Sectarian robots

Twitter announced yesterday that it has suspended hundreds of apparently fake accounts that have been posting sectarian tweets directed against Shia Muslims.

Marc Owen Jones, who lectures in Gulf politics at Tübingen University in Germany, began investigating when he noticed a series of identical tweets attacking Isa Qasim, the prominent Shia cleric who has been stripped of his nationality by Bahrain's rulers. 

Although the tweets had exactly the same wording they were not re-tweets and appeared to have been posted by large numbers of individuals – presumably to create an impression that the Bahrain regime's action against Isa Qasim had wide-scale popular support:

In a blog post, Marc Owen Jones describes his detective work relating to these Twitter accounts and explains how he came to the conclusion that they are not real people but robots. He comments:

The relevant thing is that hundreds of what seem to be automated Twitter accounts are repeating propaganda that conflates acts of violence, terrorism, and unrest, with both Arab Shia and Iran. This strongly suggests that institutions, people, or agencies, with significant resources, are deliberately creating divisive, anti-Shia sectarian propaganda and disseminating it in a robotic, but voluminous fashion. 

The problems here are numerous, yet such accounts can not only contribute to sectarianism ... but create the impression that policies, such as the denationalisation of Isa Qasim, have widespread popular support ...

While the notion of bot accounts is probably not news to anyone, the evidence here hopefully highlights that much online sectarian discourse is perhaps inflated by those groups or individuals with specific ideological agendas, and the means to do so. 

Posted by Brian Whitaker
Wednesday, 22 June 2016