How To Spot A Twitter Troll

Summary: Cybersecurity agencies of western governments, esp the US, spend vast sums, but we don’t ask on what. Craig Murray says that they use social media to manipulate us – on a scale far beyond the puny efforts attributed to Putin.

Internet Troll - Dreamstime_117612325
ID 117612325 © Larisa Kapustkina | Dreamstime.

How To Spot A Twitter Troll.

By Craig Murray from his website, 2 July 2019.
Posted with his generous permission.

It is a matter of simple fact that the British government employs a very large number of people whose full-time job is to influence the political narrative on social media. The 77th Brigade of the British Army, the Integrity InitiativeMI5 and MI6, and GCHQ {the British NSA} all run major programmes of covert online propaganda. These information warriors operate on Twitter, Facebook, and in comments sections across the internet.

I have long been fascinated by the disconnect by which people, who know and understand that the security services employ tens of thousands of people and have budgets of billions, nevertheless find it hard to accept that they may come personally into contact with their operations. Therefore when I state that the security services infiltrate groups including environmentalists and the Scottish National Party (SNP), and were involved in the Skripal story in ways not public, there is a peculiar desire among people to reject it as it is uncomfortable. Equally, while people do know the security services are committing huge sums to social media influencing, to point out any of its instances brings derisive shouts of “conspiracy theory”.

It was when I was pointing out the many omissions and inconsistencies in the official version of events surrounding the Skripals, that I first came under sustained attack from accounts on Twitter, often making short and very sarcastic comments. I confess for a while this did actually get me down. I have no difficulty with people disagreeing with me, but I find it depressing to encounter unreasonably closed minds.

But in quite short order I started to note a few defining characteristics of the scores of accounts from which I was being attacked. These are false accounts, but they are trolls, not bots. There are people from the 77th Brigade, GCHQ or other agencies sitting behind a desk and running scores of fake accounts each. As there is a real human being behind them, unlike bots, these trolls can reply if challenged and attempt to promote a real identity. But there are a number of key giveaways.

(1) Many times more “follows” than “followers”.

In establishing a fake identity, the first step they take is to follow other Twitter accounts. This is because a percentage of Twitter users will automatically follow you back, so if you quickly follow 500 people you will likely get 100 “followers” back immediately. That appears to establish a real identity with followers. There are some interesting consequences of this technique. These troll accounts remarkably often follow sports betting Twitter accounts, for example – because those accounts automatically follow back.

(2) A tweet record consisting almost entirely of retweets.

This is the most important single giveaway. If you select “tweets” under the account, these accounts have zero original content. Their timeline consists of retweets of pro-Establishment content, leavened with retweets of the single characteristic that was chosen to establish a “character” – eg “Everton supporter”, “gym fanatic”. They never initiate a topic or posit an original thought, but work entirely in “retweet” or “reply” mode.

(3) Follow and troll.

Accounts that had nothing in common with me in terms of interests or political views, would suddenly decide to post a brief highly disparaging or ridiculing comment, and always simultaneously would start following me. The motivation of somebody who opens with rudeness yet simultaneously starts following is plainly aggressive – and not usual behaviour.

(4) No convincing tweet history.

A great many of these accounts are very newly minted at the time of first propaganda use. Generally, even those routine retweets are few and far between. Occasionally the troll Twitter account claims to be longstanding – dating from 2009 or 2010 – but there is no evidence of actual (re)tweets going back more than a couple of years. This either suggests wholesale sleeper accounts were established, or Twitter is actively involved in helping produce fake ones.

(5) Lack of a normal “cluster” of followers.

On most real people you can look through their followers and spot a little cluster of family, friends or workmates. The trolls don’t have normal roots.

Conclusions.

How normal is this five point profile? Well, I looked through 200 entirely random Twitter accounts and found 9 that would fit this profile – 4.5%. Yet surveying the threads from my own tweets, over 75% of the replies which I would characterise as hostile come from accounts that fit this profile. By which I mean meeting all five points. This analysis meets the scientific criterion of being replicable. You can test those figures for yourselves by looking through Twitter. That is plain evidence these unusual profiles are being deliberately deployed – and highly probably deliberately created – for hostile intent.

I had spotted the giveaway profile of those attacking me a year ago, and had been mulling over posting on it. What determined me to do so was clicking on the “Mark Field” Twitter trend {#MarkField, #MarkFieldAssault} following his physical attack on the female climate change activist. I was astonished by the sheer volume of tweets defending Mark Field. Clicking on them, I started to realise that what I was seeing was a massive deployment of Twitter troll accounts all precisely following the profile I have outlined. They were putting out a unified message that the lady may have been an armed terrorist and that Field should be praised for his resolute, even heroic, action.

So here is the fun bit, some examples you can look at. I don’t claim these are all trolls. Some of these may be real identities who just happen to match the Twitter troll profile. They may follow many times more people than they have followers simply because they have deeply repulsive personalities or nothing interesting to say. But remember we are talking about trolls, not bots, so there is a human multiple account operative to all of the actual security service troll accounts, whose job it is to respond and attempt to portray a real existence. Unlike bots, if challenged, troll accounts will answer.

Look out yourself for troll accounts with these characteristics on Twitter in the future. Exposure is a simple way to nullify the vast state propaganda programmes on social media.

Update.

The Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ) is Britain’s NSA. It is currently advertising to recruit more trolls to carry out precisely the activity I outline here. As their advertisement puts it …

“We are looking to recruit individuals who can contribute to a step change in the UK’s ability to project cyber power against our adversaries, in order to keep the UK safe. You will be at the forefront of the nation’s covert online capability. We want people who can help support and run operations that disrupt and degrade our adversaries’ ability to do us harm, and contest malign activity in cyber space.”

—————————

Craig Murray

About the author

Craig Murray is an author, broadcaster and human rights activist. He joined the British Foreign and Commonwealth Office in 1984. His career culminated as British Ambassador to Uzbekistan 2002 to 2004. It ended when he criticized regime as repressive and using torture (both the American and British governments freaked out). Afterwards he was Rector of the University of Dundee from 2007 to 2010. In 2016 the US government refused to allow him entry to the US.

See his articles at his websiteSee his bio. See his Wikipedia entry – he has led an extraordinary life.

One of Murray’s book is Sikunder Burnes: Master of the Great Game. From the publisher…

“This is an astonishing true tale of espionage, journeys in disguise, secret messages, double agents, assassinations and sexual intrigue. Alexander Burnes was one of the most accomplished spies Britain ever produced and the main antagonist of the Great Game as Britain strove with Russia for control of Central Asia and the routes to the Raj.”

For More Information

Ideas! For some shopping ideas, see my recommended books and films at Amazon.

Please like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter. For more information see all posts about propaganda, about the internet, and especially these …

  1. Russia’s Propaganda Trolls become a power in cyberspace – by Emilio Iasiello.
  2. Samuel Adams started the Revolution because he didn’t have Twitter.
  3. Stratfor looks at the power of social media to tilt politics.
  4. A look behind the curtain at secrets of internet advertising.
  5. The wasteland of social media – by Maximilian Forte (professor of anthropology).

Propaganda rules America! Read all about it!

Propaganda by Edward Bernays (1936). “The conscious and intelligent manipulation of the organized habits and opinions of the masses is an important element in democratic society. Those who manipulate this unseen mechanism of society constitute an invisible government which is the true ruling power of our country.”

Media Control: The Spectacular Achievements of Propaganda by Noam Chomsky (2002). “Propaganda is to a democracy what the bludgeon is to a totalitarian state.”

"Propaganda" by Edward Bernays.
Available at Amazon.
"Media Control: The Spectacular Achievements of Propaganda" by Noam Chomsky.
Available at Amazon.

 

11 thoughts on “How To Spot A Twitter Troll

  1. Murray’s analysis was very interesting, and it appears that he is on to something in the U.K. Here in the USA, I would submit, based on my experience, the MSM performs such a fine job in regard to employing “… people who can help support and run operations [read news reports] that disrupt and degrade our adversaries’ ability to do us harm…” that our government need not waste money in that effort.

  2. If the trolls were indeed tens of thousands, it is easy to imagine that there would be leaks.
    You know, disgruntled workers, whistleblowers, #metoo, whatever

    1. priffe,

      “it is easy to imagine that there would be leaks.”

      Your imagination does you credit, showing an optimistic view of human nature. History shows that such programs – and far worse programs – can run for years and decades without anyone blowing the whistle.

      Giant corporations that were frauds – Enron, Theranos – ran for years with no whistleblowers. Theranos is the extreme example: their work was hurting people. Nobody cared.

      Corporations ran large programs against those working to publicize the dangers of tobacco and lead in gasoline. None of these produced whistleblowers.

      1. Or maybe no one dared. Sure, laws and rules “protect” whistle blowers from retaliation, but all it takes is a well prepared (and falsified) paper trail that “documents” what a poor performer you are. Next thing you know you’re on a PIP plan, then dejobbed, and maybe even blackballed.

        But I’ll bet in many cases there were financial incentives to not rock the boat, like stock options that could be worth 7 figures once they vest. Sink the ship and you can kiss the windfall buh-bye.

    2. Hi Priffle,

      The “tens of thousands” refers to the numbers in the security services, not people employed by trolls. NGA here in US employs ~16k people, but most of them are not image analysts, even though that’s their forte. CIA’s “Open Source” center employs only a handful of folks, but there are some ~22k other people who don’t know the OSC is or what they do. These places are “compartmentalized” and few people know what the majority of the others are doing (other than admins and groan contracting). I have no particular insight into any program related to trolling, but if we were doing it here in US, I’d suspect it would be through a contractor like MITRE (no poor reflection on them, the folks I’ve worked with were spectacular) with a handful of bright recent grads working out of Arlington under the guise of “research”. Layered on top of that would be content aggregation and analysis, link/network analysis. I imagine it would be a fun project — it’s a lot of fun working with really smart motivated “kids” pushing the boundaries of knowledge and tech. Team size would be four or five with a little DC management bloat (though MITRE is as good as it gets) and the guys working on rifleshot detection or whatever else would be none the wiser.

      The mind-bending WTF IMHO is the failure of a good chunk of MSM not to ‘fess up about being blatant propagandists. Why does Tulsi Gabbard of all the outright hostile questioning, even from the likes of Stephen Colbert? Why does no one ask “where is Yulia Srkipal and how is she doing?” You would think that a cute young woman who was (allegedly) targeted for assassination by Russian spies would generate even some tabloid interest, but we get crickets. Just updates on Khloe Kardashian and the Aquaman/Khal Drogo dude. The “gas bomb” in Douma? It’s a conventional gas container. Regardless of what it’s filled with, it’s probably more dangerous as a projectile if you could knock the valve off the top and the notion that it was dropped by a plane for tactical military purposes is so lame that an 11 year old James Bond fan would never buy it.

      So we know the what (they’re actively propagandists), but not the why. I can’t say with certainty, but I suspect it’s as simple as access. If you piss on or off the wrong people, you don’t get invited back to the party at the French Embassy. And it’s very incestuous, too. Some pundit is going to be married to some advisor to some muckety-muck. It’s not a conspiracy, it’s just being part of a community. I lived on Capitol Hill equidistant from Eastern Market and Union Station for a few years and I have to say it was really great. There’s no other place like it that I’ve found. I’m sure there are great incentives not to be cast out.

      HTH and regards,

      Bill

      1. Bill,

        “The mind-bending WTF IMHO is the failure of a good chunk of MSM not to ‘fess up about being blatant propagandists.”

        Why is that “mind-bending”? Journalists have been US govt propagandists since the Spanish-American war (unlike in the Civil War, which was opposed by many newspapers in the North). It’s a good gig.

        “Why does no one ask …”

        Because inconvenient questions would ruin the narrative.

        “So we know the what (they’re actively propagandists), but not the why.”

        The reason is obvious: journalism is a business. A very difficult business (reporters laugh at the naifs who believe otherwise), esp with the collapse of advertising income). News media survive by giving the audience what they want to see. We love our propaganda. Rememeber, our leaders often lie to us – even about matters of the utmost importance – but we still believe them.

    3. I think to become whistle-blower/turncoat or such, one must be witnessing or participating in something really nasty and unlawful and then have quite a bit of courage to tell; just telling someone (e.g. WikiLeaks) that you were paid for expressing your opinion, or forwarded someone else’s doesn’t attract as much attention as seeing a real video of helicopter gunship mowing people for fun. The only way to make this into any mass media, is if e.g. someone organized dozens of these liddle fish and they made a unified stance against it or whatever… not very likely scenario.

  3. It’s much wiser to disbelieve everything until you can establish it is real or not. We know Trump is lying because he opens his mouth, But hidden sources just have to be treated with caution. In the States there was a concerted effort to demean and crucify Julian Assange, diminish him to devalue his contribution to truth. The MSM wasted np time in publishing this. Now as well even video links can be realistically forged and the protagonist appear to tell some so called truth.

    1. John,

      “It’s much wiser to disbelieve everything until you can establish it is real or not:

      Absurdly impractical. First, nobody has the time or expertise to verify every bit of information you encounter. That’s a common trope of climate change deniers and other wackos – belief that they can personally, from first principles, recreate a science. Second, nobody has access to known reliability info to “establish” new information (e.g., most of the news).

      “We know Trump is lying because he opens his mouth,”

      False. He lies a lot. But many of the things that the Left and journalists (to the extent those are two distinct groups) mocked him for have proven true.

      1. I stand by what I say, The Trump remark was an exaggeration, it’s usually applied to politicians, and not always in jest. The point is we live and breathe in a world of lies.and it isn’t mending itself. Impractical? Tough!

      2. John,

        “Tough!”

        No, your comment is delusional not “tough.” It implies a grossly exaggerated view of your (and anybody’s) personal resources. That will lead to beliefs just as many falsehoods as the most credulous observer. It’s the opposite of careful skepticism.

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