‘Sockpuppet’ Twitter accounts used in #HandsOffGuptas information war

2016-11-13 11:43 - Gareth van Zyl
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Johannesburg - Fake Twitter accounts are being used to drive an alleged “misinformation” campaign that is seen to benefit the controversial Gupta family.

This is according to a series of tweets by a local twitter user this week who published his own research into allegations of an organised “Paid Twitter” campaign in South Africa.

The researcher first started looking into suspicious accounts on October 30 after seeing that a posted tweet that lashed out at a media report critical of the Guptas had 27 retweets, but that these retweets did not involve actual comments.

The tweets were then investigated further on November 3-4 after the release of outgoing Public Protector Thuli Madonsela’s 'State of Capture report'.

The researcher subsequently found that about 106 fake accounts have made 17 998 tweets in the last seven days, of which only 471 were actual tweets.

The content of these tweets surround three overarching themes: the Public Protector’s State of Capture report was “rubbish”, the media and Thuli Madonsela are “captured and biased” and that “white monopoly capital” poses a threat to South Africa.

This is a list of the 106-odd fake accounts clustered with their suspected "main" or controlling accounts. Each cluster follows a pattern pic.twitter.com/wpBH5YOosu

There are several other phrases used such as “HandsOffGuptas”, “apartheid agenda” and “just investigate Thuli only”.

A word cloud of tweets used by the alleged Twitter army. (Source: @Jean_leroux)

The data doesn’t necessarily point to the accounts being paid-for or even bot-style automated tweets, the researcher has found. But the findings suggest that the accounts do appear to be so-called "sockpuppet" accounts, where one user controls numerous accounts.

The data has further shown that Twitter management tool Tweetdeck is being used as the posting platform across all the accounts, signalling an orchestrated methodology. None of the accounts, though, had their geolocation activated.

The potential problem with these tweets is that few people may actually go as far as looking at the 'retweeters' themselves, but rather stop after seeing that a person had around 30 retweets. This strategy, in turn, may be used to try and influence public perceptions, the researcher has warned.

The research results and the researcher’s methodology have been published in a series of tweets, which can be viewed above.

However, this wouldn’t be the first time in the world that there have been attempts to control opinions on social networks such as Twitter.

Last year The Guardian reported on Putin’s “troll army” that involved hundreds of bloggers being paid to post anti-western and pro-Kremlin comments on forums and social networks.

This year, the Democratic Party has also questioned whether this Russian troll army helped boost the #TrumpWon hashtag.

Research has indicated that tweets with this hashtag have their roots in Saint Petersburg.

Russian President Vladimir Putin earlier this week sent his congratulations to Trump and asked that the US President-elect help thaw frosty US-Russia relations.

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