Political astroturfing around the world

Franziska B. Keller 1
David Schoch 2
Sebastian Stier 3
JungHwan Yang 4

1 Hong Kong University of Science and Technology
2 The University of Manchester
3 GESIS–Leibniz Institute for the Social Sciences
4 University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

Political astroturfing
Centrally coordinated disinformation campaign in which participants pretend to be ordinary citizens acting independently as part of a genuine grassroots movement.


Twitter is making archives of tweets and accounts that are believed to be part of state-backed disinformation campaigns publicly available.

users tweets period
130 10,423 11/2011-04/2019
940 3,614,906 11/2010-07/2019
111 102,655 10/2015-10/2017
6,687 9,162,169 11/2010-04/2019
1,039 3,952,477 11/2010-06/2018
813 193,773 06/2012-01/2013
2,800 5,367,472 11/2010-11/2018
1,951 9,935,649 11/2010-12/2018

Principal-Agent Problem

Campaign organizers (Principal):
Hires agents who should produce
many genuine-sounding messages.

Astroturfing agents:
Not intrinsically motivated and try to
minimize work.

Copy&pasting tweets across several accounts within a short time period.

Focusing on retweeting (also each other) within a short time period.

Only work when supervised
Tweeting mostly during office hours on workdays.

What about bot detection?
not every bot is an astroturfer coordination remains hidden

Future work
Compare results to random samples
of regular users.

Extend exact co-tweeting with
text similarity methods.

disinformation campaigns have principal-agent problems

Identify groups of accounts that coordinate messages,
not individual accounts with bot-like behavior

Coordination patterns

retweet networks cotweet networks coretweet networks


"Political Astroturfing on Twitter: How to Coordinate a Disinformation Campaign" Political Communication (forthcoming)