Truthy uncovers Republican "astroturfers" plaguing Twitter

The Indiana University website which aims to root out social network-based political ‘astroturfing’ campaigns reckons it’s struck paydirt.

The website combines data mining, social network analysis and crowdsourcing to review political memes, and has been searching for deceptive tactics and misinformation in the run-up to the US November 2 mid-term elections.

The most blatant example unearthed by the website so far is the Twitter account @PeaceKaren_25. While concealing its ownership identity, it has generated more than 10,000 tweets since the end of June, say the researchers.

Another account, @HopeMarie_25, was created 10 minutes later and also has a concealed owner identity. This retweets all tweets from @PeaceKaren_25 while producing no original tweets of its own.

“The names and behaviors of the two accounts suggest that they are colluding and are most likely controlled by the same entity,” says IU professor Filippo Menczer. “We do not know if these are bots or human-bot hybrids.”

Almost all of the 20,000-odd tweets from the two accounts support Republican candidates, especially US House GOP leader John Boehner.

They frequently include links to various websites supporting GOP candidates, as well as Boehner’s website, his Facebook page and blogs, and the website for Republicans in Congress.

“Both accounts promote the same targets, while the second account also promotes the first account,” Menczer said. “This is very clever and hard to catch automatically because it looks real.”

The team’s also identified several other suspicious bot accounts, each of which has hundreds, and in some cases thousands of re-tweeting followers. They appear to violate Twitter account rules, which state that “mass account creation may result in suspension of all related accounts.”

One is a website that displays pro-Sarah Palin and anti-Muslim propaganda.

“Most of the tweets originate from one account, @GoRogueRunSarah, which has generated over 15,000 tweets,” says graduate student Michael Conover.

To avoid detection by Twitter, duplicate tweets are cleverly disguised by adding different hashtags or subtly tweaking the web addresses, says the team.

And Menczer says he knows exactly who’s responsible.

“Most of the bot accounts in this network can be traced back to Bill and Paul Collier from Pennsylvania, who also run the website,” he says.