Someone’s Paying To Harass Twitter Employees — Is It Elon Musk?

Putting the “hostile” in “hostile takeover”.

Someone’s Paying To Harass Twitter Employees — Is It Elon Musk?
Photo Credit: Agence Olloweb via Unsplash

How Elon is putting the “hostile” in “hostile takeover”.

Dear Reader,

According to Axios, professional political trolling is a thriving underground business around the world. Evidence of this shadowy cottage industry is all around us, with one study showing that 30 governments worldwide (out of 65 reviewed) had paid keyboard armies “to spread propaganda and attack critics.”

“It has all become an enterprise,” said Yvonne Chua, a journalism professor at the University of the Philippines who has extensively researched misinformation on the Internet.
Influence campaigns are open for business, but only for those with the cash and connections

American teenagers have been recruited to do this work, with the Washington Post reporting in September 2020 that minors were being paid minimum wage through a Phoenix-based digital marketing firm to interact with people on social media and spread lies about covid-19, fear about socialism, express anger about Joe Biden, and cast doubt on the integrity of American elections.

Now that you have some background, Rolling Stone just published a new piece titled, “Elon Musk Previews What He’ll Do With Twitter: Serve Up His Employees for the Far Right’s Racist Abuse.

The article describes how two of Twitter’s top executives, including Vijaya Gadde, have been recently singled out as targets for abuse due to various negative tweets from Elon Musk.

The reason I’m writing tonight is because I have noticed some of this harassment is spilling over onto other Twitter employees in what appears to be a coordinated influence campaign comprised of both automated accounts and professional trolls.

Influence campaign operations on social media are opaque, but their motives can often be inferred from their behaviors. The apparent marching orders for these accounts are to:

  • Harass Twitter employees, even those not identifying themselves as such,
  • Boost Elon Musk’s standing and reputation in Twitter threads,
  • Defend Elon against critics; harass those who might have something to say. Leverage gender/trans issues as harassment.

Here I will present a tiny sample of this activity to demonstrate these behaviors, despite the reality that hundreds, or often thousands, of social media accounts can be employed in service of an influence campaign. The folks at Twitter and other disinformation/misinformation/influence researchers are far better-equipped than I at discerning deeper networks or other characteristics associated with these accounts.

While there are many indicators (check pages 17–18 of this 2018 Knight Foundation report) which can work together to reveal influence accounts, and influence account operators have significantly improved over their years in their ability to both simulate a human and remain undetectable to a casual observer, it is often still possible to identify them with the naked eye.

With that said, lots users have noticed strange things happening on Twitter relating to these types of accounts over the past 24–48 hours, with many users reporting massive spikes or losses of new followers.

The folks over at Bot Sentinel have been analyzing these changes:

Let’s review one such account showing signs of automation:

This user recently joined Twitter this month! Some troll accounts are “aged“ to avoid this look.

Who are they following?

The account follows prominent Twitter employees.

What does the account do?

Post and retweet positive tweets about him…

Positive posts and RT’s about Elon, “Free Speech”, etc.

Attack people who posted negative tweets about him…

“Fear” is also a word they like to use. They share that in common with Mr. Musk.

Sometimes, they randomly attack someone who retweeted a tweet that is negative about Elon, expressed a negative sentiment about Elon, or just billionaires in general.

Austin and Lisa were respectively told to kill themselves with a bomb and “Get a life”

At times, they post nonsensical tweets.

Looks like a bot and talks like one, too

They do other bot-like things.

For example, they engage with certain keywords, and then reuse the keywords in their replies.

“Whatever he said”

They engage on a lot of gender-related issues within the specific context of Elon Musk, which would seem weird if he hadn’t already indicated himself to be transphobic.

Lots of weird transphobia in this bot network.

They defend Musk’s financial strategy, and clap back against other billionaires.

The account replies to Mark Cuban: “In the last hour his income grew greater than your entire fortune.”

Sometimes, their tweets get suspended.

But mostly, they remain free to harass to their heart’s content. Here they are specifically going after Twitter employees, even one who I had to confirm as an employee using LinkedIn because I wasn’t sure based solely on their Twitter bio.

This could indicate some level of targeting.

Repeated harassment of Twitter employees, even some who don’t identify themselves that way.

What do bot checkers have to say about this account, anyway?

Bot Sentinel says this account is classified as disruptive. Accounts labeled as “Disruptive” often engage in malicious tweet activity.

Some disruptive accounts harass other accounts and use offensive language. Disruptive accounts periodically share misinformation and can frequently spam hashtags. Inauthentic accounts and toxic trolls regularly receive a disruptive rating, so we recommend you exhibit caution when interacting with disruptive accounts.”
“Our analysis has concluded JimbozT exhibits disruptive tweet activity”

Bot Sentinel also provides us the account’s most-tweeted topics:

“Elon Musk” and “Free Speech” are this account’s top two phrases.

The Observatory on Social Media at Indiana University’s Botometer project concludes the account only has a ≤20% likelihood of being human based on its bot score.

“20% of accounts with a bot score above 2.3 are labeled as humans”

Let’s examine another account which has recently interacted with “JimbozT”, which appears to have a real human behind it.

Also joined April 2022.
This is the content they post and interact with.

All that, but with a side of highly-specific Twitter employee harassment.

The accounts harass Twitter employees and defend Musk.

Many similar accounts can be found by examining threads and interactions on Twitter.

Now, I’m no lawyer or financial analyst.

But maybe Elon is further publicly disparaging Twitter employees before the deal even goes through, and maybe Twitter’s stock price has lowered since those events, and maybe a case could potentially be made that these actions comprise some type of illegal market manipulation or fraud of the type which Elon has been previously accused and formally charged.

He was even fined $40m and forcibly removed from Tesla’s C-Suite for fraud after alleging he would take $TSLA private at $420/share as CEO in 2018.

The stock dropped sharply, losing $125bn of value, on the morning of the 26th.

As noted by Rolling Stone:

Musk’s online activity is also particularly salient given that, according to Bloomberg, he is subject to a non-disparagement agreement barring him from publicly criticizing the company or its leadership.

Of course, this is all speculation, but one must ask: who would benefit from deploying these trolls?

If Musk actually is paying a troll farm to harass Twitter employees and silence his critics online, he could be doubly violating this non-disparagement clause or agreement, beyond simply further validating what we already know of him. Releasing statements which have the effect of lowering the price of $TWTR means a better bargaining/purchasing position for him.

“Pump and dump” has been a known strategy of his for years. In fact, he uses it so often with the cryptocurrency ‘Dogecoin’, Fortune magazine wrote (bolded emphasis mine):

Since then [2019], Musk has spoken in support of Dogecoin and other cryptocurrencies countless times. In many instances, his tweets have impacted the prices of said cryptocurrencies.

It is possible that Elon’s protestations about “spam bots” and “verifying all humans” are nothing but simple projection for a robber baron who continues to create laughs for himself at the broad expense of the peasantry.

The lady doth protest too much, methinks.

By acting more like a petulant child than a business leader, Elon continually reveals himself to be an unworthy recipient of the adulation and praise heaped upon him by what are perhaps his own influence bots. Doesn’t this behavior also have strange implications with what he’s been saying about “free speech”?

None of it bodes well for Twitter’s staff, who certainly don’t deserve this treatment.

The former CEO of Twitter said it best:

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