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Social Network Analysis Reveals Full Scale of Kremlin's Twitter Bot Campaign

Profile pictures from a large network of pro-Kremlin Twitter accounts. Image by Lawrence Alexander.

Profile pictures from a large network of pro-Kremlin Twitter accounts. Image by Lawrence Alexander.

With the aid of open-source tools, Internet researcher Lawrence Alexander gathered and visualised data on nearly 20,500 pro-Kremlin Twitter accounts, revealing the massive scale of information manipulation attempts on the RuNet. In what is the first part of a two-part analysis, he explains how he did it and what he found.

RuNet Echo has previously written about the efforts of the Russian “Troll Army” to inject the social networks and online media websites with pro-Kremlin rhetoric. Twitter is no exception, and multiple users have observed Twitter accounts tweeting similar statements during and around key breaking news and events. Increasingly active throughout Russia's interventions in Ukraine, these “bots” have been designed to look like real Twitter users, complete with avatars.

But the evidence in this two-part analysis points to their role in an extensive program of disinformation.

Alec Luhn, a US journalist reporting on Russian affairs, observed how mere hours after the shooting of Boris Nemtsov on February 27th, a group of Twitter accounts were already attempting to sway the narrative:

Using the open-source NodeXL tool, I collected and imported a complete list of accounts tweeting that exact phrase into a spreadsheet. From that list, I also gathered and imported an extended community of Twitter users, comprised of the friends and followers of each account. It was going to be an interesting test: if the slurs against Nemtsov were just a minor case of rumour-spreading, they probably wouldn't be coming from more than a few dozen users.

But once the software had finished crunching data, the full scale of the network was revealed: a staggering 2,900 accounts. This figure is perhaps understandable: for a fake Twitter account to be credible, it needs plenty of followers—which in turn requires more supporting bots. 

Then I used Gephi, another free data analysis tool, to visualize the data as an entity-relationship graph. The coloured circles—called Nodes—represent Twitter accounts, and the intersecting lines—known as Edges—refer to Follow/Follower connections between accounts. The accounts are grouped into colour-coded community clusters based on the Modularity algorithm, which detects tightly interconnected groups. The size of each node is based on the number of connections that account has with others in the network.

Extended network of 2,900 bots taken from Nemtsov thread sample.

Extended network of 2,900 Twitter bots taken from Nemtsov thread sample. Image by Lawrence Alexander.

It is clear from how dense and close to each other the nodes are in the graph that this is a large and highly-connected network. Most of the bots follow many others, giving them each a high follower/followed count. On the periphery, there are a few rings of lesser-connected accounts, perhaps indicating that the “bot” network was still being “grown” at the time of its capture; you could think of it like a tree, with branches spreading outwards.

But there was one crucial question in this analysis: how was it possible to be sure that the network consisted chiefly of bots and not real humans?

NodeXL doesn't just gather information on who follows whom. It also acquires metadata—the publicly-available details of each Twitter account and its behavior. This shows that out of the 2,900-strong network, 87% of profiles had no timezone information and 92% no Twitter favorites. But in a randomized sample of 11,282 average Twitter users (based on accounts that had tweeted the word “and”) only 51% had no timezone and tellingly, only 15% had no favorites (both traits of what could be classified as “human” behavior).

For added comparison, an entity-relationship graph of the randomized Twitter user control network is shown below. In contrast with the bots visualisation, this network has several unconnected and isolated clusters: groups of Twitter users that aren't linked to each other—a perfectly normal occurrence in a random group of users.

Shared use of the word “and” results in unconnected, isolated clusters in a random Twitter user group. Image by Lawrence Alexander.

Having unearthed such a large-scale network from a single source, I decided to take the bot-hunting further. Searching Twitter for phrases such as “Kremlin bots”, “pro-Russian trolls” and “Putin sockpuppets,” I found several users sharing screenshots of alleged bot activity. Some also used the #Kremlinbots (#Кремлеботы) hashtag to report sightings.

Using the same method as with the anti-Nemtsov tweets, I gathered networks of accounts based around the use of some of the reported key phrases that revealed larger communities—or, in some cases, just a list of users shown in the screenshot. These were divided into groups labelled A, B, C and D. (I will elaborate on the reason for this grouping in part two of the analysis.)

@PressRuissa is a parody account (now suspended) spoofing a pro-Russian media, a mix of satire and commentary on disinformation and bias. One of its tweets was the starting source for the Group A network:

Group B came from different sources of suspected bot accounts whose behavior seemed to match the previous samples. Some were identified by their tendency to change from Russian language to English with the single error message “RSS in offline mode”—presumably caused by a glitch in their control software.

For the remaining sources, a tweet by Devin Ackles, an analyst for think tank CASE Ukraine provided the basis for Group C.

And lastly, Vitaliy Moroz of Internews Ukraine shared a screencap of bot accounts that formed the sample for Group D.

All four groups were merged into a single data set, resulting in a total of 17,590 Twitter accounts. As with those producing the anti-Nemtsov tweets, the metadata confirmed that the vast majority were indeed bots. 93% showed no location on their profile, 96% had no time zone information and 97% had no Twitter favorites saved.

Also, despite having produced an average of 2,830 tweets, the accounts almost never interacted with other Twitter users through @replies or @mentions.

 Reply and Mention Network

The bots broadcast tweets, but don't interact. Image by Lawrence Alexander.

Intriguingly, many of the bots had been given western-sounding names such as barnardgrant, terancebarnaby, terencecoward and duncanstarks.

But an even more surprising result came when I visualized the bot groups’ follow relationships. Even though the samples had been taken from four separate sources, the combined network was found to be intensely interconnected.

Network of Combined Bot Groups

All 17,590 accounts from all four sources. Note the tight interconnections and lack of isolated clusters. Image by Lawrence Alexander.

This sharply contrasts with the randomized control sample: the final dataset showed no isolated groups or outliers at all. This strongly supports the idea that the bots were created by a common agency—and the weight of evidence points firmly towards Moscow.

In my next post I will look at the timeline behind the creation of the bots, and see how it correlates with political events in Russia and Ukraine.

  • Viktor Renkel

    Proving that there are bots is like proving the Israel has atomic weapons, why bother? These are very valid tools in todays media wars. Its already proven that most developed countries use technology for political PR control. In fact Russian bots are on child level compared to the sophisticated matrix used by Western governments.

    The main reason for these bots to exist is not to disseminate propaganda. Its to disrupt and dilute the existing Western media noise.

    Russians do not use twitter.

    • barnardgrant

      VIKTOR RENKEL IS A BOT

      • Vivek Nariyan (Yerevan)

        Which religious text did you get that from? The one that predicted Obama’s election and the rise of the Kardassians (from Star Trek TNG?)

      • Viktor Renkel

        Sure I am, I bet some couch warrior is plotting my dot on a infographic.

    • Lon Slon

      You are wrong about that. I live in Russia and tons of people use Twitter.

      • S. Flint

        …but not as much as in the West (49M users in USA and 4M users in Russia as of 2Q 2013). That’s still a significant amount, though.

        • Max Leznik

          Compare those numbers to the total number of people with internet access in both countries.

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  • Josh

    What this has taught us is that in the west this troll army has done nothing to change the popular view, that Russia is invading a democratic and peaceful country. All of Putins trolls have failed in changing this.

    It goes to show you that people when presented with facts can sniff out the bulls$&!

    • Lon Slon

      In case you did not notice, the tweets were in Russian. Not many people in the west read tweets in Russian.
      Internet trolls aren’t meant to turn the world upside down, just to have a little influence on the public opinion. The most powerful media is still TV, but even TV is not almighty.

    • Corvin666

      These bots are attacking the minds of Russian citizens. I’m sure Russia has a program that targets English-speaking Internet, but it’s certainly much less elaborate.

      That is, by the way one of the reason why overwhelming majority of the civilized world thinks that Russia is invading a peaceful country while overwhelming majority of Russian citizens believe that Russia is supporting (in a non-militant way) a brave force of local population oppressed by horrible fascist government.

      • passerby

        >>> These bots are attacking the minds of Russian citizens.

        Just no. It is one of popular topics in pro-ukraine and ukraine propaganda sites / blogs “look putin fail ahaha they are stupid” most of russian never heared about this. So this is against ukrainian people.

        >>> overwhelming majority of the civilized world

        Civilized countires do not bomb weak contries to steal their resources, they do not sponsor revolutions and they do not lie in UN to cover all their aggressive actions. And civilized coutries do not think Russia is invading “a peaceful country”.

        • NWO Agenda

          So you claim that USA is not civilized? Good point.

    • Vivek Nariyan (Yerevan)

      Naturally, people like you hold the view that the Maidan was a peaceful and democratic revolution and the 20 police just shot themselves to death? The “superior and civilised” west likes to co-ordinate the same lies from the billionaire controlled media. They are now absolutely shocked and horrified that their dominant “narrative” is being challenged. They thought they were the “Masters of the Universe”. As He-Man would scream “I have the power….!!!”

  • Ionut Nelescu

    interesting, very interesting. you have stoked my interest in bot marketing :)

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  • gary proffitt

    With such backward behaviour and thuggery by the greedy crooks in the Kremlin it is understandable why Hitler and Stalin made such good bed partners.

    • Lon Slon

      Do your research. They were both homophobes.

      • Guest

        Homophobes or no, but they signed a deal the 23 August 1939, after that they acted as allies, USSR providing Germany with many strategic materials; however, Mr Stalin wasn’t losing hope to attack Mr Hitler, destroy him and export communism to Europe; the unpleasant point was that Mr Hitler outmaneuvered Mr Stalin and hit first; the Soviet-German eternal friendship finished then, and the “war of freedom-loving Soviet people against bloody dirty Nazism” began.

        • Vivek Nariyan (Yerevan)

          Have you heard about Munich 1938? You do know that 1938 comes BEFORE 1939. It is the law of numbers and time!

          • AboutMunich

            That’s what happened in Munich: Great Britain and France put pression on Chekoslovakia to conclude a peace agreement, disadvantageous for Checkoslovakia, wit he Nazi Germany; this agreement only encouraged Hitler in his ambitions; what has the USSR to do here?

            And please, stop singing this mantra about the “victorious Red Army”; do you happen to know about the “lend-lease”?

            Or even shorter: stop barking! You wrote enough to get you day’s pay, go drink some vodka and jerk on Putin’s portrait.

          • Vivek Nariyan (Yerevan)

            Right up to victory day paranoid Stalin was quite worried that the western allies would make a separate peace with Nazi Germany, combine forces and attack a weakened Soviet Union. He saw Munich as an example of proof of this fear.
            In factual terms, many western forces were involved in the Russian civil war and were trying to strangle the Soviet state at birth.

            As for lend-lease supplies from the west, I am sure it made a critical difference to the Soviet war effort. But remind me, how many US and British Empire soldiers were defending Moscow, turning the tide at Stalingrad, fighting the greatest tank battle at Kursk or breaking the Nazi back in Belarus in operation Bagration just after D-Day in June 1944? Nil.

            Military supplies are useless unless the military is ready to fight. The Soviets, with their spine stiffened by dictator Stalin by hook or crook, were ready to fight. Unlike the French who had one of the best equipped armed forces in the world. They had no desire to fight the Nazis to the last rubble in Paris, unlike the titanic battles at Stalingrad.

            Quoting the NRA from the “exceptional” nation, “guns don’t kill people, people (with guns) kill people”. In the case of the Soviets and French in WW2 I would agree with the NRA.

            Judging by the anti Russian RACISM of the leaders of the “superior and civilised” west, I would say that there may have been reason for Stalin’s fears. I would trace the anti Russian prejudice to the split between the Catholic and Eastern Orthodox churches nearly a thousand years ago. Very similar to the Sunni/Shia split in Islam. From a Hindu point of view, it all seems to be about how to dance on a pin head to me.

            So, shall we dispense with the holier than thou attitude of the “superior and civilised” west? I very much recognise that our democratic freedoms depended on the sacrifices made by the Soviet people under a ruthless and murderous dictatorship.

            The western attitude to WW2 seems to reflect a syndrome where “snow white” discovers that her long dead loving parents were actually the axe murderers of fairy land.

            How else can I explain the disgraceful absence of the leaders of the US/EU/NATO cabal from the 70th anniversary of victory day in Moscow. They have shamed their own war dead, whose generation cheered every scrap of good news from Stalingrad, where the fate of Europe hung in the balance, and our freedom depended on the sacrifice of a people under a dictatorship.

            Happy Easter!

          • aboutArmenia

            If you are indeed from Armenia, what would you think about the Russian oligophren Permiakov (are they different) who killed an Armenian family in Gumry? “Russian, Russians”! Armenians invented their alphabet by themselves, and “Russians” used a Greek alphabet, unable to create anything of value, this biomass.
            happy easter to you!

          • Vivek Nariyan (Yerevan)

            Sorry, only my name sounds Armenian. I am British Indian from London. I have adopted this logo to trap the troll obsessed propagandists from the US/EU/NATO/IMF/Kiev anti Russian cabal. I have encountered quite a few RACISTS and holocaust deniers.
            To answer your point, those who killed Armenians should be brought to justice before Armenian law, just as the murderers who beheaded the British soldier on the streets of London.
            There is no need to create a hoo haa between nations and communities.

    • Vivek Nariyan (Yerevan)

      Careful! Stalin’s Red Army actually fought for our freedom, unlike the surrendering Polish Army, French Army, British Army, Belgian Army, Dutch Army, Danish Army, Norwegian Army etc. But for the heroes of Stalingrad where would Europe be?

      • Josh

        Just as many Ukrainians fought in the red army as any other. Another example of how Russia always steals from Ukraine

        • Vivek Nariyan (Yerevan)

          You should do more research about the composition of the Red Army before making such claims. My information is that more than 6 million Ukrainians served in the Soviet Red Army.
          However, facts are awkward facts. All of Ukraine was lost to the Nazis. From where did the liberating forces come from? Stalingrad (USA), or Moscow (Canada), or perhaps St Petersburg (UK)?
          What do they teach you, Josh?
          I also recognise the murderous tragedy of how Stalin sent the liberated Red Army captives back to the Gulags after the war.
          I had hoped that the tragedy of Ukraine was finally over after more than 1/6 of the population died in WW2.
          But no, the anti Russian RACISM of the Right Sector, Sloboda and their stooges in the Kiev “government” has brought Ukraine to the brink of economic and political collapse. That is what happens to a country that has CHOSEN to attack it’s own people in the Donbass.
          Slava Ukraine: all the way to the dustbin of history, AGAIN!

          • Josh

            Ukraine has the entire western world backing her, Russia has North Korea and Iran….yup and oil is going under 100 dollars….ussr 2.0. Kaput

          • VeeNarian (Yerevan)

            Hey Josh. I know the Kiev US/EU stooge government has the backing of the “superior and civilized” west in killing thousands of Donbass civilians. But where has that got Ukraine? Have you reached the living standards of Poland or Russia yet? Got the loans to repair Ukraine? Got the visa free travel to the Schengen EU countries? Ukraine is just being used to batter Russia and then it will be dumped like Turkey. I call it being “Turkeyed”!
            Have a nice day!

  • probertas

    very very embarrassing, but it’s true… . shiiiit ………………….Orwell only fantasized

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