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The Russian Embassy Is Asking People to Become Twitter Bots

The Embassy to the UK's diplomatic newsletter service involves a suspect third-party Twitter app.

Oh boy. What a day for Twitter. First we have thousands of accounts, including those belonging to the BBC, Amnesty International, and Forbes, compromised by a third-party app forcing them to tweet pro-Erdoğan propaganda and swastikas, and now we have this.

The Russian Embassy in the UK, which previously made headlines for its stint in the President Trump Meme War, has concocted an innovative method to garner social media support: it's turning its Twitter followers into automated news bots.

"Welcome to the world of digital diplomacy," declares the Embassy of the Russian Federation to the UK. "Diplomacy of the future!"

Let's dig in. The scheme is part of the embassy's Russian Diplomatic Online Club, which promises members an insight into international policy and "all things Russian". Unlike a regular newsletter, which requires a user to hand over their email address in return for receiving news straight to their inbox, the Russian online club asks users to give over access to their Twitter accounts to a third-party app called Tweetsquad (more on this later).

The Tweetsquad control panel, from where I can manage my subscription the third-party app. Image: Ben Sullivan

Once a user's credentials are registered with Tweetsquad, that user will automatically follow the Twitter account of UK Ambassador Alexander Yakovenko, and automatically retweet one of his "most important" tweets each week. Essentially, users willingly sign up to become a Twitter bot for the Russian Embassy.

Motherboard created its own alt Twitter account, signed up for the service, and sat back to watch what happened. Soon enough, a tweet from Yakovenko appearing at the London Book Fair was retweeted by Motherboard's alt account with gusto! "Let's make reading books great again," Yakovenko tweeted.

But not only is handing over control of your Twitter account to a third-party app highly suspect at the best of times, the app the Russian Embassy is using has less than solid credentials. Motherboard was unable to contact the creator of Tweetsquad, as the contact form on the website is broken. A Twitter account belonging to Tweetsquad stopped tweeting years ago. In fact, there's little evidence online whatsoever that the app is even authentic or monitored any longer. Motherboard asked Twitter if it has any more information on the service, but the company has yet to reply.

Yakovenko's 'Tweetsquad' currently stands some 440 members strong, and his account is basking in that sweet RT glory, as evident from this tweet. But a closer audit of the types of accounts actually retweeting the tweet yields even more suspect results. A vast majority of the accounts that retweeted are simply nothing more than bots themselves. A random sample of four such 'eggs' reveals their sole tweet production exists exclusively of Yakovenko retweets, greatly inflating the appearance of the Embassy's Twitter impact.

In a time of politically motivated Twitter bots, fake news accusations, and a smart deployment of meme warfare, the Russian Embassy's Tweetsquads are an inventive new weapon as the war for political credibility navigates its way through the kingdom of social media. Motherboard contacted the Embassy to learn more about its social media strategy, but was simply encouraged to sign up to the service.

"Dear Sir," replied the Embassy's press office. "Thank you for your email. Please see www.rusemb.org.uk/dc You are most welcome to join!"

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