Twitter bots that were used in support of Donald Trump during last year’s presidential campaign were also used to target Emmanuel Macron ahead of France’s presidential election, a new study has found. The findings suggest that there may be a “black-market for reusable political-disinformation bots,” according to the author of the paper, which was submitted for peer review this month.
The study, conducted by Emilio Ferrara of the University of Southern California, is based on an analysis of 17 million tweets posted between April 27th and May 7th — the day of France’s election. About 100,000 users during this period posted about the so-called “MacronLeaks” — a leak of internal emails and other data from the Macron campaign just before the election — of which about 18,000 were automated bots.
According to Ferrara, many of these bot accounts were created ahead of the 2016 US election and spread pro-Trump messages. They then laid dormant following the US election, before being reactivated just before the French election, which saw Macron square off against the far-right candidate Marine Le Pen.
“Some even started tweeting in French — but the alt-right narrative was the same.”
“These accounts were tweeting their support for Trump for about a week in the run-up to the 2016 election and then they went dark for a very long time,” Ferrara tells Motherboard, which first reported on his research. “These same accounts picked up again and some even started tweeting in French — but the alt-right narrative was the same.”
French officials expressed concern over potential Russian meddling in this year’s election, in the wake of disinformation campaigns and the hack of the Democratic National Committee that US intelligence agencies have attributed to Russia. German authorities are also concerned over Russian interference in upcoming national elections in September.
Ferrara tells The Hill that he found no evidence that would identify the operators of the bots, though he writes that the links between the Trump and Macron bots suggest that there may be a black market where such bots could be bought and sold. The computer scientist adds that the links could help explain why the MacronLeaks campaign had little effect on the election outcome, as “most of the audience of MacronLeaks campaign was the English-speaking American alt-right community, rather than French users.”