A network of bots have been busily singing the praises of former President Donald Trump while targeting his political rivals Nikki Haley and Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis — as well as trolling critics like Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, according to a report on Monday.
The fake accounts — estimated to number in the hundreds of thousands — are behind popularizing the suggestion that DeSantis, 44, would be unable to defeat Trump, 76, for the 2024 Republican presidential nomination but would make a good running mate.
They also attacked Haley, the former US ambassador to the United Nations in the Trump administration and the only other declared 2024 GOP candidate.
One of the accounts went so far as to label McConnell (R-Ky.) a “traitor.”
An Israeli tech firm, Cyabra, discovered the network and shared its findings with the Associated Press.
“One account will say, ‘Biden is trying to take our guns; Trump was the best,’ and another will say, ‘Jan. 6 was a lie and Trump was innocent,’” Jules Gross, the Cyabra engineer who first discovered the network, told the AP. “Those voices are not people. For the sake of democracy I want people to know this is happening.”
The identities of those behind the fake accounts are unknown, but Cyabra determined that the network was likely created in the United States.
Whoever created the army of bots is working to tip the scales in next year’s GOP primary by employing cyber techniques perfected in 2016 by Russian hackers while manipulating Twitter’s algorithms to increase circulation in an attempt to sway political discussion.
The pro-Trump network is composed of three separate account networks that were created in April, October and November of 2022.
The accounts display photos of the alleged account holder as well as a name. Some post their own content while others repost messages from real users to expand the reach of the information.
Overall, the networks created the false impression online that the former president has amassed a large bloc of support.
“Our understanding of what is mainstream Republican sentiment for 2024 is being manipulated by the prevalence of bots online,” the researchers at Cyabra concluded.
The trio of networks was discovered when Gross analyzed Tweets about national political figures and found that many of the accounts were posting content created the same day.
Many of the accounts remain active but have a relatively small number of followers, the report said.
Bots work to amplify content to get it in front of more people, who, in turn, repost the content to other users. The resulting attention signals Twitter’s algorithms to boost the spread of the posts even more, amplifying the intent of the initial message.
While the accounts don’t necessarily convince people to vote for a candidate, they can increase the perception that the person is more popular than they really are.
“Bots absolutely do impact the flow of information,” Samuel Woolley, a professor and misinformation researcher at the University of Texas, told the Associated Press.
“They’re built to manufacture the illusion of popularity. Repetition is the core weapon of propaganda and bots are really good at repetition. They’re really good at getting information in front of people’s eyeballs.”