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Fri 17 September 2021

Caroline Orr assesses the dangers of an over reliance on fake eyeballs as the recently launched news channel shifts its focus away from TV ratings to social media 

As the UK’s new right-wing TV channel GB News struggles to get off the ground amid plummeting ratings, its online profile is being amplified by an astroturfing campaign on Twitter. 

On at least twelve occasions since 13 July, the hashtag #GBNews has ranked as the top hashtag tweeted by inauthentic accounts, according to Bot Sentinel, a machine-learning program that classifies and tracks inauthentic Twitter accounts. 

The most recent surge of inauthentic activity came on 24 July. On that day, much of the activity surrounding the hashtag was linked to so-called “follow-back parties,” a way to coordinate with other Twitter users to mutually gain followers. Typically, follow-back parties involve one or multiple tweets instructing users to first “retweet this,” then to follow everyone who retweets the post, and finally to follow back any other accounts that join in and start following them.

A ranking of the top global hashtags tweeted by inauthentic accounts on 24 July shows #GBNews in the top spot. This is at least the twelfth time since mid-July that the hashtag has risen to the top due to inauthentic activity, according to Bot Sentinel. (Photo Credit: Caroline Orr Bueno)

By participating in follow-back parties, users can gain hundreds of new followers in a short period of time and with minimal effort. Follow-back parties have often been associated with disinformation and platform manipulation, similar to the “Trump Train” phenomenon that helped many pro-Trump Twitter accounts gain massive numbers of followers and retweets.

The astroturf campaign surrounding GB News comes just after the right-wing channel touted its social media presence amid reports about its plummeting television viewership.

GB News head of digital, Rebecca Hutson, told Byline Times that they only operate the @GBNews verified account and that the activity of ‘bot accounts’ is “tiny in comparison with then engagement generated by our account.”

According to figures provided to Byline Times by GB News, their Twitter account recorded an average of nearly 5 million tweet impressions on 24 July and their 50 tweets generated 198,867 engagements. However, it’s not clear how much of that engagement is authentic or inauthentic.  


Follow-Back Parties and Participatory Culture Wars

Looking at the accounts involved in the activity, several noteworthy patterns emerged.

First, many of the accounts tweeting the hashtag #GBNews used the channel’s imagery as headers and/or profile pictures, and many also referenced GB News in their bio, essentially turning themselves into GB News fan accounts — a trend that has often been seen in accounts devoted to athletes, celebrities, and other public figures, but also featured prominently in pro-Trump (“MAGA”) and QAnon networks, as well as Russia’s influence operations targeting the US elections and Brexit. 

A small sample of accounts using GB News’ imagery and branding. (Image Credit: Caroline Orr Bueno).

Fan accounts like these, which reflect the participatory culture war in which they are engaged, may serve a unique purpose in the context of follow-back parties, as the easily identifiable visual markers can signal to other users that the account is “one of us.” 

When used in coordinated campaigns, these markers are also a way of establishing credibility with the target audience by appealing to their cultural experiences. Once they gain other people’s trust, it may be easier to exploit that relationship later by pushing disinformation into their timelines.

While numerous accounts were encouraging other users to participate in the follow-back party, one account in particular (@DeeBee1701) was leading the activity. The account appears to be devoted entirely to GB News: The background image features GB News’ logo, her bio mentions that she “love[s] GB News,” and her location says she is “at work watching @GBNews.” 

On 24 July, the account tweeted the hashtag “#GBNews” nearly 40 times, almost always in connection with the “follow-back” party and alongside other hashtags such as “GBNewsWins.” 

“Follow-back” tweets posted Saturday from a GB News fan account. (Image Credit: Caroline Orr Bueno).

In one of the tweets posted by @DeeBee1701, users were directed to post their current follower number alongside the statement “I follow back #GBNews.” 

“This only works if everyone FOLLOWS BACK,” the tweet said, adding the hashtag “#GBNewsWins.” 

Hundreds of accounts replied to the initial tweet with their follower count. As a result, it was possible to get an idea of how many followers the participating accounts gained by comparing the follower count at the time they posted it to the count later that day. 

Most accounts that participated in the GB News follow-back party gained 100-300 followers in a matter of a few hours, but some gained far more. For example, one account (@DerekAbacus) more than doubled in size, going from 530 followers to 1,219 followers.

A small sample of accounts that participated in the GB News “follow-back party.” The accounts pictured gained on average 100-200 followers over the course of a few hours, but some gained far more. (Image Credit: Caroline Orr Bueno).

In addition to directing other users to follow each other, @DeeBee1701 also encouraged people to follow GB News’ account and even asked to see screenshots to confirm that they were actually following, suggesting that the astroturf campaign was aimed at not only boosting the GB News fan accounts, but also GB News’ account itself. 

Currently, GB News’ Twitter account has 313,500 followers — far more than comparable media brands that were established years earlier.

Head of digital at GBNews, Rebecca Huston, told Byline Times that inauthentic accounts are “an endemic problem, internationally, for all news organisations. We abhor it and do all we can to stamp out inauthentic users wherever possible”. She also pointed out that the official GB News account receives the same score rating on Botsentinel as the Guardian, BBC and Byline Times.

While GB News deny any knowledge or involvement in the follow-back parties, they are nonetheless likely to reap the benefits of the inauthentic activity. In today’s influence economy — where control of public discourse is the ultimate prize — followers are currency. GB News clearly understands this, as evidenced by their recent efforts to shift the public’s attention to their social media profile and away from their lacklustre television ratings. 


Digital Astroturfing

By coordinating with hundreds or thousands of Twitter accounts, follow-back parties enable a type of inauthentic activity that results in artificially inflated accounts clustered together in tightly bound networks. 

These networks of interconnected accounts are fertile ground for disinformation campaigns, allowing bad actors and propagandists to spread deceptive content while staying largely under the radar. They also make it easier to create echo chambers where falsehoods go unchallenged.  

Furthermore, fan accounts and extremely partisan networks like this played an important role in facilitating Russia’s interference in the 2016 presidential election and the Brexit vote. By posing as Trump supporters and Brexiteers, Russian accounts were able to blend in with the crowd and exploit the sharply partisan nature to push divisive, often false, content. Hashtags were central to this effort.

Digital astroturfing serves several purposes, including creating the illusion of popularity — called manufactured consensus — so that an idea or position without much public support appears more mainstream than it actually is. 

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Follower counts are also a type of peripheral cue that our brains tend to associate with credibility and trustworthiness, so people may be more likely to believe and share information posted by a large-follower account. This is true whether or not the accounts belong to real people. 

Once a particular idea — or television channel — has gained traction online, others are more likely to pick it up and endorse it themselves. In this way, artificial networks can actually be used to manufacture real-world support and, possibly, increase viewership for a struggling TV channel. 

The volume of tweets associated with the inauthentic activity surrounding #GBNews is still low, but the pattern is consistent. It’s possible that this activity is laying the groundwork for a more extensive disinformation campaign, or it could be a way of gauging whether certain account features, times of day, or other small tweaks increase engagement with the hashtag. 

However, though the company ‘abhors’ the endemic problem of inauthentic networks, the danger remains that GB News’ effort to build a “self-sustaining media ecosystem” could end up relying on an uncritical audience to survive and serves as an important reminder that tweet impressions and engagement statistics only tell part of the story — and there’s often much more to learn by looking a little closer.

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