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Massive anti-Russian ‘bot army’ exposed by Australian researcers

An Australian university has unearthed millions of Tweets by fake ‘bot’ accounts pushing disinformation on the Ukraine war. 
 
by Peter Cronau
 
Part 2 - The disinformation blitz krieg
 
The Adelaide University researchers unearthed a massive organised pro-Ukraine influence operation underway from the early stages of the conflict. Overall the study found automated ‘bot’ accounts to be the source of between 60 to 80 percent of all tweets in the dataset.

The published data shows that in the first week of the Ukraine-Russia war there was a huge mass of pro-Ukrainian hashtag bot activity. Approximately 3.5 million tweets using the hashtag #IStandWithUkraine were sent by bots in that first week.

In fact, it was like someone had flicked a switch, when at the start of the war on 24 February, pro-Ukraine bot activity suddenly burst into life. In that first day of the war the #IStandWithUkraine hashtag was used in as many as 38,000 tweets each hour, rising to 50,000 tweets an hour by day three of the war. 

By comparison, the data shows that in the first week there was an almost total absence of pro-Russian bot activity using the key hashtags. During that first week of the invasion, pro-Russian bots were sending off tweets using the #IStandWithPutin or #IStandWithRussia hashtags at a rate of only several hundred per hour.

Given the apparent long-range planning for the invasion of Ukraine, cyber experts expressed surprise that Russian cyber and internet responses were so laggard. A researcher at the Centre for Security Studies in Switzerland, said: ‘The [pro-Russian] cyber operations we have seen do not show long preparation, and instead look rather haphazard.

After being apparently left flatfooted, the #IStandWithPutin hashtag mainly from automated bots, eventually fired up a week after the start of the war. That hashtag commenced appearing in higher numbers on 2 March, day 7 of the war. It reached 10,000 tweets per hour just twice over the next two days, still way behind the pro-Ukraine tweeting activity.

The #IStandWithRussia hashtag use was even smaller, reaching only 4,000 tweets per hour. After just two days of operation, the pro-Russian hashtag activity had dropped away almost completely. The study’s researchers noted the automated bot accounts ‘likely used by Russian authorities’, were ‘removed likely by pro-Ukrainian authorities’.

The reaction against these pro-Russian accounts had been swift. On March 5, after the #IStandWithPutin hashtag had trended on Twitter, the company announced it had banned over 100 accounts using the hashtag for violating its ‘platform manipulation and spam policy’ and participating in ‘coordinated inauthentic behaviour’.

Later that month, the Ukraine Security Service (SBU) reportedly raided five ‘bot farms’ operating inside the country. The Russia-linked bot operators were reportedly operating through 100,000 fake social media accounts spreading disinformation that was ‘intended to inspire panic among Ukrainian masses’.

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