the vote process.. including, without limitation, use of fraudulent, robotic, or ghost Facebook and/or Twitter accounts” (2019 Voting Rules):

Enter EXO

Three (out of five) of 2019’s nominees for Top Social Artist are K-pop groups — BTS, EXO, and Got7.

While I had previously heard of BTS, EXO and Got7 are names that were new to me.

Social media manipulation is an area that interests me a great deal. As a result, I regularly monitor Twitter for the words “Twitter+bots” (scan through said search results here!).

A couple weeks ago I started noticing inauthentic Twitter accounts urging others to create fake Twitter and Facebook accounts (where the sole intent is to manipulate Billboard Music Awards’ poll by inflating votes for EXO):

#FollowAnExoL

The group is mobilizing around a spammy follow-for-follow hashtag (#FollowAnExoL):

Below is a network graph representation of 21,250 Twitter accounts that tweeted, retweeted, or were mentioned in tweets which include #FollowAnExoL (source data: 136,849 tweets from April 16th to April 22nd, 2019):

Top image shows nodes and edges; bottom image shows nodes only. Each dot (node) represents a Twitter account. Lines connecting accounts (edges) represent relationships between accounts (for example, if account A adds account B to a tweet where Account A has also added #FollowAnExol, then Account A and Account B will appear connected via an edge in the graph)

Account Creation Dates

Most notably the dataset includes 9,488 accounts (~45% of total) that were created this month (April 2019) or last month (March 2019):

Network graph representation of 9,488 recently created (on or after March 1st, 2019) Twitter accounts that tweeted, retweeted, or were mentioned in tweets which include #FollowAnExoL

Here is an overview of account creation dates (broken out quarterly) for the full dataset (~21K accounts):

Here is an overview of account creation dates (broken out monthly, starting with Jan 2016; only ~8% of accounts were created prior to Jan 2016):

Here is an overview of account creation dates (broken out daily, starting with March 1st, 2019; ~45% of accounts were created within the past two months):

More than 20% of accounts that tweeted, retweeted, or were mentioned in tweets which include #FollowAnExoL are accounts that were created across three days (between April 18th, 2019 and April 20th, 2019, more specifically).

Note the large number of accounts (1,410) that have Jul 2018 creation dates:

This was driven by a poll that was tweeted by FIFA World Cup on July 4th, 2018:

Source tweet

Fake accounts were created/used to manipulate this poll (inflating votes for EXO) in the same fashion as is currently taking place with Billboard Music Awards’ vote process:

Here is an overview of account creation dates (broken out daily for Jul 2018; ~1,100 accounts were created day of/day after FIFA World Cup tweeted the poll):

If you are interested in taking a closer look, here you will find 200+ accounts from the dataset that were created in Jul 2018.

Usernames

The dataset includes 3,037 accounts (~14% of total) where “EXO” appears in their usernames:

Network graph representation of 3,037 accounts (where “EXO” appears in their usernames) that tweeted, retweeted, or were mentioned in tweets which include #FollowAnExoL

One such account is @exomymilk (account was created ten days ago):

The account’s first 21 tweets include nothing more than “#FollowAnExoL” paired with emojis (tweets took place on April 19th, 2019 between 5:30p and 5:34p EDT):

Here is an overview of @exomymilk’s tweet activity (on April 19th, for example, the account tweeted or retweeted 99 tweets where #FollowAnExoL appears):

These are the accounts most frequently retweeted by @exomymilk:

Then there is @OH_EXO8412 — a more seasoned account that was created back in Oct 2014:

The account has tweeted or retweeted 82 tweets where #FollowAnExoL appears (one tweet includes the hashtag twice, hence there are 83 search results highlighted below!):

If you are interested in taking a closer look, here you will find 500+ accounts from the dataset which include “EXO” in their usernames.

Bios

The dataset includes 10,806 accounts (~51% of total) where “EXO” appears in their bios:

Network graph representation of 10,806 accounts (where “EXO” appears in their bios) that tweeted, retweeted, or were mentioned in tweets which include #FollowAnExoL

Here is a closer look at clustering near the more prominent nodes/accounts (and highlighting several accounts that include “EXO” in their bios):

Below are the profiles of @may4exo, @may4exo01, @may4exo02, @may4exo03, and @may4zyx01 — a few of the accounts which comprise a 134 account cluster surrounding Billboard Music Awards’ Twitter account (@BBMAs):

Each of the accounts highlighted (five) have “EXO” in their bios

The accounts appear in the same cluster because they all tweeted the following (which took place within a five minute window):

The nodes/accounts reflect being connected to @weareoneEXO, @B_hundred_Hyun, and @layzhang in the graph visualization (via edges) because each account tweeted #FollowAnExoL (where those three Twitter accounts were included in said tweets).

In fact, the dataset includes eleven similarly named accounts (usernames beginning with “may4”) that all tweeted the same thing (and within the five minute window):

Here is an overview of the accounts (three were created this month; six were created in Jul 2018, driven by the FIFA World Cup tweet poll):

Given the accounts have all engaged in coordinated inauthentic behavior, it is unclear why only one has been restricted by Twitter (reality is they are all in violation of Twitter’s rules and should be suspended; in addition to thousands more from the “EXO Army”).

It is amazing how unsophisticated/ineffective data confirms Twitter is at dealing with inauthentic accounts:

Source tweet

More than five thousand accounts (comprising nearly 25% of dataset’s accounts) which include “EXO” in their bios were created within the past two months (between March 1st, 2019 and April 22nd, 2019, more specifically).

If you are interested in taking a closer look, here you will find 2K+ accounts from the dataset which include “EXO” in their bios.

BTS, Got7, and Louis Tomlinson, Oh My!

Turns out EXO is not the only 2019 Billboard Music Awards nominee for Top Social Artist with a Twitter army.

Billboard has placed considerable faith in Twitter — designating the platform one of two ways to cast votes (the other being via Billboard.com’s voting page):

Below is a network graph representation of 40,731 Twitter accounts that tweeted, retweeted, or were mentioned in tweets which include #BBMAsTopSocial (source data: 120,581 tweets from April 22nd to April 25th, 2019):

Network graph representation of 40,731 Twitter accounts that tweeted, retweeted, or were mentioned in tweets which include #BBMAsTopSocial (source data: 120,581 tweets from April 22nd to April 25th, 2019)

There exists a community for every 2019 Top Social Artist nominee with the exception of Ariana Grande:

Below I have highlighted several accounts which reflect having large followings (hint: most Followers are inauthentic accounts!), where the focus is gaming various polls (whether polling takes place on or off Twitter’s platform):

It is crystal clear that Billboard Music Awards’ (Twitter) vote process for 2019’s Top Social Artist category has been compromised/manipulated.

Twitter’s unwillingness to clean up their platform is to blame.

OK, So What’s Your Point?

The deliberate undermining of Billboard Music Awards’ vote process ultimately does not matter to most people (myself included!).

That is not what is important here.

What I hope this post highlights is how Twitter’s statements do not align with their actions.

Until accountability is forced upon Twitter, their execs/leaders will continue to speak of proactively monitoring their platform, while in practice ineffectively (and reactively) doing so:

Source tweet

It boils down to this: Twitter continues to put their profitability ahead of democracies across the world.


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Geoff Golberg (that’s me!) is an NYC-based researcher (and entrepreneur) who is fascinated by graph visualization/network analysis — more specifically, when applied to social networks and blockchain activity (social/blockchain forensics excite me!). His experience spans structured finance, ad tech, and digital marketing/customer acquisition, both at startups and public companies. Geoff spends (far too much of) his time developing techniques and building tools to identify social media manipulation (of various flavors!)

Geoff Golberg

Written by

Founder, Social Forensics | Previously: Co-Founder, Elementus | Featured in BBC, CNN, BuzzFeed, and Quartz, among others | geoffgolberg.com

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