Bot or not? Anti-research/University accounts on twitter
tl;dr I think it’s really hard to tell whether a twitter account is run by who it looks like on first glance, and what its intentions are. Maybe we should try and take more care before amplifying opinions of unknown actors.
Just another angry tweet
Recently, when scrolling through my twitter feed, I noticed some fairly aggressive tweets from the account @Help4StudentsUK, criticising Wellcome and some of its management. A typical example:
The idea that name of Wellcome, the fourth biggest charity in the world and a significant funder of global health research, was ‘soiled internationally … forever’ seemed … a bit of stretch1.
Some other rather bold claims they have recently made (with no cited reason or evidence):
- Wellcome are not to be trusted.
- Wellcome do not deserve to do science.
- Everyone knows what they have done.
I don’t think I know what they have done!
Who is this, and what are they after?
Who is this organisation, and why do they care so strongly? The generic avatar and handle were a little odd, so I had a look at their profile:
Which did not shed much light on things. There is also an instagram account:
which is a copy of the twitter account, but without any posts. The website also contains generic forum code, also with no posts.
Conspicuously absent from any of these accounts/sites is any description of this organisation or person, their aims, or their funding. I have tried to contact them to ask more about these basic details, but did note hear back.
Generic website, overactive twitter
Their website does exist, but appears to be from a generic template. Most of the content appears to broadly criticise Universities in the UK, though to be fair there is some text copied from Citizens Advice intended to support victims of harassment. (Most of the text looks like it has probably been copied from elsewhere.)
The main call is for people to tweet complaints under the provided hashtags such as #UniComplaints and #[uniname]Complaints. ‘Make your life and other students’ lives better in only seconds and at no cost to you.’ is a common refrain. It is also not a statement I would imagine many victims of harassment or discrimination would quickly agree with, especially when it comes to publicly sharing a traumatic experience, potentially directly targeted at their current employer.
Their twitter feed was hard to summarise, as tweets are produced at a rate of about 40 per day. I scrolled through, and would make the following generalisations:
- All content is negative/attacking, rather than positive/constructive.
- Tweets are constant (~8000 tweets since May 2019, no break for holidays).
- Most posts are retweets, usually of the same few accounts.
- Tweets only rarely focus on the UK (often the US), and almost never focus on students (so ‘Help4StudentsUK’ seems like an odd name).
Many of the accounts that are most frequently retweeted are particularly insidious, and display suspicious features. On Christmas day, @rossthomson26 and @Help4StudentsUK had the following mangled content to share with us all:
This account spends about half its time posting generic aggression and insults about UK Universities. The other half is made up of:
- Anti-Islam sentiment
- ‘Anti-liberal’ content (anti-vegan, anti-climate change, ‘Marxist BBC’)
- Anti-animal testing, proposing the death penalty for anyone involved
- Pro-vigilante justice
- Anti-EU memes
- TaxPayer’s Alliance
This account is odd in other ways. Having 129.2k tweets over five years is a vast sum. A generic profile picture, name & number handle, following 200 more accounts than follow it (the maximum allowed). It seems unlikely to be a person named Ross Thomson.
Bot or not?
Is @Help4StudentsUK a real person, or a computer program? Although the account is mainly retweets, some of the posts do look like they were written by a human. So I’m not sure.
More importantly, what are the aims of this account? I could think of two possibilities:
- Support scientists who have experienced unfair treatment at work, while maintaining anonymity.
- Reduce the level of trust in these institutions.
The evidence I found makes me lean towards the latter.
I would claim that we should avoid interacting with these kinds of accounts (retweeting, replying etc). Undoubtedly, better advice and support is available elsewhere.
Why write this?
Perhaps the main point I’d like to make is this – before engaging with an entity on twitter it’s worth having a quick look at their profile. Are they a real person (often with an institutional webpage or headshot), or is it a generic image or ‘organisation’. Does the organisation have some basic information about who they are, what they stand for, and what their aims are? If not, ignore them.