Swarm of apparent Twitter bots claim admiration for Winston Peters after difficult week

A swarm of previously inactive Twitter accounts claiming to be from the US have sprung to life, professing their admiration for embattled Deputy Prime Minister Winston Peters.

The New Zealand First leader came under scrutiny this week after the Electoral Commission referred an investigation into donations to the New Zealand First Foundation to the police. He was then criticised for admitting involvement in photographs being taken of two journalists looking into the foundation. 

In an interview with Magic Talk's Peter Williams, Peters said "we took the photograph" after being questioned about the surveillance-type images posted online of RNZ's Guyon Espiner and Stuff's Matt Shand. He later denied being involved, saying the photos were taken by a supporter.

"This is more Wellington bulldust. The 'Media Party' are outraged because someone, not us, did to them what they do to others all the time. Corporal Jones was right, they dont like it up 'em (sic)," Peters tweeted on Friday.

Out of nowhere on Saturday, that post attracted attention when nearly 40 Twitter accounts replied to it with the same message of praise for Peters.

"I stand with #winstonpeters - he's a very good leader and dear to our hearts," each user tweeted. 

Many of the tweets were posted within minutes of each other and came from users that appear to be bots or compromised accounts. The majority of the users - mostly using images of young women - have less than 20 followers, last tweeted years ago, and say they are located in the US.

A collection of the tweets.
A collection of the tweets. Photo credit: Twitter.

Newshub asked New Zealand First if it knew what prompted the random swarm of tweets or had any involvement with it. However, those questions are yet to be answered. 

After Newshub contacted NZ First, Twitter - which has also not replied - and published our story, many of the tweets began to disappear. Some of the accounts have also been "suspended" for violating Twitter's rules.

Bots, which are autonomous accounts disguising themselves as real people to rapidly send out targetted messages, have become more prevalent in politics over the last few years. Posting identical messages or posts with similar keywords can help push topics up social media trending lists, therefore giving a false impression about how popular a sentiment may be. Their use in the 2016 US Presidential Election and Brexit referendum was highly criticised.

A 2017 paper published for the International AAAI Conference on Web and Social Media estimated that up to 15 percent of Twitter accounts were bots. 

In 2018, Twitter attempted to crack down on bots by limiting the ability of users to perform "coordinated actions across multiple accounts". 

"Twitter prohibits any attempt to use automation for the purposes of posting or disseminating spam, and such behaviour may result in enforcement action," Yoel Roth, the head of site integrity wrote