Accounts appeared amid increased public attention to the space agency following an unsuccessful attempt at a lunar landing
Several popular sockpuppet accounts claiming to belong to Dr. Kailasavadivoo Sivan, the chairman of India’s national space agency, accrued a significant number of followers over the summer before Twitter suspended them, further obscuring the information environment in the country.
The actors operating the sockpuppet accounts sought to leverage the Indian public’s interest and attention in the fate of the lunar lander, aware that many users would turn to social media platforms to seek official updates from the India Space Research Organization (ISRO) and its staff. The case also serves as an example of how fake accounts impersonating public figures on social media platforms can take advantage of increased media and public attention during a significant national event or crisis.
These accounts were sockpuppets: online accounts run by someone masquerading as another individual, often with the intent to deceive. In this case, the accounts’ creation coincided with ISRO’s unsuccessful first attempt at a lunar landing. The accounts impersonating Sivan amplified false and misleading information regarding the agency’s attempts at regaining contact with the lost lunar lander, while interspersing the falsehoods with factual reporting from local media outlets on ongoing developments.
Many of the accounts exhibited characteristics of inauthentic behavior, including suspicious account names with alphanumeric handles and a high ratio of like quotes and retweets to original tweets. Despite arousing suspicion of automation, ultimately, the accounts’ suspension at the time of this analysis limited the available evidence and precluded a conclusive assessment as to whether the accounts were run by human users or entirely automated.
Dark side of the moon mission
The appearance of the fake accounts coincided with the start of India’s first lunar landing. The lander was set to touch down on the far side of the moon but, as the lander descended, lost contact with the control room around 2 kilometers above the surface. The ISRO was unable to reestablish communication, thereby causing the mission to fail.
The creation of the accounts and the manner by which they were able to accumulate significant traction rapidly was reported widely by local outlets. The Times of India and BoomLive published individual fact-checks listing some of the most popular sockpuppet accounts on Twitter. The Indian Express also reported on how verified Twitter accounts, unaware that they were endorsing fake accounts, retweeted the sockpuppets’ tweets to their large followings. The ISRO published a clarification on September 9, two days after the loss of contact with the lunar lander, noting that Sivan did not have any personal accounts and included a link to the agencies’ official social media handles.
The accounts impersonating the ISRO chairman used variations of his name and photograph to mislead users, with many claiming to be his official account and including a link to the space agency’s website.
A portion of the accounts served as amplifiers for other sockpuppet accounts impersonating the ISRO chairman and verified accounts belonging to politicians associated with the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).
Some of the sockpuppet accounts tweeted exact copies of quotes attributed to the chairman that had been lifted from reporting by local media outlets. The amplification of identical copies of the same content also suggested possible coordination between some of the accounts. For example, multiple sockpuppet accounts appropriated the same quote from a tweet by @ANI, the verified twitter account of Asia News International, a local media outlet.
In multiple cases, the accounts posted pro-Modi tweets, praising the prime minster for his support of the space agency and amplifying his tweets. In addition, the accounts also amplified content from other BJP officials, including party president and current Home Minister Amit Shah.
Modi, in particular, was the topic of many posts, singling him out with declarations of thanks in reply to his tweets.
Ultimately, it is unclear what the intention of these accounts was, outside of possibly promoting BJP officials and talking points, and there was no indication as to who was behind the effort. That said, high-profile events such as the lunar landing can be used to build large audiences for fake accounts, using less divisive content before injecting their feeds with more polarizing content.
Ayushman Kaul is a Research Assistant, South Asia, with the Digital Forensic Research Lab and is based in India.
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