A handful of Twitter bots and propaganda accounts appear to be trying to influence Illinois’s gubernatorial election on behalf of Republican candidate Jeanne Ives.
Tweets and retweets mentioning the name of Governor Rauner’s right-wing conservative opponent were sent out more than 5,000 times in a single week in March, a vast majority of those supporting the Ives campaign. That’s according to a recent analysis by Ajay Jain, a statistics, computer science, and political science student at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Jain found that Ives earned approximately 60 percent more mentions on Twitter than Rauner and more total than the top three Democratic candidates—J.B. Pritzker, Daniel Biss, and Chris Kennedy—combined.
Kathleen Murphy, Ives’s spokesperson, denied knowledge of the bots in an e-mailed statement:
“This is the first we have heard of Twitter bots,” Murphy wrote. “We block [accounts that] are abusive on social media, but beyond that our campaign staff is small. And all are juggling huge workloads at this point. No one on our staff has time for this sort of activity.”
Jain initially set out to study the number of positive and negative mentions each Illinois governor candidate received on Twitter, but when he began pulling data from the social networking site, he noticed that Ives—who trails Rauner by 20 percentage points (51 to 31) according to a February 28 Simon Poll—earned a disproportionate number of mentions.
“It was peculiar to me, so that’s when I decided to change my analysis to focus on these bots,” says Jain.
He focused his attention on three Twitter accounts responsible for most of the Ives tweets: @Redhead4645, @PatriotPete101, and @NinaMorton. All three were sharing dozens—sometimes hundreds—of right-wing propaganda tweets a day, some promoting Ives.
MARCH 20 PRIMARY
🔴Jeanne Ives, Gov
🔴Richard Morthland, Lt Gov
🔴Jason Helland, Secty of State
— 🇺🇸🇺🇸Pete🇺🇸🇺🇸 (@TruckinPete101) March 14, 2018
The @NinaMorton account, which has followers that include former Trump press secretary Anthony Scaramucci, stood out because it tweeted Ives-related content 2,200 times in the week that Jain analyzed.
A year ago the @NinaMorton account seemed “normal,” Jain noted. “It was if a human actually wrote them. The tweets aren’t filled with propaganda, she does not retweet fake news articles, and no one retweets her,” he says. But by August 2017, the account began sharing more propaganda and its follower count began to grow by hundreds per day. It currently has 38,500 followers and retweets hundreds of times a day.
“The sudden shift in activity was definitely peculiar, and so my conclusion is that these accounts are trying to interfere or influence the election,” he said.
Jain also subjected the accounts to an analysis by BotCheck.me, a tool designed by the computer science department at the University of California-Berkeley to detect bots and propaganda accounts on Twitter with 94 percent accuracy. Both NinaMorton and redhead4645 qualified as bots or “highly-moderated propaganda accounts,” BotCheck.me found.
Jain published his findings on Medium on March 11. The next day, the news website the Outline posted a broader story using some of Jain’s methodology and concluded that at least 14 Twitter accounts (including @NinaMorton) “appear to be part of a coordinated effort to amplify fake news, inflame partisan tensions, and spread popular Russian-based conspiracy theories through the use of bots.”
The Outline analysis found that accounts shared or distributed ultra-right-wing propaganda—much of which focused on Pennsylvania’s March 13 special election, the Illinois gubernatorial March 20 primary election, and issues like gun control and immigration. All 14 accounts analyzed by the Outline shared tweets from @TheBradfordFile, an account famous for tweeting “Trump 2020…landslide coming” last October and being retweeted by Trump himself.
A day after the Outline piece was published, all three accounts called out in Jain’s report have had their Twitter handles changed. @NinaMorton has been changed to @MAGANinaJo, @redhead4645 is now @my2006bmw, and @patriotpete101 is @TruckinPete101.
@MAGANinaJo has retweeted almost 600 tweets since Tuesday, according to the Twitter analysis tool AccountAnalysis. Earlier today, for example, the account retweeted a picture of Ives and her running mate, Richard Morthland, with the statement: “Enough with sanctuary cities. Let’s work together to put these people in place to work for legal IL residents. #ArmyOfTrump #RedWaveRising2018.” That tweet has received 82 retweets and 94 likes as of Wednesday afternoon.