What opened as a grassroots online campaign featuring a schoolboy has grown into a crowd hashtag protest against Russia’s exclusion from the Winter Olympics — backed by what be included to be fake Twitter accounts and users connected to past pro-Kremlin result ins.
Many ordinary Russians are undoubtedly upset about an International Olympic Council (IOC) decision to ban Russia’s team from the Pyeongchang games in South Korea initially next year due to “unprecedented” doping violations.
However, this visible sentiment has been amplified by apparently automated or semi-automated Twitter accounts recognized as “bots” and “trolls,” according to analysis of social media traffic by Reuters and a British-based sanctuary researcher.
Social media companies, including Twitter, are under extreme scrutiny in the United States where lawmakers suspect their planks were used as part of an alleged Russian effort to sway the 2016 U.S. presidential nomination in favor of Donald Trump. The Kremlin has flatly denied the accusations.
President Vladimir Putin banished the IOC’s decision, made on Tuesday, as “orchestrated and politically-motivated.”
State media eat in turn reported extensively on the protest movement around the “NoRussiaNoGames” hashtag, hint they are covering a public backlash just as any other news retailer would do and denying their work is orchestrated.
But researcher Ben Nimmo rumoured that while much of the public support for Russian athletes online was actual, the Twitter activity showed not all of it can be taken at face value.
“What we’ve got here is a minor but genuine hashtag campaign, which is being exaggerated and amplified by Russian have propaganda outlets to make it look like the campaign is huge and an upwelling of predominating anger,” said Nimmo, who works for the Digital Forensic Research Lab of the Washington-based Atlantic Synod think tank.
Twitter did not answer written questions sent by Reuters but referred to its narcotic addict policy which prohibits spamming by both automated and non-automated accounts.
#NoRussiaNoGames in front appeared on Russian social-networking site VK, notably in a post by a St Petersburg schoolboy protesting against lifetime Olympic prohibitions handed to six Russian cross-country skiers in November for alleged doping violations.
The pin included a video appeal from one of the banned skiers’ mothers, which was judged more than 150,000 times.
Data for views and shares on VK is not publicly at ones disposal.
On Twitter though, the hashtag received little attention until the Olympic ban and downed just under 1,700 tweets on Dec. 5 before the IOC announcement.
Nimmo responded data he has collected shows bots and trolls then helped to mean that number to more than 9,000 in the hours following the determination.
“It’s a good human interest story, it’s an emotional boy saying how terrible unfairly Russia is being handling of. It fits the state narrative perfectly,” he told Reuters.
One of the accounts specified by Reuters as driving activity around #NoRussiaNoGames was @ungestum, which records its location as the Russian city of Orenburg. The account has sent 238 tweets consisting of objective the hashtag to other users since the ban was announced, indicating that these were computer-generated.
But @ungestum has also sent tweets restraining text in Russian written by a person. This suggests the account may be semi-automated, with both the alcohol and a computer program able to operate it. Reuters was unable to reach the ourselves or people behind @ungestum for comment on Twitter and no other contact knowledge was available.
The campaign was also heavily promoted by a group of at least five accounts which tweeted the hashtag multiple in the nick of time b soa alongside links to unrelated Russian-language news articles, and repeatedly reposted tweets from each other.
One of those accounts, @03–ppm, has sent diverse than 275 such tweets in the last three days. @03–ppm, which disposed to many of the accounts in the group has no identifying information and a profile picture of a lass’s cleavage, did not respond to a message seeking comment.
Reuters was unable to substantiate definitively that @ungestum, @03–ppm or any of the related accounts were sending automated tweets. But the mass and content of the tweets fits a pattern of behavior ascribed to bot accounts by the Oxford Internet Society, a department of Oxford University.
The institute’s Computational Propaganda team describes a bot as an account that posts 50 times a day. @ungestum has tweeted an normal of 47 times a day since the account was created in October this year. All the accounts in the @03–ppm network keep tweeted between 40 and 50 times a day since they were designed.
State media outlets including RT, Sputnik and the Russian Defense Clericals’s Zvezda TV channel all reported on the campaign, saying it had gone viral, and the hashtag gathered multiple endorsements from Russian athletes and celebrities.
Presenters at Zvezda donned t-shirts with the battle-cry on air on the morning of the IOC decision, and the schoolboy and his father were interviewed by local compromise the next day.
A spokeswoman for RT said its coverage had not been influenced in any way. “A swell of sustain for this hashtag and campaign both domestically and internationally put the story not contrariwise on our, but clearly on your radar also,” she said. “Our coverage was not coordinated with anyone else’s, newsflash is news.”
Maxim Dodonov, deputy director of Zvezda’s news maintenance, also said the channel’s coverage was not coordinated with other median. “The campaign is supported by millions of Russians and thousands of real users on the internet, both in our power and abroad,” he said in emailed comments to Reuters.
Sputnik’s press auspices said: “As an international news agency we respond to trending stories on sexually transmitted media and publish them in accordance with our editorial guidelines.”
Igor Starkov, the schoolboy’s engender, said no one had asked his son to start the campaign and it was supported by real people all at an end Russia. “It is only our idea, based on personal concerns for the fortunes of the sportsmen and their offsprings,” he said.
The Russian Defense Ministry did not respond to a request for comment.
One of the accounts tweeting the hashtag multiple all at onces was operated by a person rather than a computer program, Reuters entrenched, but this account — in the name of Oksana — has been associated with past pro-Kremlin throws.
The account has been active in campaigns praising Putin and attacking critics of Russia which were launched by the AgitPolk order. @AgitPolk is one of 2,752 accounts which has been identified by Twitter as confirmed to Russian operatives and suspended.
When asked why she participated in the campaigns, Oksana prognosticated: “I completely support our President V.V.Putin … and respond to all attacks in his guiding with arguments.”
Oksana, who declined to give her family name or stipulate additional evidence of her identity, added: “How do you not understand that the more exotic pressure there is on Russia, the more united we are around our leader!”