Social media research group Graphika has published a report today exposing a small network of 14 Twitter accounts that engaged in a coordinated campaign to criticize the Belgian government's plan to ban Huawei from supplying 5G equipment to local telecommunications providers.
The accounts used fake names and posed as Belgium-based tech and 5G experts. They also used profile images generated using machine learning GAN algorithms, a technique that is gaining traction with more and more social media influence networks.
In a 33-page report [PDF] published today, Graphika researchers said the accounts spent their time retweeting content from popular accounts and mixing it with their own tweets that attacked the Belgian government's decision to ban "high-risk" providers from its national 5G network, along with tweets that praised Huawei as a reliable investor and partner.
These tweets would often link to articles sponsored by Huawei itself, articles from news agencies registered at non-existing addresses, or articles with the same text and headline but hosted across multiple newly-registered news sites and blogs.
Some of the most common sources were domains like london-globe.com, newyorkglobe.co, toplinenews.eu, and eureporter.co.
Graphika researchers said that while past Twitter botnets worked in an automated fashion, this smaller network appeared to have been manually operated, with all tweets being hand-written for each of the 14 accounts.
But despite the small number of accounts that were part of this botnet, tweets were often amplified by other accounts, including what appeared to be a second network of Twitter bots.
"These were created in batches and featured a "house style" of pictures of mainly Western women, and handles that consisted of seven letters followed by eight numbers," Graphica researchers said.
This campaign targeting the Belgian government did not go unnoticed and several Belgian tech and government workers also spotting it on their own last month.
All in all, Graphika did not specifically conclude that any of the 14 accounts were controlled by Huawei or a related entity, leaving this question unanswered.
Nonetheless, Graphika noted that some Huawei employees in Western Europe had often retweeted some of this bot network's content.
All 14 Twitter accounts have now been suspended.