Twitter has been one of Donald Trump’s key tools ever since he started running for president, so it’s no surprise that his account is closely followed by millions of users, and his every tweet is parsed for intelligence about his intentions.
More recently, however, attention has focused on the fact that Trump’s already large Twitter following appears to have increased substantially, and that many of these new followers seem to be “bots” or automated accounts. This has triggered fears in some circles of a looming “bot war.”
According to a number of tweets, including one that got a lot of traction on the social network, Trump’s following increased by as much as 5 million in a matter of days, and most of the new followers were automated or fake accounts.
A spokesman for Twitter, however, told BuzzFeed this report was not true, and a comparison that the news site did between Trump’s current personal Twitter profile and an archived version of the page shows that it has only increased by about 300,000 in the past few days.
While it may not have grown by several million in just a few days, Trump’s account has added more than 2 million followers this month, according to Mashable. It has added about 7 million since February, the site said, and more than half of them have blank profiles.
A report from a third-party service called Twitter Audit shows that more than half of those following the president’s account are suspected of being fake or automated (although BuzzFeed notes that the site’s methodology for detecting fakes is not foolproof).
These large increases, and what appears to be a huge number of automated followers, have sparked a number of theories, including one from Newsweek that suggested the president or his team might have purchased fake followers, something celebrity accounts occasionally do.
But another theory being promoted by some observers is that the bots are part of a deliberate build-up for a forthcoming “bot war” between the Trump administration and its critics, one that might be part of a Russian attempt to influence public opinion related to the president.
Malcolm Nance, a retired U.S. Navy cryptologist and intelligence expert, said he believes that the increase in bots following Trump could show that “Russian cyber warfare support [is] ramping up for @POTUS” and that this kind of behavior is a “key intelligence indicator.”
Intelligence sources working for a number of agencies including the FBI have suggested that agents working for or with the Russian government may have tried to influence the outcome of the U.S. election. And Facebook recently released a report that indicates organized groups tried to influence public opinion via fake accounts sharing hoaxes or misinformation.