A Foray into Bot Spotting

It sure looks like someone bought a Twitter botnet of Armenian Genocide deniers

Normally, I focus on stories that have a visual component - ships, planes, volcanoes, and the like. Today I want to try something a little different.

I’ve gotten some feedback that subscribers really like niche stories so, while this story may not have a visual element, it is about as niche as it gets.

Put plainly, I think someone associated with a Turkish university bought a network of Twitter bots to promote posts denying the Armenian Genocide occurred.

There is a lot going on here so let’s dig in.

Gephi

Recently, I’ve been reading some of open-source analyst Ben Strick’s tutorials on how to use the network analysis tool Gephi to find and visualize bot networks on Twitter. I decided to try my hand at Gephi to see what I could find.

First, I downloaded Gephi and installed the Twitter Streaming Importer plug-in. That plug-in essentially allows users to stream Twitter content to Gephi in real time. It can visualize the relationships between accounts, tweets, hashtags, and other information on Twitter while storing it all in an analysis-ready table.

After spending a bit of time getting familiar with the platform, I decided to try my hand at an example.

It just so happened that the day I was playing around with Gephi was April 24 - the day US President Biden declared that Turkey’s 1915 genocide of Armenians was, well, a genocide. I noticed a few hashtags about the announcement circulating on Twitter, including #1915olaylari, which translates to something like #theeventsof1915. It was being used by Turkish accounts to either deny the genocide occurred or recast the Turkish slaughter of Armenians as defensible, honorable, and fair, in response to Armenian “treachery” during the First World War.

I popped the hashtag into Gephi and watched as waves of Turkish nationalism flooded my screen.

There was soon far too much content for me to parse. I checked on Twitter and a tweet using that hashtag was being posted every second or two - to say nothing of the retweets, likes, and quote tweets that were also being captured by Gephi.

After a little under 10 minutes of monitoring the hashtag, I already had 3,340(!) results. I clicked over to Gephi’s Overview tab to visualize those results.

Trippy? Yes. Colorful? Yes. Informative? Not without a little explanation.

This visualization shows a few different things. The dots are individual Twitter accounts, while the lines between them represent a like, retweet, or quote tweet between two accounts. I colored the node groupings by modularity, which is just a fancy way of saying how similar a group of nodes are to each other, as determined by like, retweet, and quote tweet ratios between pairs or groups of accounts. Finally, I set the node size to be a function of follower count - more followers means a bigger node.

But let’s zoom in - who are the biggest nodes? Which accounts are driving the conversation about justifying the Armenian genocide?

First up is this fellow: @suleymansoylu

A quick search of that account confirms it belongs to the current Turkish Interior Minister, Süleyman Soylu, who posted a tweet using #1915olaylari, which in turn got tons of likes and retweets:

Google Translate: USA knows no history. Because it has no history. For this reason, the words made by the president have no value. #1915Olayları

Next up we have @selcuk:

@selcuk belongs to Selçuk Bayraktar, the Chief Technology Officer of Turkish drone company Baykar. He too tweeted about the Armenian genocide:

Google Translate: #1915Olayları It is a decision that a nation shot from behind was forced to enforce to protect its land and people against a gang that murdered its neighbors in collaboration with the enemy armies by being agitated by the imperial colonists.

His tweet justifying the genocide is especially sadistic because his company built the drones used by Azerbaijan to annihilate Armenian troops in the recent Nagorno-Karabakh war. Delightful.

As reprehensible as these posts may be, they are still considered free speech and therefore allowed under Twitter’s terms and conditions. If I wanted to find some red meat, I’d have to dig a little deeper.

I popped back over to Gephi’s Data Laboratory and ranked the hashtag table by follower count. There, at the bottom of the list, something caught my eye.

Whomst amongst us hasn’t created eight Twitter accounts in 49 minutes.

Ten Twitter accounts somehow involved with the hashtag #1915olaylari had all been created on April 20, 2021 - just four days before Biden’s announcement - including eight in less than an hour. Here’s how they appear in Gephi’s network visualizer:

The big grey circles are the bot accounts, the small grey circle in the middle is an account they all retweeted, the other small grey circles are non-bot accounts, and the lines are likes or retweets of a #1915olaylari tweet.

Most of the accounts also appear to share the naming convention of @bar- or @ber- followed by random numbers. (Note, I archived all the bot accounts, which you can find here: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10).

If you click into the accounts, you’ll notice that they have very similar activity. All of them retweeted a post by Talip Emiroglu who, according to his website, promotes tolerant education “without forgetting that he is a Turk”.

A post by Emiroglu (archived account here) translates to: These brutal minds who did not see their own massacres as genocide; If he hadn't said the events of 1915 as genocide, then we would have been imprisoned. We did not fight for liberation by getting permission from them. The Republic of Turkey will live forever. #birlikolursak #1915Olayları

Although he is retired, Emiroglu spent his career founding and maintaining educational institutions and is currently a trustee for a pair of Turkish universities. One of the schools he founded, Kocaeli Health and Technology University, also posted a tweet that garnered a high degree of bot activity.

I ran the university and Emiroglu’s accounts through Botometer, a website that automatically identifies which Twitter accounts have bot-like qualities. Among the metrics Botometer tracks is one that determines how many of an account’s followers may be Twitter bots. Needless to say, the results weren’t kind to either Emiroglu or the university’s accounts:

A sample of Emiroglu’s followers.

A sample of the university’s followers.

Just to be extra sure, let’s dig into a specific example. The extent of @tuesimge3’s Twitter activity (archived page here) consists of exactly three retweets and three likes at the time of writing (April 29, 2021). She retweeted two posts by the school mentioned above, Kocaeli Health and Technology University, and one post by Emiroglu. She liked the same three posts. All three are staunchly nationalistic and two deny the Armenian genocide happened, even going so far as to say Biden’s declaration is “contrary to historical facts” and is “a political lie”.

I reverse Google image searched @tuesimge3’s profile picture and found it was actually an Adobe stock photo of “e-learning”:

Botometer also flagged her account as virtually radioactive on their bot scale:

And although she is just one example, the other bots in the network displayed very similar patterns of activity.

While I’m not able to determine who owns the bot network, it certainly seems likely that someone associated with the university in Kocaeli is using bots to push a highly anti-Armenian and pro-Turkish message. As other current events happen in Turkey, it would be interesting to stream related hashtags to see if similar bots emerge.

A final thing to keep in mind is that I was only able to stream the #1915olaylari hashtag for about ten minutes before being overwhelmed by the results. These ten bot accounts popped up in just those ten minutes, which implies that the full network to which these bots belong is much larger.

If you want to explore the network further or if you’re able to figure out any additional information, don’t hesitate to drop a comment below, DM me @LOActualControl or send me an email at lineofactualcontrol [at] protonmail [dot] com.