NHS sockpuppet allegations don’t stand up to scrutiny

Where’s the evidence?
By Josh Feldberg

I’ve spent almost two decades working in digital, advising companies, NGOs, government agencies and politicians and have a particular interest in the issues of fake news and data.

I’ve spent far too much time in front of social media data analysing how political campaigns and governments have used underhanded strategies to drive agendas.

So imagine my excitement when this morning I saw a post going viral claiming that 128 fake NHS staff accounts are being coordinated at a high level (from the government), promoting “...'Herd Mentality' and support of the Govt that were set up by @DHSCgovuk”

With over 14 ,000 retweets when I first saw it, I got excited and started to see what else I could find to support the notion of a government propaganda sockpuppet campaign.


However, to my immense disappointment, it turns out that the claims by Mr John O’Connell appear totally unsubstantiated. Unless I’m missing something of course. Despite this, the claims are getting shared by those who seem to lecture everyone else on journalism while not understanding basic levels of proof themselves.

John O’Connell claims there are 128 fake NHS staff accounts yet provides just one example - @nhs_susan. The account is now deleted but judging by its profile and tweets it seems to be more of a troll / parody account in the vein of the ultra woke caricature Titania McGrath (“Activist. Healer. Radical intersectionalist poet. Selfless and brave”). Indeed, NHS Susan’s bio is so ridiculous, that the idea that this would have been created by a government agency or a hired marketing agency is laughable. 

Susan is apparently a “Deaf NHS jnr Docotor, transitioning in 2020, fighting COVID on behalf of all LGBTQ & non-binary people fighting to #BANTHECLAP for NHS workers! #FBPE”.  


The other piece of  data (if we can even call it that) O’Connell uses to validate his claim is that “Posts were sent using Hootsuite, a mass-posting tool. Account registered to 1 person with 4 assigned contributors.” 

Now I admit it’s been a while since I’ve used Hootsuite, but at no point do I remember it being possible for someone else, other than the logged in user, to be able to see what specific hootsuite account is associated with what social media accounts. Again, no evidence of this is shown.

Typically, a bot / sockpuppet network cross-posts content, so in an attempt to find these other accounts I used analytics software Crimson Hexagon, which allows you to see all historical tweets (including from a deleted accounts), I ran a few searches on the most retweeted content by NHS Susan, and again this is no convincing behaviour of a sophisticated network.

Indeed, I was only able to see that the account was retweeted a grand total pof 37 times with 20 of these being of a single post that is clearly meant to be a joke (albeit a not very good), in the vein of a parody woke caricature.


As I said at the beginning, there may indeed be a sockpuppet network being run by the government, but it’s a worrying state of affairs when someone tweets this without any evidence and gets over 20k+ retweets. 

O’Connell has said that “We’re analysing the data and seeking a way of presenting it while protecting ourselves from legal issues”.  However, given that all Twitter data is open, I’m struggling to understand why he can’t just list out the 128 accounts he claims are sock puppets. I’m no legal expert but surely he can just caveat with: “I think these accounts…” OR   “these accounts are highly likely to be…” 

Even if what O’Connell says turns out to be all true, it's a strange world when a claim with zero evidence gets shared as a truth, reaching potentially millions of people. 

We seem to be living in a time when any claim is taken as true. Indeed, as someone tweeted to me this morning in response to my questioning of Mr O’Connell’s claim: “There's no evidence to counter his claims though”.

Lastly, in response to the claims Twitter has told the Financial Times there is no evidence of “no co-ordinated manipulation”