In the first 16 days of November, a handful of more than 20 coordinated Twitter accounts called Pedro Sánchez “handsome” 100 times and “beautiful” another 39 times. Although curious, it would be something acceptable if those same accounts had not compulsively insulted Pablo Casado. “Corrupt”, “miserable”, “das asko”, they responded to the leader of the PP more than 400 times in the last ten weeks. This group of accounts also had among its main objectives dozens of journalists who cover information about the PSOE or government affairs. Phrases like “you have fewer sources in the psoe k torrent in the nasa you have fewer sources in the psoe k franco in the ugt”, “you have fewer sources in the psoe k and I in the kgb”, “in the psoe you do not smell them” or “salmon face” were some of his mantras for reporters.
Repeated phrases, spelling errors, patterns in posting hours, and the tool used to tweet are clear indications of coordination. The closure of the accounts by Twitter, after a complaint from EL PAÍS, is confirmation. Barely three hours passed between the message from this newspaper and the suspension of the accounts. Due to the coincidences between tweets and their frequency (there are no tweets published in the same second), it would not be strange that behind the accounts there was a single person with an obsessive interest in politics and the PSOE, without any automated help.
PSOE sources deny any relationship or knowledge of these accounts. This newspaper wrote to four of the accounts to try to speak with the person or people who were behind them, but the only response was the blockade. Another small indication that its handling was manual.
“The accounts were permanently suspended for violating Twitter rules regarding to spam and manipulation of the platform ”, a Twitter spokeswoman told this newspaper.
With about 200,000 tweets since December 2019, these accounts are an example of the influence that someone with desire and free time can have on a network like Twitter. Its objective was to amplify the official message of the PSOE with retweets and respond with praise to socialist messages, and with criticism of the opposition or journalists. In an analysis of 40,000 of their recent tweets, responses to other accounts made up 50-70% of their activity. The rest were retweets: the most replicated accounts are the accounts of the PSOE and the President of the Government, which receive one out of every two retweets of the group. With such concentrated behavior, it is natural that his total followers did not reach 200 users. But that didn’t stop the targets of their attacks from seeing the critical responses they launched.
On November 4, for example, at 9:50 a.m. and in just 53 seconds, he responded from one of his accounts to a tweet from Sánchez with six messages: “Thank you, president,” “A man from the left and a good person,” you say ”,“ Happy day Pedro, you are the best ”, and“ That’s right ”. A while before, in 68 seconds at 8:06 am, he responded with 8 messages to a tweet from Pablo Casado: “They cut your neck”, “Ayuso eats you”, “Abascal eats you”, “You are finished”, “civil war Mafia pp ”,“ You are not going to be a false master candidate ”,“ PRESS HEADLINES. CIVIL WAR MAFIA PP “and” You’re finished. ” The bio of one of the accounts, @loregarciacarri, was “an admirer of the most handsome and best Pedro Sanchez.”
These patterns were repeated with different waves from different accounts as soon as he picked up a mobile. All the tweets were launched from the Android mobile application, except for a handful from one of the accounts, @alamituara, which always used a computer between 1 and 4 in the afternoon.
Most of the profile images were taken from the internet. The names of the accounts were female and several had Basque influence: @onekaxaballa, @amaiairixarri, @naroabakea. By closing the accounts reported by EL PAÍS, Twitter has also suspended at least two others that were not in the initial list and were part of the same action: @sartyfanadri and @laroadonosti. There were probably more.
The impact of these types of accounts depends in part on how the person receiving the messages takes it. “I took it with perplexity because I did not understand it,” says Pablo Linde, a journalist from EL PAÍS who covered Health management during the pandemic, and who was sometimes harassed by these profiles. “It was suddenly a very aggressive and very gratuitous thing. They were similar profiles of PSOE fans, who almost only retweeted things about the PSOE and that suddenly, with news somewhat critical of the management, although other times not even, their responses were to call you ‘cuñao’ or ‘you’re showing off’ “, he adds .
The journalist most cited in the analyzed tweets is May Mariño, who carries the information from the PSOE to the Servimedia agency: “I don’t pay attention to these things. They jump you in notifications but I ignore them. I don’t usually interact with people I don’t know, ”he says. Like all those in charge of informing the socialist party, Inma Carretero, de la Ser, has also had her share: “There have been times of everything. At one point they were very heavy and it is very annoying when you talk to other people and they get around, ”he says.
Part of the success of these network operations is their ability to influence as soon as they are created. The tweets of journalists and users about “PSOE bots” or the responses to their messages could be an incentive to continue tweeting, when perceiving that they had an effect. He often wrote similar messages to the same journalist from different accounts. Although the effort was unsophisticated, the likely intention of the author of these tweets was to make it appear that several different people had the same opinion.
This operation highlights at least three things. First, complaints about the existence of bots or trolls on the networks are constant, but confirming the suspicions is more complex. Two, reporting suspected fake accounts of a party is useful to your rivals: it muddies the conversation and it seems that the cheaters are always the others. Three, with a little sneakiness when it comes to tweeting, even this small group of accounts could have continued to tweet and influence without issue. Although three of the 20 total accounts were suspended on the day this newspaper notified Twitter, the owner of this campaign had a good part of the arsenal intact with 200,000 tweets behind him, so his work could have continued.
In order to assess their influence, beyond the weight that each journalist wants to give to the opinion of alleged citizens who question them on the networks, there are many users who look at the responses to a tweet to see “what people are saying”. There these messages appear. This group of accounts responded to top tweets but hardly ever entered discussions or responded to those who said something to them.
In a previous analysis, this newspaper already found an extraordinary tweeting interest in some users, which we call “semibots”. This case, with its 20 accounts, could be a tricky and elaborate version of that phenomenon. This activity, which presumably wants to favor the socialists, may end up creating the feeling that it is the party itself that encourages this kind of thing. Its presence in screenshots of other accounts was common.
According to a Pew Research report this week, 25% of Twitter users post 97% of the content. With users as active as the owner of these accounts, it is easy to imagine.
Specialists linked to Podemos commented in February on the existence of a group of Twitter accounts with similar behavior. After that discovery, the account owner or owners changed their name. But he should not have convinced him because just a few days later, on March 2, he abandoned them for good and now they have been suspended. And he followed with others that had not been revealed.
Now something similar could happen. Twitter does not layer only the email address from which these accounts are created. EL PAÍS has consulted with others affected by these suspensions and the network has more resources to make it difficult to recreate new accounts, although they are easily negotiable once discovered. The platform has a policy of evasion of prohibitions, where they say that if an account has been permanently suspended, Twitter reserves the right to also permanently suspend any other account that, in its opinion, may be operating by the same account holder or entity that breaches the previous suspension.
The PSOE says that it has complained several times to Twitter about accounts that represent curious opinions of alleged voters. Maldita.es has analyzed some of these profiles, which are currently still active on the social network.
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