LeBron James wasn’t the only Twitter user who thought Daryl Morey’s tweet supporting Hong Kong’s protesters was misinformed. There was a whole army of pro-China troll accounts that happened to agree.
A review of nearly 170,000 tweets, plus analysis from expert information warfare researchers, shows that Morey was the target of what appears to be a coordinated harassment campaign after his tweet on Oct. 4 set off an international furor and threatened the NBA’s future in the world’s most populous country.
In the 12 hours immediately after Morey’s tweet, the Houston Rockets general manager’s account was flooded with comments from pro-Chinese-government accounts that mentioned him more than 16,000 times, according to an analysis by Ben Nimmo, senior fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Lab.
“It looks like there were humans at the keyboard for many of these posts,” Nimmo said. “This wasn’t primarily a bot swarm. It was a troll mob. Which is a lot harder to deal with.”
The Wall Street Journal’s analysis was based on 168,907 tweets at Morey between Oct. 4 and Oct. 10 captured by Clemson University researchers Darren Linvill and Patrick Warren.
It shows that 22% came from accounts with 0 followers at some point last week and 50% were from accounts with fewer than 13 followers. There were 4,855 total users in all who had never tweeted until they replied to Morey, and 3,677 accounts didn’t exist until his tweet.
“I’m not saying this is a state-affiliated operation,” Linvill said. “But I’ve only seen so many brand-new accounts used at one time when it was a state-affiliated operation."