How a Bot Army Probably Got Me Kicked Off Twitter

Right after my Daily Beast story about suspicious activity by pro-Kremlin bots went live, my own account came under attack.

Photo Illustration by Elizabeth Brockway/The Daily Beast

Whether they’re scantily clad women trying to get you to click on dodgy links, or politics-focused automated accounts pushing a certain message, Twitter’s bots are running rampant on the social network.

But in a sign of how haphazard the company’s anti-bot measures may be, Twitter inadvertently locked someone’s account yesterday after a wave of bots descended on their target.

That account, as it turns out, was mine.

“Caution: This account is temporarily restricted,” a message on my account read Tuesday. “You’re seeing this warning because there has been some unusual activity from this account,” it continued.

This came after analysts from the Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Lab (DFR Lab) uncovered pro-Kremlin outlets and Twitter bots spreading a certain narrative around the Charlottesville, Virginia, protests. In response to DFR Lab’s work, an army of automated accounts turned on the researchers themselves, bombarding their notifications and manipulating their follower counts. I reported on these subsequent shenanigans Tuesday, and that’s when a relatively small wave of bots started following and retweeting me.

“Personally, I’ve never seen anything like this before. What happened to you is very strange indeed,” Donara Barojan from the DFR Lab told The Daily Beast, referring to Twitter restricting my account.

My tweet of the related article garnered around 1,300 retweets in a pretty short period of time Tuesday. Some of those accounts appear to be automated, with several retweeting the same, widespread selection of tweets. Twitter also temporarily restricted some of these accounts that retweeted my article, and many were Russian-language focused.

I also gained about 300 new followers over this time. That is not a crazy amount, but many of them are likely automated accounts rather than real people.

For example, after they followed me, some of the accounts also followed the exact same selection of other journalists and investigators, in the exact same order. These included Eliot Higgins, founder of the online investigations collective Bellingcat; cybersecurity reporter Brian Krebs; and Natasha Bertrand, a political correspondent from Business Insider who also complained of Russian-language bots poking her account on Tuesday.

Indeed, Ben Nimmo, a senior fellow at DFR Lab, told The Daily Beast at least one of the accounts that retweeted my article was seemingly in the same network of bots that targeted Bertrand.

Interestingly, several of these users also followed an account impersonating Nimmo, who penned some of the research on this latest episode of Twitter bots in the first place.

Seemingly automated accounts have continued to target the DFR Lab, too.

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“We have been followed and unfollowed and then followed again by hundreds of bots over the last 24 hours,” Barojan said.

As for being kicked off my account, Twitter logged me out of my web-browser session as well as the iOS app. After trying to log back in, Twitter asked me to prove I was the legitimate account owner by typing in a verification code. I seemingly entered the wrong code too many times, and had to wait.

A few hours later, Twitter restored my account and let me log back in.

“We’ve unsuspended your account; sorry for the inconvenience. Please note that it may take an hour or so for your follower and following numbers to return to normal,” an email from the company read. “Twitter has automated systems that find and remove multiple automated spam accounts in bulk. Unfortunately, it looks like your account got caught up in one of these spam groups by mistake.”

A Twitter spokesperson declined to speak on the record about how bots may have led to the account restriction, and cited a policy of not discussing individual accounts for privacy and security reasons.

It’s not clear if whoever was behind these bots intended to interfere with access to my account, or whether they just got lucky with Twitter’s mistake. But it’s another example of the disruption malicious bots can cause on one of the world’s most popular social-media platforms, and one that continues to play a significant role in political and activist movements around the world.

“I doubt they have any premeditated objectives, aside from showing their reach, size, and capacity for disruption and intimidation,” Barojan added. “I think the best way forward is to report them and hope that Twitter listens.”