NOTE: This blog is a descriptive observational report rather than a study drawing conclusions.
On June 16, 2022, Dutch intelligence reported it had stopped a “Russian intelligence officer from gaining access as an intern to the International Criminal Court (ICC) in The Hague” [1,2]. AIVD, the General Intelligence and Security Service of the Netherlands, released a statement and a copy of an unusual four-page cover letter written by the GRU officer.
Bellingcat, an open-source investigation group described by the Russian Federations’ spokesperson as “The terror for all things secret” , published a report on the GRU officer, including his Twitter account, “VictorKaiserS” .
VictorKaiserS’s Twitter history shows a quote tweet of a post from the user RyanAFournier, founder of Students for Trump, who also appears to be the GRU officer’s oldest follower. Hoaxlines reviewed the tweet from RyanAFournier to examine whether it showed evidence of data decay, which will be described in more detail below.
While we don’t have the data to tell what type of accounts or actions caused the engagement decline, engagement loss can indicate inauthentic activity or platform manipulation [5,6]. These behaviors sometimes reflect attempts to make ideas or specific users appear more popular than they are [7,8].
A notable finding was that RyanAFournier appears to be the oldest follower of the GRU officer . We ascertained this in two ways:
1. A visual inspection of VictorKaiserS’s followers showed RyanAFournier as the account’s oldest follower.
Twitter documentation currently says of the follower order : “At this time, results are ordered with the most recent following first — however, this ordering is subject to unannounced change and eventual consistency issues.”
The follower sequence may support the idea that RyanAFournier’s follow dates back to at least 2017. Some users that followed VictorKaiserS more recently than RyanAFournier–assuming the data reflect the true reverse chronological follow order–have been inactive since 2017 and 2018. Still, an account can remain inactive (no tweets, retweets, quote-tweets, likes or replies) while also following new users, so sequence serves as a supportive detail rather than definitive evidence.
That RyanAFournier followed VictorKaiserS could be explained as a byproduct of the I-follow-you-you-follow-me account growth strategy, where Twitter users follow whoever follows them.
The connection between a highly influential partisan figure and Russian intelligence demonstrates the ease with which state-backed actors can engage with influential Americans. Anyone may gather intelligence, target with malware, or influence. Bad actors need no coordination, prior connection, or consent to elevate, boost, and seize upon organic actors and content that serve foreign interests.
Data decay describes the phenomenon where a tweet’s engagements, which include retweets, quote-tweets, replies, and likes, decline over time. Disappearing engagements can come from a few scenarios [5,6,11,12]:
1. A user returns to undo the retweet, quote-tweet, like, or reply
2. A user deletes the accounts
3. Twitter suspends the user.
Over time, tweets that are boosted using fake accounts (also known as amplifier bots) can end up losing their likes, retweets, and replies .
Hoaxlines initially assumed that the lost retweets, quote-tweets, likes, or replies came from account suspensions but later found suspensions were not the only outcome that explained disappearing activity . Some retweets and likes disappear because the account owner returns and unretweets or unlikes the tweet [13–15].
In some cases, accounts will change usernames, verifiable by checking the account ID number or voluntarily delete the account altogether [11,16,17]. Platform manipulators may do this to evade detection and removal for violating platform policy, or an account may be “wiped” in preparation for a new identity [5,6,11].
“…coordinated networks of accounts engage in repetitive likes and unlikes of content that is eventually deleted, which can manipulate ranking algorithms. These kinds of abuse can be exploited to amplify content and inflate popularity, while evading detection.”
Archives show that RyanAFournier’s tweet had “28,954 Retweets 98,355 Likes” on August 17, 2018, substantially more than it has today [19,20]. Archives saved before 2020 show counts for quote-tweets and retweets combined, as the platform only started separating them in 2020 .
18,471 retweets PLUS 1,975 quote tweets = 20,441 total
28,954 archived retweets MINUS 20,441 = 8,513 fewer
98,355 archived likes MINUS 68,936 likes = 29,419 fewer
Overall between August 17, 2018, and June 19, 2022, RyanAFournier’s tweet lost 8,513 retweets (including quote tweets) and 29,419 likes. The largest decline happened in a nearly two-year stretch from 2018 to 2020. In the five months between August 3, 2020, and January 8, 2021, the tweet lost 4,845 likes and 1,293 retweets [22,23].
27,304 Retweets 90,556 Likes – Dec 23, 2017
28,125 Retweets 93,481 Likes – Jan 8, 2018
28,954 Retweets 98,355 Likes – Aug 17, 2018
24,879 Retweets 87,391 Likes – Jun 15, 2020
24,441 Retweets 86,247 Likes – Aug 3, 2020
23,148 Retweets 81,402 Likes – Jan 8, 2021
If the data are as Twitter documentation suggests, then the oldest current follower of VictorKaiserS, an account belonging to a GRU officer, is RyanAFournier, the founder of Students for Trump. The data also show that the GRU officer interacted with a tweet authored by RyanAFournier about former President Trump and his first impeachment. RyanAFournier’s tweet lost 8,513 retweets (including quote tweets) and 29,419 likes between 2018 and today, suggesting the tweet may have been boosted by inauthentic activity.
Although there are explanations that reflect nothing untoward, one must also consider the well-documented history of interference in American politics and elections by the Russian state [24–30]; the Students for Trump organization’s role in spreading false election claims (Sharpiegate) [31–35]; conspiracy theories and disinformation likely contributing to the violence on January 6, 2021 [36–40]; and Turning Point described participants in a large-scale platform manipulation campaign that was likened to a “troll farm” that resulted in at least one party getting banned from Facebook as “Students For Trump digital activists” [41–45].
The dataset reflects the query “freedomconvoy” and “truckersforfreedom” with tweets spanning from 17:36 on February 2 to 03:28 on February 5, 2022. Netlytic returned 99,900 records via the Twitter API. The tweet IDs from this dataset were collected for later checks.
By February 10, the number of engagements from the original dataset that were still live on the platform fell to 96,899.
By February 13, only 92,941 of the original records remained, representing a loss of 6,959 engagements that have disappeared in a little over one week.
Read the report.
The user Presson3Don, also known as DDonP3, engaged in platform manipulation and was suspended from the platform as a consequence–though this was long after the account began manipulating Twitter.
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11. Norteño C. In most cases, these accounts deleted all their old tweets as part of the makeover. Some were not as thorough about it as others, such as @FMAR122 which still has tweets from 2015 advertising it as “YOUR #1 POLE PARTY HEADQUARTERS”. #YouHadOneJob pic.twitter.com/awQ9zeHiiM. In: Twitter [Internet]. 6 Feb 2021 [cited 20 Jun 2022]. Available: https://twitter.com/conspirator0/status/1357854421598818305?s=20&t=fVoxcho69TGcNHM_30U8xw
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13. Norteño C. We observed this network for a few days and noticed something interesting: the replies with the images of the fake Elon Musk watch tweets get deleted after a few days. Over a period of 45 hours, the network tweeted 1634 new replies and deleted 1765 old ones. pic.twitter.com/2AkZlPvXc4. In: Twitter [Internet]. 20 Aug 2021 [cited 20 Jun 2022]. Available: https://twitter.com/conspirator0/status/1428530070382075905?s=20&t=fVoxcho69TGcNHM_30U8xw
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