The Three Pronged War – Diving Into Geoff Golberg’s Silent War On Twitter’s Bots And The XRP Army
The Three Pronged War – Diving Into Geoff Golberg's Silent War On Twitter's Bots And The XRP Army
Over the course of last year, Geoff Goldberg, who is very well known data scientist was subject to a profuse amount of Doxxing, repeatedly being harassed and receiving death threats through his social media feed. So, Mr. Goldberg must have done something pretty bad, ProJared bad, in order to get this much hate online. Nope.
His ‘offense' was to expose a huge number of false and automated or ‘Bot' accounts in operations on Twitter. Not exactly the stuff of high controversy, as it has been a serious problem for the social media accounts for a good amount of time.
This became a major and endemic problem, especially when we take into consideration the kind of tampering that took place through Twitter during the Presidential Election back in 2016. Since then, the company had announced in July 2018 that it had since removed tens of millions of bot and false accounts from the social media network.
While this sounds like a good amount of work done by Twitter, Golberg has been one of those talking about the fact that there is still a great deal of work to do in order to counter the continued prevalence of these accounts, with some of them included to an Iranian political entity, Billboard Music Awards, and even including the infamous Ripple swarm known as the ‘XRP Army.'
For those of you that are not otherwise familiar with this swarm – The XRP Army is the catch-all phrase provided to the countless numbers of supporters and members of the community of the cryptocurrency – XRP.
This currency was developed by the team behind Ripple as a means of conducting cross-border transactions and has since been used as crypto by its suite of cross-border payments solutions by financial institutions. While there are a good number of these followers that more than pass the ‘human' test, they are otherwise hardcore supporters of the crypto, and as a result, can often come off a little intense. Even then, there are also tens and thousands of Twitter users that either don't seem real or simply aren't.
Divulging more information about the experience, Golberg discussed just how far-flung the XRP community is –
“I was floored by the number of accounts with XRP in their names. They have this stuff for every country, for all major cities. They’re trying to billboard Twitter with the XRP army.”
In digging into this community, Golberg placed himself in the middle of a very volatile and fanatical community.
Operating as a major name as a blockchain data analytics provider and Co-Founder of Elementus, which had also released a detailed analysis of hacks from well-known cryptocurrency exchanges such as Cryptopia (hack of 3 to 13 million USD) including CoinBene, which lost approximately 105 million dollars in its attack.
Since then, Golberg went on to leave the company and went on to found his own individual project called SocialCartograph, its underlying purpose being to provide a comprehensive analysis of manipulation which takes place on social media. In addition to his successful forays into analytics, he is a well-respected economics and analytics major from the University of Pennsylvania, while also having his work appear on multinational news platforms like BBC, CNN, and Quartz.
Finding The Fakes And Bot Accounts
In order to really uncover the differences between the various kinds of false accounts online, Golberg breaks these up into ‘automated / Bot' accounts and those that are ‘inauthentic.'
First things first – an inauthentic account is one that was registered and set up initially by a real person – this person then goes on to buy a large number of fake followers along with a range of tweets. In comparison, a bot account does not essentially have many or, in some cases, any followers at all. Instead of being operated by a user, it is completely automated and uses a program with algorithms in order to spew out a huge number of tweets on a daily basis.
Along with discussing the kind of accounts, inauthentic and automated, Golberg obtained a greater interest in the way in which they are applied in the world of social networks after he had successfully cultivated his own social network with a video-based following – and was pretty take aback by the kind of unparalleled power that big platforms have in this regard.
“I used to do a lot of live video streaming on Meerkat and Twitter-owned Periscope. My idea was to build analytics software for live video. As I was learning, I started doing live streaming and became this accidental content creator—even covered a Heineken event at the Rio Olympics.”
Golberg got a first-hand experience of this kind of unparalleled power back in April 2017, Periscope removed him from the online network while also citing community guideline violations incurred by Golberg. This is exactly what would contribute to his burgeoning interest in the application of blockchain technology, and the kind of potential that it has to overturn the kind of technological monopolies that Google, Twitter, and Facebook have.
“Big tech has so much power, they can opaquely and unaccountably remove someone from their platform, just like this.”
Needless to say, he was incredibly irate about being wrongfully de-platformed. Centralized companies have a reputation for being both tyrannical and incompetent – a dangerous combination.
This would have been enough to snuff out the opinions of some, but not Golberg, who started digging even deeper into fake accounts and Twitter. And rather than finding out that Twitter has been on top of these accounts, it's far worse than he initially expected. “This analysis of inauthentic accounts came about from a ‘fuck you Twitter,’ but soon turned into a ‘holy shit this stuff is really scary.’”
This took Golberg even deeper down this kind of rabbit hole, going further in.
Golberg decided to finally go back through his own history over the course of early 2018. According to some of his research in 2016, an individual of unknown origin had purchased approximately 10,000 Twitter followers for his account. While to some, this would be some kind of cause for celebration with the high volume of ‘new' traffic, Golberg admits that the discovery left him incredibly disappointed, and sought to communicate with Twitter's support, with zero help provided by the latter.
In order to address this, Golberg took matters into his own hands, hiring the expert data visualizer Max Galka in order to find out if there was a way to isolate and remove these thousands of fake followers.
The end result of this work was the following image, along with an extensive post on Medium:
What this demonstrates quite clearly is that there are two distinct kinds of followers shown in green. These have little to no link to other followers on the network. What this shows, according to Golberg, is that they are wholly inauthentic accounts.
Taking A Look At The XRP Army – Golberg Dives In
Along with this initial approach towards the automated followers on Twitter, Golberg went further on to try and apply this analytic method to the XRP Army. This would go on to ruffle some feathers in the near future.
This wasn't the first time that the XRP Army took the time to attack a member of the analytics world. Late Q1 of last year, the ‘Army' had prosecuted a hostile campaign of threatening and intimidation against Ryan Selkis, who was the founder of Messari, which operates as a provider of data for crypto. The reason for this campaign of threats? Messari had published a report which concluded that the market cap enjoyed by XRP was wholly overstated.
This resulted in a vitriolic outpouring against Selkis and his family by deranged XRP ‘soldiers.' These same individuals threatened Seklis' family along with hacking his phone, receiving death threats and having his Twitter account reported.
Golberg went on to take a deeper look.
According to Geoff Golberg's Twitter on May 11th, 2018 –
“Exploring the Twitter accounts which have recently tweeted at @twobitidiot (or were mentioned in tweets at @twobitidiot) – so many fake/bot accounts! (graph by @r0zetta)”
Over the span of time that Golberg was participating in this analytics-based investigation – he decided to delve into a chat with the CTO of Ripple – David Schwartz – who would go on to participate in this experiment with Golberg, changing his profile picture to a robot if Golberg would be able to back up his claims regarding the ‘XRP Army' which Golberg concludes is predominantly a large number of bots.
In spite of the fact that Golberg was proven exceptionally correct in his hypothesis, Schwartz has not yet changed his profile picture. Regardless, Golberg had managed to show off the following on a Medium post:
Firstly – A large number of these accounts that follow major figures in the XRP world are wholly inauthentic.
Secondly – Typically speaking, false or inauthentic accounts will often follow the exact same kinds of people, such as executives and major employees of XRP as well as influential Twitter accounts.
Third – Inauthentic users are made and put to use in order to increase the ‘social credit' of the original account. Allowing them to look like they have a far bigger presence and better popularity than they do or deserve.
Fourth – Inauthentic accounts usually have similar looking header images, a complete deficiency of tweets, absolutely no display image, and a randomized username with random alphanumeric names.
Fifth – One of the major indicators of an automated account versus an inauthentic account is that the former will have a high volume of tweets on a daily basis.
Finally – These automated accounts are used in order to like and retweet posts, allowing for the XRP community to look far larger than it actually is – and, this community hopes, will encourage more people to purchase XRP.
Golberg discusses his initial reaction to finding out these commonalities in Twitter handles from the XRP army –
“When I looked at the Twitter handles in the data set, I was floored by the number of accounts with XRP in their names. They have this stuff for every country, for all major cities. They’re trying to billboard Twitter with the XRP army.”
One of the examples that he provides about this is GiantGox, which is one of these XRP fan accounts that boasts a following of approximately 39,000. Upon digging into the numbers, he had uncovered that, out of these 15,000 connections, they all have a similar account that they connect with – which is called ‘XRP Trump.' While this would conjure up feelings that this is a link to Trump's own ‘Bot Army', the commonality is simply in the name, not function.
Of these followers, more than two-thirds of them were in operation in a cluster, which was completely disassociated with any other users. What this means is that they were completely inauthentic accounts that were only used in order to boost activity levels.
He would go on to add that many of these same accounts simply use usernames which are variations on the words ‘Ripple' and/or ‘XRP'. One of these examples includes ‘xrpxrpxr,' which merely follows a number of executives, professionals, and influencers that barely tweet other than to occasionally follow and like comments. Since that discovery, this same account has since been removed from the platform.
“There appears to be this hugely strong robust XRP community, but it’s not real. They’re trying to create the impression that there are many more XRP followers than really exist,” Golberg goes on to explain.
While there have been a good number of conclusions uncovered by Golberg regarding the XRP Army, there is still little information about who or what exactly is behind the XRP Army in question. But what Golberg has managed to do is demonstrate how just anyone online can purchase any number of inauthentic or automated accounts, then going on to get them to follow, like, share any kind of user on Twitter.
When we take into consideration that these accounts are dedicated to the purpose of beefing up and boosting the circulation of activity from XRP users and supporters, along with executives of the company. One theory that is quite plausible is that the people behind this ‘army' are XRP investors themselves. But it is more likely that we will never wholly know.
Golberg went on to disclose these findings on his Medium page as well as on Twitter – the latter of which placed him in the middle of the crosshairs of the XRP army.
“This was the first time I got swarmed by the XRP Army,” he said. Weirdly, this was a great turn of events, as far as he was concerned because, “it’s the best way for me to learn about these inauthentic networks. I often put myself in the middle of these shitstorms. It’s a good way to collect the data. But this was the most intense one I had experienced since they tend to twist your words a lot.”
It was thanks to Golbergs astute research that the horde would go on to report a wide range of his tweets, citing false allegations, but have since proven unsuccessful in suspending his account.
XRP's Closest Competition? The Iranian Terrorist Cell – The Mujahedin
Before the XRP Army, Golberg had been involved in the analysis and subsequent reporting of inauthentic accounts which belonged to the Iranian terrorist organization known as the People's Mujahedin of Iran (MEK). During his analysis, Golberg went on to note that there were some pretty shocking similarities between this cell and the XRP Army in the way they conducted operations against researchers and reporters.
“They always employ similar tactics. In the Iran case, they attack journalists in the same way the XRP Army attacks journalists.”
Every single time that Golberg uncovered these kinds of issues with accounts on Twitter, he would report them to the moderating team, with either indifference or complete ignorance:
“I’ve shared Twitter death threats I’ve received from drawing attention to this stuff. I’ve been in touch with several folks at Twitter about the XRP Army. Unfortunately all to no avail.”
What this does go on to demonstrate is that Twitter is using the crisis about inauthentic and bot accounts to get rid of what it doesn't like while completely and incompetently ignoring legitimate concerns.
Could personal interest in XRP be one of the reasons why Twitter isn't coming down on these bots operating under their very noses?