Digital Rights Monitor takes a deep dive into the analytics of a trending hashtag targeting journalists with extremely vile, hateful and inciteful speech, and uncovers some troubling facts.
Hateful and inciteful campaigns targeting journalists, writers, and political opponents have become a common occurrence on digital platforms, especially Twitter. Despite assurances and actions by platforms, the human-bot accounts (often fake, and manned by humans) involved in initiating and amplifying these campaigns seem to be multiplying and gaining popularity.
A similar hashtag (#ArrestAntiPakJournalists) was observed trending on the 4th and 5th of July. Hundreds of human-bots contributed to the ‘trend’ with many thousand tweets, most of them containing vile, hateful and inciteful speech targeting a group of journalists who are known to be critical of the ruling party’s policies, especially the recent arrest of an opposition party’s leader over drug smuggling charges.
The observed hashtag started trending after 11:00 AM on 4th July following a tweet from Team #IK_Warriors (@Ik_Warriors) announcing the “launch” of the hashtag “#ArrestAntiPakJournalists” and calling upon the followers to “grab the keyboard and start trending”, along with a picture of the journalists and anchorpersons alleged to be “the members of pro-India, anti-Pak media group”.
The account claimed to be the “team leader” of a group called “Imran Khan Warriors”. “We are standing for the truth and right”, the bio of the account reads and boasts a picture of Imran Khan, the Prime Minister of Pakistan, and the leader of the ruling party Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaaf.
The hashtag started with a low of 45 tweets per hour, and in a matter of minutes reached 4508 tweets per hour. Closer observations revealed that the lifespan of the hashtag #ArrestAntiPakJournalists was less than 24 hours, along with unusual peaks and drops in the volume (such as an increase in the volume from 45 tweets per hour to 4502 tweets per in less than an hour), which is a classic trait of artificial amplification, often through paid human-bots and social media teams.
However, in that short period of time, the hashtag was able to accumulate nearly 57,200 interactions (tweets, retweets, and replies), the majority of which (50,000) were retweets.
It is important to note here that a vast majority of interactions in the hashtag were ‘retweets’. An unnaturally high number of retweets, combined with the lower number of the other direct interactions demonstrates certain automation and amplification, and maybe an indicator of potential ‘engineering’.
It seemed that a majority of tweets (25% of the total hashtag volume) were originated from Lahore, followed by Karachi and Islamabad. In general, the hashtag seems to be originating from within Pakistan, with 76% of total hashtag volume originated locally.
Interestingly, a substantial percentage of the hashtag’s total volume was contributed by only a handful of Twitter accounts. By far, the most active contributor was @IK_Warrior, an account claiming to be the ‘team leader’ of the group ‘IK Warriors’ which announced the launch of this hashtag. Said account alone contributed a massive 1179 interactions (1179 retweets and 69 tweets) to the #ArrestAntiPakJournalists.
It is important to mention here that this account (@IK_Warrior) has posted a massive 16,700 tweets and retweets in the past 2 weeks alone. A brief analysis of the daily activity of this account shows that it’s posting an unnaturally high number of tweets on a daily basis, and has a history of contributing almost exclusively to the political hashtags favoring Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaaf, the ruling party.
This one account alone was able to generate 16,621,542 impacts through its interactions in the hashtag #ArrestAntiPakJournalists.
A closer look at the followers and retweeters of this account reveals a beehive like structure, and a pattern of organized retweeting, thus a planned amplification of content. Interestingly, most accounts retweeting the content from @IK_Warrior are declared ‘bots’ (for their signature bot-like behavior) by popular informatics platforms such as Trends Map.
Another similar account (@Warrior_gujjar) and the second most active contributor to the hashtag #ArrestAntiPakJournalists exhibits all the same attributes as its “team leader”. It contributed a total of 1135 interactions (tweets and retweets) to the hashtag.
A deeper analysis of this user reveals that in the past 2 weeks alone, it has posted some 7100 tweets and retweets, which is unnaturally high for an average user. The account, following the same pattern as its “team leader”, has contributed to all the same political hashtags favoring the ruling party, Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaaf.
The human-bot accounts contributing in the hashtag #ArrestAntiPakJournalists seems to be sepcifically targeting senior journalist and the host of popular current affairs talk-show Hamid Mir, and Asma Shirzai another leading journalist and an anchorperson.
Informatics data suggest that Hamid Mir’s twitter handle was mentioned, replied, tagged and/or reposted in nearly 2100 tweets, and Asma Shirazi’s handle in 680 similar interactions – highest and second highest respectively.
Overall Hashtag Analysis
After an overall analysis of the hashtag data, it was clear that the hashtag was artificially amplified through an organized network of human-bots comprising approximately 600 to 800+ fake accounts. It was clear that nearly 800 accounts were posting 6+ tweets, and a substantial majority of contributing accounts had 50 to 200 followers on twitter – two classic traits of human-bot accounts.
It was also obvious that the hashtag was initiated to intimidate journalists who were critical of the ruling party’s policies, especially with regards to the opposition. In particular, Hamid Mir and Asma Shirzai were the most ‘popular’ targets among the contributors of the hashtag #ArrestAntiPakJournalists.
It was also observed that a variety of doctored images and extremely vile and hateful content was also shared rampantly.