This report casts light on the behaviour of a troll farm that recently trended the hashtag #PakistanBackstabsRussia in the Indian Twitter space. What was intriguing about this hashtag campaign was the way it was executed. The pattern in which this trend was carried out by the several thousand accounts was easily identifiable.
This trend was primarily and initially trended by the troll farms, whose roles were to inflate the number of tweets and muster traction, only to be later picked by some prominent Indian Twitter handles.
To understand how such trends take place and by what kind of accounts, one needs to understand what a troll farm/ troll factory is.
A ‘troll’ is defined as a person whose role is to provoke controversies via the means of spreading fake news or calling out allegations on an individual/ institution.
Similarly, a ‘troll farm’ or ‘troll factory’ is widely an institutionalised shape of a group of fake profiles, parody accounts, and rip-off IDs that spread misinformation/ propaganda operations on a wider scale.
In this case wherein #PakistanBackstabsRussia was trended by an Indian troll farm that was initially yet, poorly executed this campaign was enough to get exposed as a disinformation network.
Last month, several reports emerged that Pakistan was aiding Ukraine in its war with Russia by providing the ‘made in Pakistan’ weapons and ammunition.   Despite several such reports, Pakistan has neither accepted nor denied providing weapons to Ukraine.
Narratives promoted by the Troll Farm:
The objective of this troll farm was to project how Indians are fuming over Pakistan for betraying Russia by helping Ukraine and also appease the US to get rid of the ongoing economic crisis in the country. This comes when Pakistan is trying to mend its diplomatic ties with the US apparent from the recent visit of Qamar Javed Bajwa to Washington.
Part 1: Initial seeding of #PakistanBackstabsRussia
Having manually observed the trend was only limited to Twitter and that too within a small set of Indian audience, we pulled data on the #PakistanBackstabsRussia and found that a total of 5626 tweets were done between October 5 and October 7 morning (IST).
An overview of the accounts’ nature:
- Among these accounts, comprised ‘100% follow back’ accounts.
- Several accounts had a common yet fictitious location mentioned in their bio.
- Some of the accounts also RTd/ amplified defence-related topics or accounts.
- Later, some influencers and journalists with an interest in defence-related topics also picked up this artificial campaign.
- After analysing the total number of tweets on the hashtag, we found that the keywords used by this troll farm for constantly targeting Pakistan used the keywords such as ‘Pakistan’, ‘Ukraine’, ‘Russia’, ‘ammunitions’, ‘propaganda’ etc.,
To start the campaign, the first tweet was done by the handle @chasfida, who as per its bio claims to have an interest in geopolitics. This handle first tweeted at 10:49 PM (IST) on October 5 and continued tweeting the hashtag a total of nine times. A short glimpse of this handle’s timeline gives the idea that it’s a troll account and shares pictures intended with a satirical dig at Pakistan.
@Chasfida was also seen retweeting accounts that provide defence updates and also tweeted on Balochistan and ridiculed Pakistan. The second handle to have tweeted on this hashtag was Dhinchak Girl (@girl_dhinchak), which also had the cover picture of the hashtag #PakistanBackstabsRussia.
This handle revealed a network of the troll farm by retweeting several handles that were part of the trend. A sample list of the handles retweeted by @girl_dhinchak is shown in the following table:
This troll farm in its capacity was able to succeed, but how much?
This network of accounts was soon able to engage prominent Indian influencers ranging from journalists to defence news portals, analysts, and some IT cell accounts. A list of some of the influencers who picked this trend includes:
Part 2: Analyzing the troll farm
More than serving its main purpose of disseminating propaganda/ disinformation, troll farms like these have now become an easy target getting exposed. Despite being notoriously known for their work, such groups follow a set of designs and drills which have become the old-age traits that help in identifying/ busting such networks. Similarly, in this artificial trend, the accounts resorted to the usual old mistakes committed by any other troll factories.
Based on the analysis a few patterns were observed that prove the troll nature of the network behind #PakistanbackstabsRussia.
The following criteria to ascertain the troll nature of the accounts are:
a. Accounts formation
A total of 4574 accounts were engaged in this artificial hashtag trend. Out of which:
- These accounts were created between July 2022 and September 2022. Many of them were “100% follow back” accounts, as shown in the following table.
A sample collage of the accounts that were created before this artificial hashtag trend is shown as follows:
b. 100% Follow back handles
Another typical trait of these accounts was that they had a “100% follow back” written on their bio. These are used by commercial twitter trending services and are easily identified and exposed.
c. Using fictitious locations
While the majority of accounts had the location mentioned India and its states including Guwahati, New Delhi, Mumbai, and Jammu & Kashmir, some accounts showed themselves from New York (USA) and some from ‘Wakanda’.
Note: Wakanda is a fictional country located in Sub-Saharan Africa used in Hollywood movies.
d. Inflated number of Retweets over Tweets
These troll farms leave not one but various patterns to be identified. One of the key aspects was how this trend was propelled by inflating the number of retweets, The retweets accounted for over 66 % of the overall trend. Retweets were more than twice the number of total tweets done i.e., 32.9 % on the hashtag. In order to trend this hashtag, these accounts kept on retweeting each other including accounts that give defence updates.
e. After having already established the above-mentioned traits, it was a no-brainer how these handles kept on pushing the same tweets. Most accounts were tweeting/ retweeting the same picture in a coordinated manner.
The picture used by this troll farm was a picture from 1910-20 of a man using a Punt Gun which is used for duck hunting.  However, the original picture was edited in a way that conveyed the essence of the artificial trend.
f. Lastly, these accounts seemed to work in clusters of a sporadic network to promote the trend. An insight in the clusters of these tweets reveal that at the nucleus of it lies a user whose tweets are propagated by other minions of the network to create a barrage of retweets promoting the targeted hash
It is not the first time such troll farms have been identified. They always leave behind one or the other fundamental traits that expose them. Their role is just to seed and peddle propaganda on social media at a planned time and date. In this case, the trend lasted barely two days and the number of tweets barely touched 6000. However, this troll farm was able to make this artificial trend popular within a small set of Indian audiences, which means the message was lost in an echo chamber and picked by only a few journalists/ analysts.