'Troll farms' tried to manipulate social media in favour of widely panned European Super League

A sign that says 'do not feed the trolls'
They've also been used to spread election and COVID-19 disinformation. Photo credit: Getty Images

Hundreds of bots and thousands of fake accounts run by 'troll farms' tried to manipulate social media debates in favour of the European Super League (ESL) after the project was announced last April, according to a study from a Spanish digital consultancy.

The study from Pandemia Digital, which was first published by Spanish news outlet El Confidencial, said several fake Twitter accounts amplified pro-ESL and anti-UEFA content in the 72 hours following the project's announcement.

Twelve clubs signed up to the breakaway ESL project, only for it to unravel when all six English sides plus Inter Milan, AC Milan and Atletico Madrid withdrew, leaving Juventus, Barcelona and Real Madrid as its only remaining members.

Unlike in the Champions League, where teams have to qualify through their domestic league, the founding Super League teams guaranteed themselves a place in the new competition every year.

The study said that more than two million tweets were published from 272,000 accounts about the Super League in those 72 hours, the great majority against the ESL.

However, the fake social media accounts published more than 10 tweets per second and were mostly located in Spain and Arabic countries, the study said.

One hashtag supporting Real Madrid president Florentino Perez (#EstamosContigoPresi) appeared in 18,000 tweets posted by 7000 accounts, most of them recently created with no followers.

The study said that there were 3600 tweets published in a few hours with the exact same sentence: "The super league is a good idea and will revolutionise football".

A 'troll farm' is a coordinated effort to manipulate public discourse using fake accounts. A 'bot' is a software program that performs automated, repetitive, predefined tasks.

They operate much faster than human users and are often used to gain control over a narrative in social media, creating fake trending topics, and played a big part in what Americans saw in the run up to the 2020 election.

The MIT Technology Review acquired an internal Facebook report which said the platform's most popular pages targeting Christian and Black Americans were being run by troll farms based in Europe.

"Their content was reaching 140 million US users per month - 75 percent of whom had never followed any of the pages," it reported.

"They were seeing the content because Facebook's content-recommendation system had pushed it into their news feeds."

Author of the report Jeff Allen, a former senior data scientist at Facebook, wrote: "Instead of users choosing to receive content from these actors, it is our platform that is choosing to give [these troll farms] an enormous reach."

Last year Facebook banned Natural News, a prolific COVID-19 disinformation site, from the platform after finding it had been using content farms in North Macedonia and the Philippines.

The farms also shared conspiracy theories about 5G mobile phone signals and Bill Gates, while attempting to artificially inflate the reach of Natural News and its sister websites.

Reuters / Newshub