Twitter said it mistakenly blocked the accounts of open-source intelligence reporters covering Russia’s military buildup in Ukraine, leading many of them to accuse the Russian state of launching a “bot” campaign against them .
Based on publicly available satellite imagery, open-source reporters have used social media to provide steady commentary on the activities of Russian forces near the Ukrainian border, providing a valuable alternative source of information to Western intelligence reports.
The people behind the suspended accounts said they believed they had been the target of an attack by Russian bots — computers that mimic the activities of human users — who had en masse reported their content as suspicious. This resulted in their content being automatically removed by Twitter’s moderation technology.
“It’s an attack on journalism and people who rely on these accounts to get the facts across other news outlets,” said Kyle Glen, co-founder of @Conflicts, which has 337,000 followers.
“Twitter has . . . a responsibility to ensure that its own reporting systems are not abused by individuals or nations.”
Twitter told the Financial Times that there was no evidence of a coordinated bot campaign, but acknowledged that the company had “mistakenly” taken action and banned around a dozen accounts flagged as containing manipulated or misleading media.
It said it would “expeditiously examine these actions” and has restored many of the affected accounts.
The lockdowns came around the same time that several Ukrainian government websites and banks were temporarily shut down following a series of cyberattacks – the third in Ukraine since the beginning of the year. Kiev has blamed Russia for the previous two attacks.
The fact that the Twitter accounts were blocked almost simultaneously raised the suspicion that a Russian operation could be behind it. Russia often uses proxy groups in its cyber operations to deny knowledge of attacks, although Western officials and cyber experts believe the groups are acting for Moscow.
“A row of . . . Individuals saw their accounts suspended at 11:51 UTC precisely last night,” said @Osinttechnical, who has 83,000 followers and whose identity has been independently verified by the FT.
“The pattern of account suspensions indicates that Twitter’s installed automatic account report processing features have been triggered. In fact, multiple “people” simultaneously bombarded these accounts with reports and activated the Twitter bans,” he added.
The Twitter account of Ukrainian civil rights activist Serhii Sternenko was also suspended.
Though open-source intelligence services have provided some stunningly detailed images of military movements, analysts say they only show a fraction of what’s going on. Their reports, often on Twitter, have independently corroborated and lent credence to the publicly released briefings by Western intelligence agencies.
“Western governments have learned a lot about information warfare. . . from [the] Open Intelligence Space,” said Sir Alex Younger, former chief of British intelligence.
“The performance was much better this time and one of the reasons is that it’s open source [intelligence] to check what they say, which has increased their credibility,” he said FT forum On Wednesday.
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