All Cyber Publications Case Studies Stanford Internet Observatory

The New Copyright Trolls: How a Twitter Network Used Copyright Complaints to Harass Tanzanian Activists (TAKEDOWN)

December 2, 2021

On December 2, 2021, Twitter announced that they had suspended a network of 268 accounts that were supportive of the Tanzanian government and had used copyright reporting adversarially to target accounts belonging to Tanzanian activists. According to Twitter, many of the African personas used in this campaign were previously Russian personas, suggesting the operation may have been partially outsourced to a Russian-speaking country. The adversarial reporting in Tanzania was observed by Access Now in October 2020 and reported by the BBC in December 2020. Coordinated adversarial account reporting is not unique to Twitter; in August 2020 Facebook suspended a network of accounts in Pakistan with Facebook Pages and private Groups that coordinated the reporting of Facebook accounts critical of Islam and the Pakistani government and that leveraged a Chrome extension to report accounts in bulk. This Tanzanian operation worked by first taking text or images tweeted by accounts that criticized the ruling Chama Cha Mapinduzi (CCM) party, then putting the same content on WordPress sites and modifying the date to make it appear as if the WordPress post preceded the tweet. Fake accounts pretending to be Tanzanians or South Africans then reported the content to Twitter for violations of the US Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA). Twitter then notified the accounts of the accusations. To counter such accusations, however, the accused must share their personal information. At least one of the targeted accounts relied on anonymity for safety, making it difficult to formally counter the attacks. This operation succeeded in getting Twitter to suspend at least two of the targeted accounts, though both have since been reinstated. Parts of the network served more simply to send harassing tweets to Tanzanian activists, the political opposition, and foreign media. These tweets often read as if they were written by a child, saying, for example, “you have an empty head,” or were simply a nonsensical series of letters and numbers.