22.11.2019

The cunning way that Russia is getting around Twitter’s bot crackdown

The Russian embassy in London has a Twitter account like no other.

Most of the time, @RussianEmbassy looks like a normal diplomatic account, posting anodyne tweets about Russian cultural events and pictures of its diplomats traveling around the UK. Those are interspersed, however, with expert trolling of Britain’s politicians and media on the issues of the day.

On Tuesday (Nov. 14), Britain’s prime minister Theresa May made a speech about Russia’s “weaponization” of information in the UK—seemingly referring to allegations (paywall) that Russia used Twitter to try to influence the Brexit referendum—warning, “We know what you are doing.” The embassy responded with a fusillade of tweets and retweets.

It was far from the first time it has lashed out against the British government. When foreign secretary Boris Johnson cancelled a visit to Moscow to meet Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov earlier this year, he received similar mocking treatment.

That these often fly around the internet with hundreds of retweets is apparently no coincidence. The embassy has a system of “super fan” helpers at the “Russian Diplomatic Online Club”. Joining the club gets you treats—like an invite to a “special reception” at the ambassador’s London residence and the chance to enter prize competitions. The requirement to become a member? You download an app that lets the embassy use your account to automatically retweet one of its “most important tweets each week.”

As Twitter investigates Russia’s alleged interference in the 2016 US election, the app seems an attempt to branch out from the alleged system of using bots and fake accounts to boost Kremlin messaging. Instead the app seemingly allows the embassy to use real people’s accounts as if they were bots. Filip Perkon, a tech entrepreneur with Russian parents who says he created the system, told the Guardian they have so far signed up around 100 accounts. “We can turbo-charge any post through our fan club,” he reportedly said.

When asked to comment on this story, the Russian embassy told Quartz to look at its website and didn’t immediately respond to a follow-up. Perkon didn’t respond to requests for comment. We’ll update if he does.

The UK parliament’s Intelligence and Security Committee is facing calls to investigate whether Russian troll accounts have interfered in British politics. May has said she expects the committee to do so imminently.

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