KUALA LUMPUR: Just weeks before Malaysia goes to the polls, automated accounts known as bots are flooding Twitter with tens of thousands of pro-government and anti-opposition messages, according to a review of the tweets by Reuters and a US digital media research institute.
The campaign began on April 12 and two hashtags — #SayNOtoPH and #KalahkanPakatan — were used 44,100 times by 17,600 Twitter users, the majority of which were bots, according to Digital Forensic Research Lab, a unit of the Washington-based Atlantic Council think tank.
“According to a machine scan, the bot campaign against the opposition PH started on April 12 and at the time this article was written, was still ongoing,” DFR Lab said on Friday.
It said: “The campaign reached more than 300,000 users and generated more than half a million impressions. It is hard to say how many of those impressions came from real users considering the bots behind the campaign had very few followers, most of which were other bots.”
Reuters quoted Donara Barojan, a research associate at DFR, as saying that nine of the top 10 most active bot accounts containing anti-opposition hashtags and pro-government messages had Russian-sounding names and used the Cyrillic script.
“The prevalence of bots with Cyrillic screen names does not suggest that Russian social media users are meddling in the Malaysian elections, but does indicate that whoever is behind the campaign purchased some bots created by Russian-speaking bot herders,” she said.
The tweets included visuals illustrating Malaysian government policies and questioning the opposition’s promises.
Some tweets had photos of BN supporters carrying party flags and “I love PM” signs.
The tweets also include hashtags: either BN’s campaign slogans or anti-opposition phrases or both. The hashtags that express disapproval of the opposition coalition Pakatan Harapan (PH) include ‘#SayNoToPH’ and ‘#KalahkanPakatan’, which means “Defeat Pakatan” in Malay.
Many of the graphics attached to the tweets credited UMNO’s information technology department and some provided details of social media pages of BN-linked accounts. There was no evidence that these accounts are behind the automated tweets.
Umno information technology bureau chairman Ahmad Maslan said he did not know who was behind the bot activity and that it was not his team.
Communications and multimedia minister Salleh Said Keruak did not respond to calls or text messages from Reuters seeking comment.
San Francisco-based Twitter Inc said it was focused on identifying and suspending accounts that violate its spam policies.
Reuters was unable to establish where the tweets originated or which firm or individual may be behind the bot accounts.
Malaysia will hold a general election on May 9.
Syed Saddiq Syed Abdul Rahman, a youth leader in the opposition alliance, accused the BN coalition of being behind the bot campaign but added that the impact from the bot activity was “miniscule.” He did not elaborate.
Automated tweets of this scale are meant to generate traffic around the content they post, and get “human” users to participate, but that has not happened yet in Malaysia, according to DFR Lab.
Click here to get live updates throughout the GE14 season