Surge in anonymous Twitter accounts in Asia sparks bot fears

Twitter bots have been deployed politically in Asia before. PHOTO: REUTERS

BANGKOK • A surge in new, anonymous Twitter accounts across swathes of South-east and East Asia has deepened fears that the region is in the throes of US-style mass social media manipulation.

Ms Maya Gilliss-Chapman, a Cambodian tech entrepreneur working in Silicon Valley, noticed something odd was happening early this month. Her Twitter account was being swamped by a daily deluge of follows from new users. "I acquired well over 1,000 new followers since the beginning of March," she said.

She was immediately suspicious. The vast majority of these new accounts had no identifying photograph and had barely tweeted since their creation. But they all seemed to be following prominent Twitter users in Cambodia, including journalists, business figures, academics and celebrities.

Ms Gilliss-Chapman did some digging and published her findings online, detailing how the vast majority of accounts were recently created in batches by unknown operators who worked hard to hide their real identities. She was not alone.

Soon prominent Twitter users in Thailand, Vietnam, Myanmar, Taiwan, Hong Kong and Sri Lanka were noticing the same phenomenon - a surge in follows from anonymous, recently created accounts, adopting local sounding names but barely engaging on the platform, as if waiting for someone's command.

In Malaysia, Communications Minister Salleh Said Keruak said the regulators will look into bot activity in the run-up to a general election if they get complaints about them. A Reuters report last Friday said bots are flooding Twitter with tens of thousands of pro-government and anti-opposition messages, just weeks before Malaysia's May 9 election.

The information technology bureau of Prime Minister Najib Razak's ruling Umno party has said it was not behind the bots and it did not know who was.

Bots have been deployed politically in Asia before. During the 2016 presidential election in the Philippines, there was a surge of organised bots and trolls deployed to support the man who eventually won - the populist Rodrigo Duterte.

Twitter and Facebook are under scrutiny in the United States where lawmakers suspect their platforms were used as part of a suspected Russian effort to sway the 2016 US presidential election in favour of Mr Donald Trump. The Kremlin has denied the accusations.

Twitter said engineers were "looking into the accounts in question and will take action against any account found to be in violation of the Twitter rules". Twitter allows bot accounts but with restrictions.


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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on April 23, 2018, with the headline Surge in anonymous Twitter accounts in Asia sparks bot fears. Subscribe