A coordinated network of 85 fake Twitter accounts, simulating popular support for the FAES, rejected investigations related to the police force, published by a Venezuelan news portal and a Venezuelan NGO
A group of 85 Twitter accounts posted multiple rejection responses to tweets from the Venezuelan portal El Pitazo and the non-governmental organization Provea. The responses were directed at two articles published by both sources, related to the actions of the Special Actions Forces (FAES), a command of the Bolivarian National Police (PNB) of Venezuela.
Several Venezuelan tweeters noted that the accounts involved were suspicious. Most of them were created in February 2021, are apparently anonymous profiles or with little information and appear to have been created specifically to defend the FAES.
In this investigation it was determined that they are part of a network of 85 fake Twitter accounts with similar characteristics, which have been created since January 2021 with the aim of generating content in defense of FAES, simulating popular support in a misleading way. These fake accounts can be classified as “trolls”: accounts whose activity attempts to simulate authentic behavior, although in reality they are managed by operators generating content that, in this case, is favorable to the FAES and critical of media or organizations that publish questioning or denouncing their activities.
Twitter prohibits the creation and use of these fake accounts in its Platform Manipulation and Spam Policy.
Coordinated attacks recorded
On March 6, 2021, several Venezuelan tweeters reported the existence of a network of accounts that responded critically, in a coordinated and massive manner, to a tweet published by the account of El Pitazo, which included a link to an article published on its website, entitled “Vargas Police kills FAES officer implicated in death of Policaracas“.
Some of the replies to the tweet claimed that the person killed “did not belong to FAES” and that, therefore, the published article was “fake news”. This group of critical accounts are mostly anonymous and have a very obvious common factor: almost all of them were created in February 2021.
The sudden and unusual appearance of tweets with this type of claims, generated suspicions of an inauthentic and coordinated operation, carried out in an astroturfing campaign, using fake accounts trying to defend the FAES and accusing El Pitazo of defaming the police force:
Three days later, the Venezuelan Program for Human Rights Education Action (Provea) and the Gumilla Research Center, jointly published an article entitled “Police and military killed 2,853 people in Venezuela during 2020“, framed within the Lupa por la Vida project, a project on the impact of police and military violence, which includes complaints about the disproportionate actions of the FAES. Provea’s official account, published a tweet with a link to the article:
Following the publication of the article on Provea’s Twitter account, the network of troll accounts that attacked El Pitazo days before was reactivated.
One by one and in a coordinated manner, the fake accounts published a large number of comments favorable to the work of the FAES, attacks and questioning of Provea’s work in defense of human rights. Many of the messages in support of the FAES were accompanied by photographs of alleged armed criminals. In this way they seek to exalt the work of the FAES, present arguments that collectively justify their disproportionate actions, minimize the importance of respect for human rights and manipulate the objective of the report published by Provea and the Gumilla Center.
For the most part, the troll accounts posed as ordinary Venezuelans, spontaneously supporting FAES, so we consider it to be an astroturfing operation:
Troll account network analysis
Unlike other Venezuelan networks of fake accounts previously identified by Cazadores de Fake News, the accounts that are part of this network do not generate spam or seek to amplify the reach of an article or specific content. Their purpose is to appear to be popular support for a cause, in this case FAES, through the use of fake accounts. This activity is known as “astroturfing” and we consider “trolls” or “sockpuppets” the accounts that promote it.
This activity is prohibited by the Twitter Platform Spam and Tampering Policy and may be cause for permanent blocking by the social network:
“There are many ways to manipulate the platform, and our rules are intended to counter a wide variety of prohibited behaviors, for example (…):
– Fake interactions that aim to make accounts or content appear more popular or active than they actually are;
– Coordinated activities that aim to artificially influence conversations through the use of multiple accounts, fake accounts, automated actions or scripts (…)”Twitter’s Platform manipulation and spam policy
To study the network, 34995 tweets published between March 2 and 9, 2021 were downloaded and analyzed, with mentions of the tweets mentioned from El Pitazo and Provea. After a preliminary information filtering process, the community of troll accounts that made rejection comments was identified and isolated. Three different global activities carried out by the community of troll accounts during the month of February were identified:
- Posting of critical responses to the El Pitazo article (as of March 6, 2021).
- Posting of responses in defense of FAES or criticizing PROVEA’s tweet (as of March 9, 2021).
- Retweets to several publications of the account @ElioEstrada18, belonging to Elio Estrada, General Commander of the Bolivarian National Police Corps (CPNB).
The following image is a graphical representation of the three global activities described above. It depicts the interactions between 68 of the 85 Twitter accounts that are part of the troll network (click here to download in high resolution):
There is another common factor in the set of fake accounts identified: the following/follower links among them. Accounts belonging to this network follow 68 accounts on average and are followed by 36 accounts on average. Many of these followings are to other accounts in the same network.
The following is a graphical representation of the follower/following links between 68 of the 85 accounts that are part of the network (click here to download in high resolution):
Most of the accounts that are part of the network have anonymous profiles or profiles with little information. The investigation was unable to verify whether the names used by some accounts are real names or pseudonyms. However, it could be verified that there are operators who have different accounts with the same user names, which suggests that the accounts could be managed by several operators and each operator could manage more than one account.
There are some notable cases of similar usernames and very close date/time of account creation:
- @cesar27120523, created on 02/24/2021 at 07:26 pm and @cesar15498278, created the same day at 07:35 pm, 9 minutes after the first one.
- @JotaJotaGarca1, created on February 24, 2021 at 06:41 pm and @JotaJotaGarca2, created the same day at 06:50 pm, 9 minutes after the first one.
- @Mariannyr7, created on March 3, 2021 at 09:50 pm and @Mariannyr8, created the same day at 09:55 pm, 5 minutes after the first one.
- @Yusbelkys4, created on January 15, 2021 at 06:40 am and @YusbelkysR, created on February 24, 2021, at 08:34 pm.
It was not possible to make a conclusive attribution of the creators or operators of the network of troll accounts. The vast majority of tweets are posted by anonymous or users with names that could be pseudonyms.
However, one of the tweets posted could shed light on who could be the network operators or else be linked to its operators:
The 85 accounts
Of the 85 accounts identified, 11 were created in January (12.94%), 65 in February (76.5%) and 9 accounts (10.6%) were created in March 2021.
February 24, 2021 was the day with the highest number of accounts created: 36 accounts were created on that day (41.2%). On February 25, 15 accounts were created (17.6%).
The list of the network of troll accounts can be downloaded here.
Update March 31, 2021: we note that Twitter suspended the network of 85 troll accounts defending FAES on Twitter.
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