When Twitter Followers are not What they Seem

By Oana Lungescu, @NATOpress, NATO Spokesperson

natopress-bye-bye-botsNew Twitter followers are not always a sign of surging interest in what NATO does. In August 2017, thousands of new followers for my @NATOpress account were evidence of a developing front in hybrid warfare: bot attacks.

It started with a tweet on a Daily Beast article on a bot attack against analysts working for the Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Lab. This quickly racked up thousands of retweets and likes and the account grew with almost a similar number of new followers. The same thing happened when I retorted on Twitter “Busy day for bots” and called on followers to check out the retweets.

The tell-tale signs of automated, “bot” accounts, were clear: little or no owner identification; very few followers or following very few accounts themselves; erratic or alphanumeric handles. Close to 9,000 handles were registered as ‘Russian Language,’ most had less than 20 followers, and many had lain dormant for years.

After we flagged the attack, Twitter took rapid action. I tweeted my thanks with a “bye-bye bots” message. Proving that even robots have a sense of irony – or were programmed to automatically retweet anything containing the word “bots” – that tweet was also attacked, and the number of followers spiked again.

We followed best practice by not engaging with the bots individually, temporarily postponing new tweets, and flagging to Twitter. But my account is not the only one to have recently experienced a bot attack. According to a study by the University of Southern California and Indiana University, there could be as many as 48 million bots on Twitter. Whereas some bots are benign, the malicious sort are used to amplify fake news, intimidate users, or even abuse Twitter’s own anti-abuse regulations to block real people whose accounts register suspicious activity due to bot attacks.

Twitter has rules in place against the creation of multiple accounts to share redundant information, but those policies don’t seem to stop the swarming of bots. So, NATO continues to closely monitor the bot behaviour on the @NATOPress account and will continue to flag it to Twitter.

My account is only one part of NATO’s active social media presence. In recent years, this has increased gradually, with Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg and Deputy Secretary General Rose Gottemoeller leading the way.

Coordinated by our Public Diplomacy Division, NATO is present on Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, LinkedIn, Google+, Flickr, Pinterest, but also keeps pace with new trends. We recently started using Live Video and 360 Video. Additionally, our Instagram account, launched early this year, has gathered more than 30k followers in just a couple of months and sees a high engagement rate.

In order to improve the way we communicate, the focus of our social media analysis and assessment includes not just fans and followers, but examines more meaningful factors, such as engagement, comments, sentiment analysis, shares, retweets and their impact, video audience retention and click-through rates.

These increasingly positive factors show that NATO is doing very well on social media. Because of our digital outreach, more people than ever before are receiving NATO’s messages, seeing NATO related content and connecting with NATO.