Killing Democracy Tweet By Tweet: How IT Cells Of Political Parties Wage Propaganda War
On September 2019, a coder, Rajesh (name changed) saw a Twitter account by the username AjayPandey, with over 8,00,000 tweets in less than eight years.
That's a massive number of tweets - almost ten tweets every hour, 24X7 for eight years.
The content of most of these posts were political — either expressing support for the Central government or attacking political rivals.
It occurred to him that this cannot happen without the use of automation or code scripts, which makes it like a bot account, and that's when he decided to look into this more closely.
It has been known for quite some time now that Twitter has a huge bot/fake account problem.
Independent research by Rajesh shows that more than 85 per cent replies made to tweets of the most popular accounts were from the bots. These bots are also responsible for tweeting on subjects across the political spectrum.
There is an emerging fake news ecosystem on Twitter. The origin and amplification of fake news on the political aspect are actually much more densely interconnected and intermeshed than we thought.
Rajesh described in detail the distinct mechanisms through which the "IT cells" of the BJP and Congress appear to operate.
According to his research, for each pro-Congress account spreading propaganda and fake news on Twitter, there are 120 doing the same for the BJP.
Both the BJP and the Congress' social media war rooms have a core group from where its content originates. However, only 0.1 % of the total network can be attributed to congress compared to 7%, owned by the Lotus party.
The meeting point of both is a set of nodal or seed accounts that act as the source of political content.
"Seed account can be thought of as a source account. They are the starting points of misinformation or propaganda. From them, something gets started and then it is amplified by other accounts which I call the plant accounts or sub-accounts. " Rajesh told The Logical Indian.
In the case of Congress, seed accounts have tweets ranging from 50K - 200K over five years. For BJP, seed accounts have tweets ranging from 500K - 800K over eight years.
Not all seed accounts are bots - some in case of Congress are NOT bots but are owned by real people.
Not a single seed account on BJP's side, however, is real or verified.
How Was The Study Conducted?
"To find whether an account is a bot or not, we use more than 800 features provided by Twitter API. Most of the spam or bot accounts generally have two emotions - disgust and anger," Rajesh said.
Looking at Tweet speed = Number of Tweets / Number of days since the account has been active for an account that is unverified (having an unverified photo, bio etc.) is the basic algorithm.
Temporal features like timing between two tweets give an idea of how automated or bot like it is. Sentiment and Emotional analysis of tweets can tell how angry/sad or hopeful these tweets are.
Rajesh divided them into three categories: tweets by the user's followers and verified accounts, tweets by a popular troll and anonymous accounts and tweets by unknown accounts.
"I ignored the first two categories since the probability of them being bots was low. The third one interested me and drew my attention," he said.
Over 15 days, his algorithm identified 1,000 of the most popular accounts.
A total of 1,22,023 accounts related to Congress or Congress Agenda were analyzed, and this was verified by analysing their bio or tweets.
Out of this massive number, only 147 accounts fall under the category of what we earlier defined as seed accounts. That's just 0.1% of accounts.
The purpose of these seed accounts is to tweet to hijack Twitter trends.
The tweets of these seed accounts have been ranging from 50K - 200K over five years.
A total of 2,71,579 accounts related to BJP or BJP Agenda were analyzed. Out of 2,71,579 accounts, 17,779 accounts fall into the category of what we earlier defined as seed accounts. That's around 7% of accounts.
There is no common purpose of these seed accounts. The tweets of these seed accounts have been ranging from 500K - 800K over 8 years.
Ergo, it's much bigger than Congress.
None of these accounts existed before 2011, and most of them (~87%) were created during 2013-2014.
These seed accounts were further divided into two types:
The amplifier, for example,@chintanvedant has tweeted more than 480,000 times since 2013 and is followed by Narendra Modi
The creator, for example, @raiprakashji (followed by Modi) has less than 10,000 tweets since 2016 but creates YouTube videos.
The most interesting point of this network is that all 100% of seed accounts are followed by one or multiple office-bearers of BJP (either Minister or local leader).
"This is information warfare," said Rajesh.
"It's rampant in India and it's more massive than in any other country. There are around 1.4 million pro-BJP bots accounts. Most of the political leaders are followed by more than 89% of bot accounts. The content they are generating is massive - somewhere above 600K tweets over a period of five years. These bot accounts are either abusing real voices, or hacking trends or just creating the noise for you to not find real information," he explained.
What Is The Difference Between The Handling Of The Two Networks?
Bots in Congress never or hardly abuse. Bots in BJP side abuse real people.
Bots in Congress are centralised. So if the source or seed account gets deactivated, other accounts under them get inactive. Bots in BJP are distributed. Even if the source or seed bots die, other plants remain active.
None of the bot accounts is followed by office-bearers of Congress. All of the Seed accounts of Pro-BJP are followed by one or many ministers of BJP, including some by the Prime Minister.
In all of the passionate discourse on fake news in the current political climate of the country, the one thing that is always left behind is the voice of the ordinary citizen.