The Russian Embassy in the UK has brass balls.
They ask “why not”? For starters, you are asked for access to your twitter account, then the Russians use it to broadcast Russian propaganda to your network in your name. Then you are invited to events sponsored by the Russian Embassy. Next, you will be recruited. Then they own you.
Some Twitter users are voluntarily handing control of their accounts to the UK’s Russian Embassy, which uses them to retweet the “most important” tweets of the Russian ambassador on a weekly basis.
The programme, described by the embassy as the “Russian diplomatic online club”, is sold to its members as “a way for everybody interested in international policy and all things Russian to gain knowledge, get insights from top diplomats and be part of fascinating networking, both online and off”.
But its existence also adds to the weight of evidence that the nation engages in online “astroturfing”, using co-ordinated semi-automated accounts to create the appearance of widespread support for Russia and its allies.
Technology magazine Motherboard first reported on the “club”, signing up for it with a new Twitter account. Shortly after, the account retweeted a tweet from the ambassador, Alexander Yakovenko, announcing his presence at the London Book Fair.
As well as becoming willing Twitter bots, members of the diplomatic club also receive a newsletter from the Russian Embassy in London, can “participate in regular competitions and prize draws”, and are “invited to a special reception at Ambassador’s London residence,” the embassy says.
The existence and scale of Russia’s bot army is a matter of some contention. In February, during the run-up to the Stoke-on-Trent by-election, a bot network was discovered to be spamming Twitter with messages opposing the election of Paul Nuttall, UKIP’s leader and parliamentary candidate in the constituency. The accounts, of which there were dozens, had previously tweeted nothing about British politics, instead sharing English-language propaganda about Russia’s invasion of Crimea.
More widescale bot activity has been harder to prove, however. A study from the Oxford Internet Institute argued that “political bot activity reached an all-time high” in the run-up to the 2016 US election, with pro-Trump bots outnumbering pro-Clinton ones 5:1. But the study was criticised for its methodology, which failed to distinguish between automated bots and prolific tweeters. While much of the pro-Trump activity was thought to be linked back to support from Russia, it was difficult to prove.
The diplomatic club’s Russian ties are not in question, of course. But the numbers remain small: according to Motherboard’s Joseph Cox, the club has fewer than 500 members, many of whom are not, apparently, regular Twitter users in their own right. “A vast majority of the accounts that retweeted are simply nothing more than bots themselves,” Cox says. “A random sample of four such ‘eggs’ reveals their sole tweet production exists exclusively of Yakovenko retweets, greatly inflating the appearance of the Embassy’s Twitter impact.”
Real-life users who have signed up might want to think twice. As shown by this week’s hack of Twitter analytics service Twitter Counter, which led to thousands of accounts being co-opted to tweet out swastikas and pro-Erdoğan messages, authorising services to tweet on ones behalf carries an element of risk.