Part of a hashtag traffic campaign on social media in Turkey that started around the time the Turkish military launched an incursion into northern Syria was driven by bot-like accounts , U.S. think tank the Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Lab (DFRLab) said on Wednesday.
The campaign on Twitter used the hashtag #BabyKillerPKK, referring to the outlawed Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), which has been fighting inside Turkey since 1984. Ankara sees the Kurdish People Protection Units (YPG), which it wants to remove from territories along the Turkish-Syrian border, as an extension of the PKK.
Turkey’s military offensive against the YPG started on Oct. 9, while #BabyKillerPKK began trending on Twitter in Turkey on Oct. 10, registering roughly 118,000 mentions over a period of 12 hours, the DFRLab said.
Some of the accounts using the hashtag “exhibited three of the key indicators of bot-like activity: a suspiciously high volume of activity, anonymous profiles, and amplification of other tweets promoting similar narratives,” the DFRLab said.
While many users that joined the anti-PKK campaign were authentic, some of the suspected bot-like accounts tweeted out the hashtag roughly a hundred times over the span of a few hours. The DFRLab considers 72 tweets per day as benchmark for suspicious activity on Twitter.
In addition to the volume of activity, “some of the accounts were incredibly primitive, with alphanumerical handles and no profile pictures, indicating that the operators had likely used automation software to generate the accounts without bothering to personalise them further,” the DFRLab said.
Other users put in more effort, uploading cartoons or generic Turkish nationalist symbols as profile pictures which allowed them to maintain anonymity, the research group said.
The DFRLab’s analysis over a random sample of 4,502 unique accounts that joined the Twitter campaign showed that 137 of the accounts had been created in September. Some 125 accounts were created in October, many of which were created the day the anti-PKK campaign started.
The research group said it could not attribute the social media campaign to a particular activity, adding that there was overwhelming support for the government’s Syria offensive among Turks. And, though the campaign may have been started by some dedicated human users, the campaign was not wholly organic, it said.