Yesterday, Republican strategist and #NeverTrump affiliate Patrick Ruffini noticed something strange. Four hundred sixty-five separate Twitter accounts had tweeted a message complaining about Ted Cruz's robocall program. "If you’ve opted out of Ted Cruz robocalls and are still receiving calls, you can file a complaint with the FCC," the tweets read, followed by a link to a reporting page.
It sounded like a mundane political complaint, but something was off. The phrasing was nearly identical from tweet to tweet, and the messages arrived with eerie regularity, coming every few minutes from four in the afternoon until two in the morning. Some accounts reported locations like Brazil, Italy, and Bihar, India, far removed from a parochial American primary fight. Why were all these accounts suddenly tweeting the same message at the same time?
People with 0 Twitter followers seem very interested in filing complaints against Ted Cruz. pic.twitter.com/FZBVVWC36V— Patrick Ruffini (@PatrickRuffini) April 8, 2016
The tweet cluster has all the hallmarks of a spam network, particularly when you look at other tweets from the same accounts. The accounts didn't have many other political messages, but linked identical messages to fashion beauty news and B2B marketing tips, along with other messages in arabic or cyrillic script. Once Ruffini publicly outed the bots, many began tweeting #NeverTrump messages and other pro-Cruz messages, making their motives even harder to read. Other tweets and accounts began to disappear, muddying the waters further.
It's difficult to say why the spam network seized on the anti-Cruz message in particular. Such networks often mix spam links with unsponsored tweets scraped from the web, designed to make the accounts seem more plausibly human. At the same time, so-called "election hacking" is a well-documented practice in Latin America and elsewhere. It's entirely possible the tweetstorm was intended as a salvo in the Republican primary race, which has grown increasingly heated in recent weeks.