On Becoming Accidental Disinformation Researchers: The Case of the Curious CDC Tweet

Our data collection was humming along (low, steady line), receiving a few hundred tweets per hour, until the morning of April 25, when the collection surged to more than 12,500 tweets in one hour.
Figure 1. Relative volume of our data collection in tweets per hour; the first spike was in late April 2020.
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Figure 2: The “bleach tweet.”
The figure caption contains links to the individual CDC tweets.
Figure 3: The other 8 @CDCgov tweets that @realDonaldTrump retweeted on April 25. External Links: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8
This figure shows the retweets of tweets from @CDCgovand the impact of @realDonaldTrump’s retweeting. Each tweet “takes off” after @realDonaldTrump retweets it. This is the amplification machine. The remaining tweets that @realDonaldTrump never retweets struggle to gain more than 1,000 retweets.
Figure 4: Retweets of tweets from @CDCgov. Each circle represents a retweet. The size of a circle is proportional to the retweeting user’s follower count. The largest circles (at 9am on the 25th) represent @realDonaldTrump. Of specific interest here is how each tweet “takes off” after @realDonaldTrump retweets it. The remaining tweets at the bottom that @realDonaldTrump never retweets struggle to gain more than 1,000 retweets. (Omitted are 2 tweets that @realDonaldTrump retweeted around 8am that exhibit the same behavior but render the visualization illegible.)
This is a “hairball” network diagram that shows who follows who in the group of 1,700 accounts that retweeted 7 or more of the 9 CDC tweets in the 24 hours after @realDonaldTrump retweeted the CDC. The density of this “hairball” shows that many of these accounts all follow one another. More than 100 of these accounts are now suspended.
Figure 5: A network graph of who follows whom in the group of 1,700 accounts that retweeted 7 or more of the 9 CDC tweets in the 24 hours after @realDonaldTrump retweeted the CDC. The density of this “hairball” shows that many of these accounts all follow one another. More than 100 of these accounts are now suspended.
  1. An important detail about Twitter: You cannot retweet a retweet. When an account retweets something that @realDonaldTrump retweeted, they are, in fact, retweeting the original @CDCGov tweet, not the retweet, even though it was likely the @realDonaldTrump retweet that came across their timeline that alerted them to the tweet in the first place. This is how we found these users.

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Post Mortem of @realDonaldTrump

Post Mortem of @realDonaldTrump

University of Colorado information scientists reporting on the influence of the 45th US President’s defunct Twitter platform