Twitter Bot Army Swarms Finnish Presidential Contenders

New research identifies hundreds of 'suspicious' Twitter accounts following presidential candidates & comes as Sweden and US warn of Russian election meddling.

File photo showing hacker sitting at computer with Russian flag backdrop / Credit: iStock

A researcher in Helsinki says he’s identified hundreds of fake Twitter accounts which now follow at least two leading Finnish presidential candidates.

The new research comes as Sweden’s Prime Minister says there are threats to the democratic process in his country ahead of a September general election.

“We know that operations are underway at the moment” Prime Minister Stefan Löfven told a weekend security conference.

He described a hybrid war against established democracies involving disinformation and fake news; funding for far right extremist groups; and computer hacking targeting political party IT systems; and pointed to Russia as a main protagonist.

“We will not hesitate to expose those who try to do something” said Löfven.

Latest Finnish Research

Andy Patel, who works for cyber security firm F-Secure, tells News Now Finland it didn’t take him long to write a short programme to identify the fake Twitter accounts following Finnish politicians.

He first became curious about the bots when Green Alliance candidate Pekka Haavisto’s campaign team noticed a surge in new followers in December, and discovered that many appeared to be fake.

A ‘bot’ is a type of software that can control multiple social media accounts, and may autonomously perform actions like following or unfollowing other accounts; retweeting or liking posts; or sending messages to other accounts.

“Someone is making a lot of accounts. Technically they are bots, but let’s call them ‘suspicious accounts’. They don’t tweet, they don’t retweet, they don’t follow any more than 21 other accounts” – the minimum number of followers a new account has to have during the initial Twitter set-up process – “they don’t have followers. Often their names are a random string of characters. They are ‘eggs'” says Andy Patel, referring to the default egg picture that Twitter assigns to each new account before the user uploads a picture.

The fake accounts have been set up to look as if they were made in Finland, and follow 21 other Twitter accounts of mostly famous Finns like celebrity interviewer Tuomas Enbuske, Prime Minister Juha Sipilä, former Prime Minister Alexander Stubb or media companies like state-funded broadcaster YLE and tabloid newspaper Ilta Sanomat.

Patel’s research uncovered 399 fake Twitter accounts following President Sauli Niinistö; and 330 fake accounts following Pekka Haavisto. Most of the accounts were less than two months old. Only Twitter has access to data which would confirm where the accounts were set up.

“It seems someone is busy building a Finnish-themed Twitter botnet. We don’t yet know what it will be used for” Patel wrote in a blog post on F-Secure’s website, where he detailed the methodology behind his research.

Connections To The Upcoming Election?

Patel is keen to emphasize that the Finnish-themed Twitter botnet army might not have anything to do with the upcoming presidential election. He found that there seems to be ‘waves’ of fake accounts following legitimate Finnish accounts every few months, and notes it’s not just happening to presidential candidates. Patel has charted these ‘bot waves’ as they follow many other well-known Finnish personalities and brands.

“It might not be anything political. It might just be business. A lot of malware comes out of Russia, and it’s just a way of making money and that’s just the way Russia works […] it’s most likely that it’s some Twitter marketing company” says Patel.

But still, his research caught the attention of the EU External Action Service’s Mythbusters Twitter account which highlights in particular examples of Russian propaganda or disinformation against European Union countries.

Pekka Haavisto’s Campaign Bot Problem

It was mid-December when Pekka Haavisto’s team noticed a sudden spike in the number of new Twitter followers.

“I consulted some experts in Finland and they did a quick analysis and it seems [the new accounts] were all created in one place” says Riikka Kämppi, Haavisto’s campaign manager, who alerted Finland’s Security Police SUPO about the new accounts.

Contacting Twitter proved to be more problematic, but eventually the campaign team was able to ask Twitter to look into the suspicious new followers. A few days after Christmas, Twitter deleted 1700 accounts from Haavisto’s Twitter followers.

But the bots proved to difficult to kill completely.

“Last week again we received the same amount 1700 new followers. So we are back in the same situation” Kämmpi tells News Now Finland.

“The potential harm has been diminished now because it is public knowledge about the bot problem, but we are following the situation closely in case we see any more irregularities” she adds.

US Concern About Russian Interference

The research into fake accounts following Finnish politicians coincides with a warning cry from American politicians about Russia’s attempts to meddle in Western elections.

Last week, Democrats released a report called ‘Putin’s Asymmetric Assault On Democracy In Russia And Europe’.

The document, prepared for the Committee on Foreign Relations, outlines instances of alleged Russian interference in almost 20 countries across Europe.

“For years, Vladimir Putin’s government has engaged in a relentless assault to undermine democracy and the rule of law in Europe and the United States. Mr Putin’s Kremlin employs an asymmetric arsenal that includes military invasions, cyberattacks, disinformation, support for fringe political groups, and the weaponization of energy resources, organized crime, and corruption. The Kremlin has refined the use of these tools over time and these attacks have intensified in scale and complexity across Europe” writes Benjamin L. Cardin, a Democratic Senator from Maryland.

The report says Finland is “a favourite target of the Kremlin’s propaganda machine”, and welcomes Finland’s response to Russian attempts at election interference, mentioning the new European Centre of Excellence for Countering Hybrid Threats which was opened in Helsinki in October 2017.

The American report praises Finnish efforts to plan for more Russian meddling, and come up with effective ways to combat it, leading ultimately to the new Centre of Excellence.

“Finland started the Center after it experienced Russian attempts to use social media to interfere in it 2015 elections. After the election, the Finnish government ordered all of its ministries to imagine worst-case scenarios of foreign interference, which they compiled into a report and shared with EU and NATO partners”.

Finland’s next election takes place on 28th January, when eight candidates are vying to be President. Advance voting starts in certain locations on 18th January.