The Twitter bot network supporting Spain’s Socialist Party and insulting journalists

The social media group has suspended 20 accounts that have been compulsively praising the PSOE, while attacking its main political rival

Screenshot of a bot account in support of Spanish PM Pedro Sánchez.
Screenshot of a bot account in support of Spanish PM Pedro Sánchez.

During the first 16 days of November, around 20 or so coordinated Twitter accounts described Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez as “handsome” 100 times and “gorgeous” another 39 times. It’s a curious anecdote, and may have gone unnoticed had the same accounts not compulsively insulted the leader of Spain’s main opposition Popular Party (PP), Pablo Casado, on the same social network. “Corrupt,” “miserable,” “you’re disgusting,” were the comments posted under the conservative politician’s tweets more than 400 times in the last 10 weeks.

Also targeted by this clutch of accounts were journalists covering the Socialist Party (PSOE), which is led by Sánchez, or the coalition government, which is run by the latter party along with junior partner Unidas Podemos. “You have fewer sources in the PSOE than I have in the KGB,” or “salmon face” were a few of the comments aimed at reporters.

The repeated phrases, spelling errors, patterns in terms of the time of publication and the tool used to post the tweets are all clear evidence of coordination. The closure of the accounts by Twitter, after EL PAÍS raised the alarm, is the confirmation. Barely three hours passed between this newspaper informing the social network about the issue and the suspension of the users in question. Given the coincidences between the tweets and their frequency – none of them, for example, were published at exactly the same time – it would not be surprising for there to be a single person behind them with an obsessive interest in politics and the PSOE, without counting on any automated assistance.

Sources from the PSOE deny that they have any links to, nor knowledge of, these accounts. EL PAÍS wrote to four of the accounts in an attempt to speak to the person or persons behind them, but the only response was to be blocked by those users – this is another small clue that suggests they were being operated manually rather than being automated “bots.”

“The accounts were permanently suspended for infringing the rules of Twitter related to spam and manipulation on the platform,” a spokesperson from the social network told this newspaper.

With nearly 200,000 tweets published since December 2019, these accounts are an example of the influence that someone can have via Twitter, assuming they have the time and the motivation. The objective, in this case, was to amplify the official message of the PSOE with retweets and respond to tweets from the Socialists with positive messages, as well as express criticism for the opposition and journalists.

Via an analysis of 40,000 of the recent tweets, responses to other accounts constituted between 50 and 70% of their activity. The rest was retweets: most commonly of messages from the PSOE’s accounts and that of the prime minister, which combined accounted for one of every two retweets from the group. With such focused behavior, it is not surprising that their total followers barely reached 200. But that did not stop the targets of their attacks from being able to see the critical responses that they were posting.

On November 4, for example, at 9.50am and in just 53 seconds, one of the accounts posted six messages in response to a tweet from Sánchez’s account: “Thank you prime minister,” “A man of the left and a good person,” “Just as you say,” “Have a good day pedro [sic], you’re the best,” and “That’s it.” Shortly beforehand, at 8.06am and in the space of 68 seconds, the account responded with eight messages to a tweet from Pablo Casado: “They’re going to cut your throat,” “[Madrid regional premier Isabel] Ayuso is going to swallow you whole,” “[Far-right Vox party leader Santiago] Abascal is going to swallow you whole,” “You are finished,” “civil war PP mafia,” they read, among others. The biography of one of the accounts, with the handle @loregarciacarri, was “admirer of the most handsome and the best pedro sanchez [sic].”

These patterns were repeated in different waves from different accounts. All of the tweets were sent from Twitter’s Android cellphone application, apart from a few sent from one of the accounts, @alamituara, which always used a computer from 1 to 4pm.

Most of the profile pictures were taken from the internet. The names of the accounts were feminine and several had a Basque influence to them: @onekaxaballa, @amaiairixarri and @naroabakea. When the reported accounts were closed by Twitter, the social network also suspended at least another two that were not in the initial list but that formed part of the same campaign: @sartyfanadri and @laroadonosti. It is likely that there were more.

The impact of this type of account partly depends on how the recipient of the messages views them. “I was mostly perplexed because I didn’t understand them,” explained Pablo Linde, an EL PAÍS journalist who has been covering the coronavirus pandemic – in particular the Health Ministry’s handling of the crisis – and who was occasionally harassed from these profiles. “They would suddenly become very aggressive and gratuitous. They were profiles that were very similar to those of fans of the PSOE, which would practically only retweet things from the PSOE, and that suddenly, with stories that were more critical of the [government’s] management, and sometimes with those that weren’t even that critical, their responses were to call you ‘know-it-all’ or to say ‘you’re making a fool of yourself’.”

The most-cited journalist in the tweets that were analyzed is May Mariño, who covers the PSOE for the agency Servimedia. “I take no notice of these things,” she said. “You get the notifications but I ignore them. I don’t usually interact with people I don’t know.” Also targeted was Inma Carretero, a journalist covering the PSOE for radio network Cadena SER. “There have been times when there’s been a bit of everything,” she explained. “At one point they were very annoying, and it’s particularly irritating when you are speaking to other people and they get involved.”

A Twitter user posts: “The PSOE bots attack again” with a screenshot of flattering comments posted in reply to a tweet from Pedro Sánchez.

Part of the success of these operations online is their ability to make an impact as soon as they are created. Tweets from journalists or users about “PSOE bots” or the responses to the messages can be an incentive to keep tweeting, on the understanding that they are having an effect. Often, similar messages would be sent to the same journalist but from different accounts. While the efforts were not particularly sophisticated, the likely intention of the author of these tweets was to appear to be a number of different people with the same opinion.

Twitter user posts: “I think they’re trying to tell me something...” with a screenshot of comments repeatedly calling him “vile.”

This operation reveals at least three things. First, there are constant complaints about the existence of automated bots or trolls online, but confirming these suspicions is difficult. Second, reporting alleged fake accounts related to a political party can be useful for rivals: it drags the conversation down into the mud and makes it seem like the cheats are always on the other side. Third, with minimal effort to disguise the activity, even a small group of accounts can tweet and have an influence without any problems. While three of the 20 accounts were suspended on the day that this newspaper warned Twitter, the person responsible for this campaign had a good part of their arsenal intact with 200,000 tweets already posted, and could have continued.

Twitter user posts: “The PSOE bots are hard at work for the Congress for adoring the leader” with a screenshot of numerous, identical comments praising Pedro Sánchez.

In terms of evaluating the influence, beyond the weight that each journalist wants to give to the opinion of supposed citizens who question them online, there are many users who look at the responses to a tweet to see “what people are saying.” That is when these messages become visible. This group of accounts responded to original tweets but very rarely would engage in debates nor respond to people’s replies.

During a previous analysis, EL PAÍS already detected an abnormally high interest on Twitter among certain users, whom we called “semibots.” This case, which involved 20 accounts, could be a sneaky and elaborate version of this phenomenon. This activity, which presumably is aimed at benefiting the PSOE, could end up creating the impression that it is the party itself that is encouraging this kind of activity.

According to a report from Pew Research released this week, 25% of Twitter users are responsible for publishing 97% of content. With users who are as active as the owner of these accounts, this is easy to imagine.

Twitter user posts: “Very interesting these pro-PSOE, anti-Podemos trolls, that I couldn’t resist checking out to see what I would find,” with a screenshot of identical comments insulting critics of PSOE and Sánchez.

Specialists linked to Unidas Podemos commented in February on the existence of a group of Twitter accounts that display similar behavior. After this discovery, the owner or owners of these accounts changed their names. But such a move was obviously not enough, because several days later, on March 2, they were abandoned permanently and have now been suspended. Other accounts that had not previously been revealed were used from then on.

Now something similar could happen. Twitter does not just veto the email address that was used to create a suspended account. EL PAÍS has consulted with other users who have been subject to this kind of suspension, who explain that the social network has other tools to make the recreation of new accounts difficult to do, although they are easy to avoid once these methods become clear.

The platform also has a policy aimed at combating people trying to evade bans, which states that Twitter reserves the right to permanently suspend any other account that, in its judgment, could be operated by the same owner of an account that had previously been suspended.

The PSOE reports that it has complained to Twitter a number of times about accounts that post odd opinions from supposed voters. Spanish online fact-checking site Maldita.es has analyzed some of these profiles, which for now remain active on the social network.

If you have any more information about this story, you can email jordipc@elpais.es

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