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Sunday, November 20, 2011

Who’s peddling climate science denial with fake Twitter accounts?

It was a very brief story in August--a person or persons unkown, evidently working on behalf of the oil industry, used a number of fake Twitter accounts to promote development of Alberta’s tar sands, a bete noire of many environmentalists and those of us concerned about global climate change.

The technique was crude (as it were--maybe “heavy crude?”), the giveaway straightforward: many tweets from the fake accounts, according to CBS MoneyWatch, ended with the same phrase “#tarsands the truth is out!” and a link to the American Petroleum Institute’s (API) web page about oil sands.  And according to a Mother Jones magazine article on the fraud, one of the fake accounts, for example, claimed that the owner was a big Star Wars fan … but all of “his” 27 tweets were about the tar sands.

Now someone seems to have “refined” the technique a bit (why do I keep ending up with oil terminology?) on behalf of climate science denial.

I first noticed, perhaps a month ago, that I was seeing an annoying tweet multiple times.  I can’t say for certain, but I’m pretty sure the language has not changed.  It says:

“But remember that NASA scientists are 100% behind Global Warming, no matter what the truth is”.  

That exact tweet has been posted to Twitter 12 times today (it’s now 4 p.m. where I live, so 12 times in 16 hours).


- It’s tweeted from a different account each time.

- The fake accounts contain other tweets, some apparently personal, some promoting various products.

- It doesn’t contain a link that might disclose a specific interest of the perpetrator.

- It doesn’t contain a hashtag, which is one of the previous tipoffs (those watching the hashtag #tarsands noticed the fraud).

Even so, the deception is still obvious:

- As with the previous effort, the accounts all have similar names and profile descriptions.  Typically, they include a woman’s first and last name and a number--e.g., KimberlyChant114 (not a “real” one), with a one-sentence profile beginning with “I like.”

- While a few of the account profiles have the basic Twitter egg symbol that means the owner hasn’t uploaded a profile picture, the rest, perhaps 3 out of 4, feature young women, many in suggestive poses.

- The tweet is identical in wording, and it’s never retweeted.  Apparently all of these individuals have somehow come up with exactly the same idea.

So, we’re back to the question posed by the title of this posting: who’s behind the fake tweets casting doubt (the ultimate currency of the phony climate science skeptics) on NASA and climate science?  Who’s dropping 10-20 of these identical tweets per day into the Twitterstream, and how does the apparent network propagating them work?

Update: It's a sophisticated system.  I downloaded all the tweets from two of the fake accounts (Account #1: 0 followers, 0 following, 54 tweets; Account #2: 0 followers, 0 following, 42 tweets).  #1 is shilling free laptops, #2 is shilling Victoria's Secret gift cards, and both intersperse the marketing tweets with "personal" tweets.  However, some of the supposedly personal tweets are identical.  Here is one:

     you know I ain't wanna leave!#smh

and here is another:

     Love being one of the only black people! :D lol #happytweet

Additional accounts duplicate different "personal" tweets, indicating that some sort of database is used to generate random tweets.

Update: 21 November: The system is apparently more active on weekdays. Through TweetDeck (which doesn't necessarily see everything), I count 131 tweets in the first 19 hours of today, or roughly 7 per hour.  Twitter has suspended many of the accounts, but some with several hundred tweets are still operating.

Update: 5 December: After repeated reporting of accounts for spam and complaints to Twitter Support, it appears that the system has been shut down.  None of the "NASA scientists" tweets have appeared for at least the last two days.  I'd still sure like to know who funded the global warming denial tweets.