I, the Robotroll: Kremlin on Twitter

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id-iom || CC

Robotrolling on social networks is something which might have started as a joke but now it is stealing good night sleep from IT security analytics all over the world. Creating robotic Twitter accounts which generate automatic content on a selected topic became one of the most useful tools in the Kremiln’s disinformation propaganda. Over 80% of Russia-language tweets and almost half the English-language tweets on the NATO presence in Eastern Europe is created by pro-Kremiln robotic accounts.

Two out of three Twitter users who write in Russian about NATO presence in Eastern Europe are actually not human but  robotic. So-called ‘bot accounts’ are artificially created fake accounts which generate automatic content on the topic and in the language chosen by their creator. Together those accounts amount to 84% of total Russian-language messages on this issue.

The situation with English language content is not so alarming but definitively worrying: one in four active Twitter accounts are robotic and together are responsible for 46% of all English-language content on the NATO presence in Baltic States and Poland.

Out of the four Baltic states considered in the newest NATO strategic communications center of excellence (Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, and Poland), Estonia and Latvia are the most frequently targeted ones.

Poland and Baltic States under the Looking Glass

Russian language content peaked in May and early June 2017 at the time of the largest NATO exercises. On the other hand, English language content peaked in April as Western troops arrived in the Baltics.

Estonia was the biggest target of robotroling activities. The issues most commonly discussed were the arrival of British troops, the stationing of US F35, together with a number of military exercises. Additionally, the violation of Estonian airspace by Russian aircraft in early May intensified the activities of robotic accounts.

Latvia saw the second highest level of Russian-language bot activity. Automated content about Latvia focused on the Summer Shield exercise and the arrival of Canadian troops.

Automated content about Lithuania was less common than for the other Baltic States. However, the launch of the Steadfast Cobalt exercise in May drew considerable comments as did two incidents involving NATO troops in June.

Poland, together with Lithuania, saw the lowest level of automated activity.

Russian-Language Twitter Space

Russian language twitter space works on a different scheme than the rest of the Twitter in all other languages. One of its most significant features is the level of coordination among groups of very similar accounts. Dozens of virtually identical accounts simultaneously tweeting identical content can be observed.

Another remarkable thing about the Russian Twitter-bots is their long-term continuality. While in English-language world bots with this level of activity tend to be banned within weeks or months after their creation, most of the Russian bots were created in 2011-2012. This means that their hyperactive behavior has been tolerated for more than five years.

One of the possible explanations is that the administrators of non-English social media platforms approach their role with lower responsibility, which results in the toleration of behavior patterns that would normally result in account suspension.

In the world where authoritarian states such as China, Turkey or Russia coerce domestic media into compliance, social media can offer an alternative platform to gain information or express views. Twitter’s ability to serve this function is compromised if the volume of fake activities outweighs the genuine content.

Adela Kleckova
Friedrich Naumann Foundation for Freedom