Twitter astroturfing campaigns intensify as Canada’s election day draws near

By Rohana Rezel

Two hashtags started trending on Twitter as the leader’s debate wound down on Friday night in Canada: #LiberalSurge and #LiberalPurge.

I analyzed the spread of those two hashtags using The Observatory on Social Media (OSoMe) toolset.  I found neither the hashtag in support of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, nor the one rooting for his main opponent, to be organic. 

Both hashtags were being signal-boosted by users who linked to so-called “follow back parties” — a technique that enables users to rapidly gain mutual followers. It’s easy to spot accounts that indulge in follow back parties as the number of users who follow them is roughly equal to the number of users they follow. 

I used OSoMe’s hoaxy tools to look at the diffusion networks to look at each of the hashtags. As the creators of the tool explain, “diffusion networks display how claims spread from person to person. Each node is a Twitter account and two nodes are connected if a link to a story is passed between those two accounts via retweets, replies, quotes, or mentions.”[1]

Here’s the diffusion network for #LiberalSurge.  

The scale goes from red to blue, where red indicates users that demonstrate bot-like behavior, while blue indicates human-like behavior, with the larger circles indicating more popular accounts.

There’s a clear big red circle that’s signal boosting #Liberal surge: @Blueliberals 

Blueliberal’s followers to following ratios is almost 1:1. If that wasn’t a dead giveaway, the user’s pinned tweet is an invitation to a follow back party.

FBR here stands for follow back resistance.

The diffusion network for #LiberalPurge shows similar characteristics.

The big yellow circle is user @MrStache9, whose following to follower ratio is 1:1.

That the astroturf networks managed to get both #LiberalSurge and #LiberalPurge trending shows that both sides have succeeded in their quest to manipulate social media perception. Such social media manipulation helped Russia to successfully interfere in both the 2016 US Presidential election and the Brexit vote. How the impacts of digital astroturfing at Canada’s 44th general election translates into voter intentions at the ballot box remains to be seen.

Contact the Author

You can reach Rohana Rezel at [email protected]. You can also find him on TwitterFacebook and Github.

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