Joe Biden Got Social Media Boost from Indian Troll Farms: Report

Follwoing Biden’s selection of Kamala Harris as VP running mate, his Twitter following jumped by 738,595 followers.

3 min read
File image of Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden.

US Presidential candidate Joe Biden’s Twitter account received a boost of over 7.38 lakh followers in just a couple of weeks in August, which appears to have been purchased from troll farms in India, a Newsweek report said.

According to an investigation conducted by Zenger News and published in Newsweek, within two weeks of Biden selecting Kamala Harris as his running mate on August 12, his Twitter following jumped by 738,595 new followers – a 9.1 percent leap.

“A large number of Twitter accounts that followed Biden's appear to have been created exclusively for that purpose,” the report states.

According to the report, a large number of the users are located in small towns in rural India – “in places where English-speakers are rare, and from handles run by people who don't speak English as their first language, nor appear to be genuinely invested in American politics.”


The Data Story

Zenger News data-dumped a large sample of Joe Biden's new Twitter followers from August 19 to August 28 – seven days of 15,000 data points per day, the maximum allowed by Twitter's rate-limits.

Of the 105,000 total followers analysed in the sample, 31,981– more than 30 percent – were created on August 12 or later.

About 40 percent of the accounts in Zenger's sample publicly provide information about where the users are located. More than 10 percent of those are Indians.

If that percentage were to hold throughout all of Biden’s new followers in August, about 30,000 of them would be from India – by far the highest among foreign countries.

Such propaganda agencies or troll farms are a widely distributed and decentralised network that, the report states, were engaged to amplify Biden's campaign impact on Twitter.

Troll Farm Operators in India

The investigation contains conversations with two individuals who operate the troll farms and are based in New Delhi and Patna.

Harshit Patel, who runs a small cybercafé near the railway station at Umbergaon, a small town four hours north of Mumbai near the Maharashtra-Gujarat border, said that his cafe doubled up as a troll farm after regular business hours.

Patel said that the cyber cafe business had slowed down as Internet proliferated in homes and smartphones. However, “things changed in 2012–13 when [Narendra] Modi started his campaign for Prime Minister. And this became my main business," Patel said.

“What Patel means by ‘this’ is the business of running a troll farm after his shutters go down at 8:00 pm, which is 10:30 am in New York and 7:30 am in California,” the Newsweek report says.

Four of his employees have task sheets assigned to them. A Google Doc contains information on who to follow, who to retweet, what to retweet and what comments to leave on specific posts.

“Using aliases – each worker controls several hundred – they schedule tweets, check engagement stats and, at the close of their shifts, fill up a spreadsheet with their analytics from the previous day,” according to the report.

“I came to this because of my ideology,” said Patel, who is also a member of the youth wing. “But then this became my profession,” he added.

Yajpal Yadav, who operates a similar business in Patna, described a pyramid-shaped campaign structure akin to multi-level marketing to the reporter.

The report quotes him as saying, "There are so many levels [of subcontractors] in this, nobody can really trace anything back. We don't even get paid through banks. We settle in cash once a month" via Hawala, a popular international money transfer system that uses bookkeepers outside official banking networks.

Indian regulations permit only nine registered SIM cards per person. However, Patel, who scans IDs of cafe users, has a workaround.

“Think a bit,” he said about identity verification by photo ID. “I just told you that I scan IDs of everyone who uses my cybercafé, didn’t I?,” he told the reporter over Telegram.

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