SA Twitter infiltrated by Russian propaganda bots – research

  • New research has shown that South Africa has been a major part of a worldwide bot-spread propaganda campaign currying favour for Russia during its invasion of Ukraine.
  • Russian bots were spreading pro-Kremlin sentiment among South African Twitter users using historical events such as apartheid to turn opinions against NATO countries.
  • The research found that 10 percent of pro-Russian bots actually originate from within South Africa.

If you’ve ever surfed on South African Twitter no doubt you’ve seen accounts with Russian flags in their handles, especially in threads about the ongoing Russo-Ukrainian war and how it relates to South Africa.

It is usually these accounts that espouse their support for the Vladamir Putin regime, often something to the effect of “The Russians never did anything wrong to Africans, unlike the West!”

If you ever thought that these accounts emerged suddenly, as if from nowhere, then you may be right.

New research [PDF] from the University of Giessen in Germany looked at Russian propaganda being spread on social media in 2022 during the invasion of Ukraine and found that South Africa was among the four countries with the most use of bots to spread pro-Russian sentiment.

The other countries that saw the most bot activity included India, Nigeria, and the United States.

“Our findings suggest that pro-Russian support on social media largely originated from a systematic and coordinated propaganda campaign,” writes the research team.

Researchers analysed 350 000 Twitter messages posted between February through July 2022 that used the hashtags #istandwithrussia, #standwithrussia, #istandwithputin,
and #standwithputin.

It was found that one in five tweets came from bot accounts created after the invasion of Ukraine on 24th February. The researchers used bot detector Botometer to check if the users were legitimate or not.

Many messages found made use of only hashtags but many others made outright verbal affirmations of Putin and Russia or hate towards Ukraine or NATO countries like the US and the UK.

The research points to examples, including@RWApodcast I literally love Putin. The most honest leader in the world. #istandwithrussia and “US is responsible for more than 81 percent conflicts in the world. The real war criminal is US. US should be completely isolated on the global stage #IStandWithPutin #RussiaArmy #IStandWithPutin.”

Evidence points to around 10 percent of pro-Russian messages emanating from South Africa were made by bots.

In India the amount of bot usage was even higher at 24.2 percent. In the US, 23.9 percent of pro-Russian accounts were found to be bots and in Nigeria, 7.9 percent.

The research revealed that the Russian propaganda campaign frequently leveraged historical narratives (e.g., apartheid, slavery, oppression, imperial times, mass murders) to incense users and twist opinions.

For example, the researchers saw a message that called for the support of Putin by South Africans due to Russia’s help during the time of apartheid.

Another message highlighted by the researchers as part of the campaign read “Russian People were with South Africans during difficult times of apartheid, they never deserted us till today, they are indeed Africans in heart in Russian County, they assisted us when the rest were supporting our oppressors. #IStandWithRussia.

Overall, the research found that the countries that abstained from the 2nd March 2022 UN vote to decry the Russian invasion of Ukraine had the highest relative frequency of bots.

20.3 percent, in comparison to countries that voted against (14.9 percent) or approved (16.6 percent) the UN Resolution ES-11.

“Hence, countries abstaining from the UN vote (e.g., India, and South Africa) have been prime targets of bots circulating Russian propaganda,” the study says.

In addition, India and South Africa were both found to have unique retweet networks (where bots would expose human users to other pro-Russian users) in which Russian propaganda “was able to infiltrate the local online communities with little external influence.”

This suggests that there were differences in the coordination behind the propaganda campaign across countries,” the team says.

Interestingly, the research points out that while bots did play a role in the spread of Russian propaganda on Twitter, the majority of pro-Russian content originated from human users (91.18 percent, compared to 20.82 percent created by bots).

However, bots were responsible for a “disproportionate” amount of retweets, which means that while human users are making the majority of the content it is spread mostly by bots.

“Hence, bots appear to have served as amplifiers of Russian propaganda through retweeting,” it adds.

With Twitter now under the management of Elon Musk, who has been reticent about getting rid of the bots on the social media platform, there is a chance that issues around bots spreading propaganda could be diminished in the near future.

Before his purchase of the company, Twitter made it plain that it did not have a major “bot problem,” which Musk was keen to debate against.

However, in the weeks since Twitter came under his leadership Musk has been mum on any methods the company is actually using to address bots. Despite this, he published a Twitter poll and most respondents claimed that they have been noticing fewer bots on the site (however the majority was slim indeed).

[Image – CC 0 Pixabay]


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