Twitter Has revealed for the first time a database with 1,196 accounts suspended in Venezuela that "seem to be involved in a campaign of influence promoted by the State," according to the social network. The analysis of the activity and content of almost 9 million tweets allows us to observe how the government uses false accounts to amplify its propaganda. His goal is to show that he has more popular support than in reality. Twitter has only attributed and revealed the data of this type of campaigns in four countries: Russia, Iran, Bangladesh and Venezuela.
The beneficiaries of the artificial retweet campaign and the repetition of tweets to achieve trending topics They are easy to identify. The most mentioned user for the suspended accounts is President Nicolás Maduro, followed by the Chavistas media Foro Candanga and Correo del Orinoco and the president of the National Constituent Assembly of Venezuela, God given hair. The most used nouns for those accounts seem a list of the priorities of the Government: Venezuela, people, president, Maduro, Government, Chavez, Russia or country. The hashtags more repeated are a mixture of keywords to sneak in trends (#news, #news, #android, #sports) with other more connoted: #tropa, #legionafanb or #lechuguinos.
Accounts deleted by Twitter are of three types: first, a group of three users with hundreds of thousands of followers; second, two dozen that go from a few thousand to 70,000 followers and, third, a long line of hundreds of accounts that spread content. It is a usual model in these campaigns: "In general, it makes sense to have a group of accounts dedicated to posting content and many others designed to amplify it through retweets, responses and automatic mentions," says Fil Menczer, of the Observatory of Social Networks at the Universidad de Indiana.
@ForoCandanga is, with half a million followers, the largest deleted account. His bio said: "ForoCandanga Foundation | Specialists in Digital Media and Social Networks IG: Foro.Candanga". The Instagram account – a company owned by Facebook – is still active with 42,000 followers. The other two accounts with more than 300 thousand suspended followers are @EscalonaJuanF, whose bio was "Soldier of the Bolivarian Revolution, Blessed by God to be Assistant to Commander President Hugo Chávez and @NicolasMaduro", and the account of @MippciVen, the Ministry of Popular Power for Communication and Information.
Twitter has only announced this suspension now, but many accounts were blocked months ago, according to network sources. The first time that more than 100 of these suspended accounts stopped tweeting at once was August 2017. Until then the suspended accounts had never added 50 monthly. In recent months, the pace of blockages has increased: between November and December 2018, the 300 suspensions touched.
In June 2017, Chavez websites announced the blocking of 180 official accounts, including that of the Ministry of Communication. Not all Twitter suspensions are permanent. "If they put out a thousand accounts, we will open 10 thousand more accounts with the youth and the revolutionary force of public opinion for the truth," then President Maduro said, in an alleged naive admission of how an amplification network works.
Propaganda does not stop
The size of the suspended accounts suggest that in reality the Chavista operation can not only be resuscitated but never completely eliminated. Twitter sources neither confirm nor deny: "We have published all the accounts on which we have acted and we have shared them with other companies in the sector We continue investigating malicious activity in Venezuela and we will share updated information as long as we know it", they say. The rhythm of warnings and suspension of accounts suggests that the company and the Venezuelan regime are monitoring each other to avoid mass blockages or exaggerated propaganda campaigns.
"Because the Venezuelan State has a great interest in influencing its national audience, it must be said that the network will continue to grow"
The Forensic Digital Laboratory of the Atlantic Council (DFRLab, in its acronym in English) has also analyzed this network: "Because the Venezuelan State has a great interest in influencing its national audience, it is necessary to say that the network will continue to grow," Kanishk Karan told this newspaper. DFRLab researcher. Twitter may have simply limited the Venezuelan regime's ability to spread its propaganda, like an octopus cut by a single tentacle.
The amplification of the messages does not only consist in retweeting content, but also in planning the automatic re-sending of equal tweets. On Twitter, the retweets not only forward the message to more people: a tweet with many retweets seems to have more popular support. Another method is the organic repetition of tweets, hashtags or words from different accounts, which causes the creation of trends that all users see.
"We have found that Twitter applications to automate tweets and increase reach [en Venezuela] they were Dlvr.it and IFTTT, "says Karan.This type of tweets between the tweets of the suppressed accounts was 58% of the total, more than 5 million tweets." This demonstrates a strong dependence on automation to amplify the propaganda " adds Karan.
"Capriloca [calificativo de Maduro para el político de la oposición, Henrique Capriles] you need a male to make you more crazy … "
A test of the coordination campaigns between the suspended accounts are the identical tweets issued from dozens of users at the same time or with differences of one minute. Some examples of tweets issued like this are: "Capriloca [calificativo de Maduro para el político de la oposición, Henrique Capriles] you need a male to make you more crazy … "(113 repeaters)," #FANBesVenezuela Venezuela currently has one of the most modern air forces " [FANB son las siglas de Fuerza Armada Nacional Bolivariana] (74) or "more than one million metric tons of food have been unloaded in Puerto Cabello #FANBEsVenezuela" (74).
This behavior is one of the most precise features of a bot: "The definition we use is an account that uses automation via software to develop some of its online activity, for example, although the content is generated by a human but posted by many accounts to give the impression that many people write the same, we consider them bots, "says Merczer.
The dates of creation of some of the oldest suspended accounts go back to 2009, only three years after the creation of Twitter. Most creation dates are however after March 2016. In December 2015, the scheme he lost the elections to the National Assembly. At the beginning of 2016, Maduro announced drastic measures to fight against the crisis, including the increase in price of gasoline. In March there were riots that left more than 100 people dead. It is easy to think that the regime could urgently need favorable "voices" on Twitter.
Twitter does not suspend accounts just because of the way they tweet. The company automatically detects if several accounts are created at the same time, from the same IP or are linked to the same mail. In fact, 209 suspended accounts had never tweeted. More than half had tweeted less than 250 times. Only 25% of suspended users tweeted more than 2,000 times.