An analysis conducted for POLITICO by Guardians.ai found evidence that a relatively small cluster of accounts — and a broader group of accounts that amplify them — drove a disproportionate amount of the Twitter conversation about the four candidates over a recent 30-day period.
Using proprietary tools that measured the discussion surrounding the candidates in the Democratic field, Guardians.ai identified a cohort of roughly 200 accounts — including both unwitting real accounts and other “suspicious” and automated accounts that coordinate to spread their messages — that pumped out negative or extreme themes designed to damage the candidates.
This is the same core group of accounts the company first identified last year in a study as anchoring a wide-scale influence campaign in the 2018 elections.
Since the beginning of the year, those accounts began specifically directing their output at Harris, O’Rourke, Sanders and Warren, and were amplified by an even wider grouping of accounts. Over a recent 30-day period, between 2 percent and 15 percent of all Twitter mentions of the four candidates emanated in some way from within that cluster of accounts, according to the Guardians.ai findings.
…That cluster of accounts was the driving force behind an effort to aggressively advance conspiracy theories in the 2018 midterms, ranging from misinformation about voter fraud to narratives involving a caravan coming to the United States, and even advocacy of violence.
…The new activity, however, centers on a refined group of core accounts — the very same accounts that surfaced in the group’s 2018 voter fraud study. Some of the accounts are believed to be highly sophisticated synthetic accounts operated by people attempting to influence conversations, while others are coordinated in some way by actors who have identified real individuals already tweeting out a desired message.
Tens of thousands of other accounts then work in concert to amplify the core group through mentions and retweets to drive what appears, on the surface, to be organic virality.
…Fringe news websites and social media platforms, Storyful found, played a significant role in spreading anti-Warren sentiment in the days after she announced her candidacy on Dece. 31. Using a variety of keyword searches for mentions of Warren, the firm reported evidence of “spam or bot-like” activity on Facebook and Twitter from some of the top posters.
… One of the objectives of the activity, they say, is to divide the left by making the Democratic presidential primary as chaotic and toxic as possible.
…The proliferation of fake news, rapidly changing techniques by malicious actors and an underprepared field of Democratic candidates could make for a volatile primary election season.
“Moderates and centrists and Democratic candidates still don’t understand what happened in 2016, and they didn’t realize, like Hillary Clinton, that she wasn’t just running a presidential campaign, she was involved in a global information war,” Horvath said. “Democratic candidates and presidential candidates in the center and on the right who don’t understand that aren’t just going to have a difficult campaign, they’re going to allow their campaign to be an unwitting amplifier of someone else’s attempts to further divide Americans.”