Bi-Partisan Commission Detects Russian Misinformation Effort in Ukraine

Increased bot activity before Ukraine's upcoming parliamentary elections

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July 18, 2019

The Transatlantic Commission on Election Integrity, a bi-partisan initiative founded in 2018, says it has detected evidence of a coordinated disinformation effort on Twitter, targeting Ukrainian politics ahead of the country's upcoming parliamentary elections.

The commission conducted a study of online discussion of Ukrainian politics since March, and found that bot activity on Twitter rose by 33% within two weeks at the end of May.

TCEI is an initiative of the Alliance of Democracies foundation, led by figures in politics, media, tech, and business from Europe and North America concerned about election interference. Founded by former NATO secretary general Anders Fogh Rasmussen and former US Secretary of Homeland Security Michael Chertoff, members include former Mexican president Felipe Calderon and former US vice president Joe Biden.

TCEI's report, revealed in a press release Thursday, centers largely on the commission's discovery of six "suspected automated" Twitter accounts. The accounts, some of which impersonated figures including the Russian and Ukrainian presidents, post similar content in the Russian language and link to articles from four questionable Russian news websites.

These Twitter accounts are at the center of what TCEI describes as a "seemingly coordinated disinformation cluster," a network of thousands of Twitter accounts, mostly based in Russia, which share and engage with the content posted by the six primary accounts.

TCEI found that 35.6% of the accounts in the network can be considered automated bots, which the commission defines as unverified accounts which tweet over 30 times a day.

The subject matter of the articles linked by these accounts are largely spam content concerning Russian and Ukrainian politics.

The core Twitter accounts that can still be found active online tweet constantly, and each account has thousands of followers, though nearly all the tweets published by the accounts appear to receive next to no engagement. But members of TCEI say they are concerned to find evidence of coordinated efforts to influence online debate in Ukraine, just weeks before the country holds snap parliamentary elections.

Natalie Jaresko, TCEI member and former finance minister of Ukraine, said the commission's findings "confirm our suspicions that Russian entities are meddling in Ukraine’s elections," and suggested that the purpose of the bots is to sow confusion and disinformation.

Fabrice Pothier, advisor to the commission, said that "the fact that most of these accounts have increased and decreased activity on Twitter for years, and that it took an external organization to discover them, shows that platforms still have some way to go in order to protect the integrity of elections."