Organized groups could be marshalling their forces for a disinformation war.
Twitter has been one of Donald Trump’s favorite tools ever since he first started running for president, so it’s no surprise that his account is closely followed by millions of users, and his every tweet is parsed for intelligence about his intentions.
More recently, however, attention has focused on the fact that Trump’s already large Twitter following appears to have increased substantially, and that many of these new followers seem to be “bots” or automated accounts.
This has triggered fears in some circles that it could signal the beginning of a “bot war.”
According to a number of tweets, including one that got a lot of traction on the social network, Trump’s following increased by as much as 5 million in a matter of days, and most of the new followers were automated or fake accounts.
A spokesman for Twitter, however, told BuzzFeed this was not true, and a comparison between Trump’s current personal Twitter profile and an archived version of the page shows it has only increased by about 300,000 in the past few days.
While it may not have grown very quickly, Trump’s account has added more than 2 million followers this month, according to Mashable. It has grown by about 7 million since February, the site said, and more than half of those accounts appear to be fake.
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A report from a third-party service called Twitter Audit shows that more than half of those following the president’s account are suspected of being fake or automated (although BuzzFeed notes that the site’s methodology for detecting fakes is not foolproof).
These large increases, and what appear to be a huge number of automated followers, have sparked a number of theories, including one from Newsweek that suggested the president or his team might have purchased fake followers, something celebrity accounts occasionally do.
Another theory being promoted by some observers is that the bots are part of a deliberate build-up for a forthcoming “bot war” between the Trump administration and its critics, one that might be part of a Russian attempt to influence public opinion related to the president.
Malcolm Nance, a retired U.S. Navy cryptologist and intelligence expert, said he believes that the increase in bots following Trump could show that “Russian cyber warfare support [is] ramping up for @POTUS” and that this kind of behavior can be a “key intelligence indicator.”
Intelligence sources working for a number of agencies including the FBI have suggested that agents working for or with the Russian government may have tried to influence the outcome of the U.S. election. And Facebook recently released a report that indicates organized groups routinely try to influence public opinion via fake accounts sharing hoaxes or misinformation.
In testimony before the Senate Intelligence Committee earlier this year, former FBI agent Clint Watts described how Russian agents used Twitter bot armies to spread fake news during the election, including using accounts that appeared to belong to Republican voters from the Midwest.
“That way whenever you’re trying to socially engineer them and convince them that the information is true, it’s much more simple because you see somebody and they look exactly like you, even down to the pictures,” Watts told the Senate committee, which is investigating the role that Russian intelligence entities may have played in the U.S. election.