By Lee Kyung-mi, staff reporter
The National Intelligence Service (NIS) could have posted as many as 22 million politically motivated Twitter messages to interfere in election outcomes, prosecutors hinted this week.
Prosecutors confirmed that 22 million messages had been posted or retweeted from 2,653 Twitter accounts belonging to members of the NIS’s psychological operations division. But prosecutors included only 1.21 million of them in their indictment, citing personnel constraints and trial schedule issues. This means the other 20.8 million have yet to be analyzed.
Observers are already predicting that if the additional tweets are analyzed or a special prosecutor’s investigation takes place, the number of NIS tweets aimed at influencing politics and the election could turn out to be much larger.
Prosecutors offered a detailed account of their tracking of the NIS tweets on Dec. 5 during the trial of former NIS director Won Sei-hoon on charges of violating the Public Official Election Act. The trial is being conducted by the 21st criminal division of Seoul Central District Court, under judge Lee Beom-gyun.
In a search of the email accounts of members of the NIS “Twitter team” - the fifth security team in its psychological operations divisions - prosecutors uncovered 414 team member accounts by combing through messages and attachments.
“Many of the accounts had part of the employees’ names in the user names, and these were found to match the names of fifth security team members that we had ascertained independently,” the prosecutors said.
Prosecutors isolated a primary group of 383 “definite” accounts, including ones admitted to by NIS agents, and found that messages from those accounts had simultaneously gone out to another 2,270 accounts, which were found to be shared by NIS agents. By looking at the total of 2,653 accounts administered by the agents, they found 22 million tweets that were posted or linked between January 2011 and December 2012.
But the indictment only listed 1.21 million election- or politics-related posts, including 120,000 messages drafted by the 383 accounts and 1.09 million retweets of them from the 2,270 accounts. The remaining 20,910,000 messages had not been analyzed out the total 22 million.
During the trial, prosecutors said they had determined most of the 2,653 accounts from the primary and secondary groups to have been used for “illegal election and political purposes.”
“Automated programs and other means were used for simultaneous retweeting, and we found other cases of irregular Twitter activity, including one person using dozens, even hundreds of accounts while focusing on a specific topic such as the election,” they said.
But the prosecutors also said staff and trial schedule limitations made it impossible to examine all 22 million messages and determine if they qualified as intended to influence politics or elections.
“We decided to adopt a ‘selective focus’ approach and issue an indictment first for the 1.21 million messages that were drafted or retweeted from the 383 accounts [in the primary group],” they said.
It took until Nov. 20, with the trial already well under way, for the 1.21 million messages to be added to the indictment. The delay resulted from the NIS refusing to cooperate with the investigation, as well as members of the prosecution leadership hampering it.
The question now is how many more politically motivated messages from NIS agents will emerge once the 20.8 million texts the prosecutors haven’t yet looked at are examined.
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