On Jan. 21, FBI agents raided the home and campaign office of Rep. Henry Cuellar (D-TX). And it wasn’t long before the love came pouring in on Twitter, with Cuellar die-hards stuffing his replies with encouragement a few days later.

“Here we will be supporting until the end.”

“Bravo many more achievements.”

“We are getting better and better.”

“For better things for the country!!”

“Hopefully Henry can stay in congress.”

But these well-wishers aren’t constituents, supporters, or adoring fans. They’re a coordinated network of fake troll accounts, and they’re on a mission.

Cuellar, one of the most conservative Democrats in Congress, had never seen much engagement before the raids, with his tweets normally only drawing a half dozen or so replies. But after the FBI came knocking, Cuellar’s replies teemed with critics calling on him to resign, reminding him of the investigation, and taunting the nine-term congressman with the thought of prison. Within a week, those replies were matched with missives from ostensible supporters swooping in to battle the haters.

Experts say that the Cuellar-positive accounts bear the hallmarks of an inauthentic network meant to amplify or distort narratives online. Many of the accounts were created in January or February of this year—just after the FBI raid—which could suggest they are controlled by the same actor, while another bunch was similarly created in July or August 2021. Cuellar content makes up the overwhelming majority of their interactions, and they comment religiously on his posts.

Cuellar’s office did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

We identified at least two profile photos from these accounts that appear to have been appropriated from other social media accounts, an indicator that these accounts are misrepresenting their identities.

a spokesperson for cybersecurity firm Mandiant

As is often the case with inauthentic networks, these accounts feature profile photos that appear similar or touched up—in this case, they’re pastel-colored or black-and-white images touched up with a soft glow. In some cases, the operator seems to have stolen profile images from other accounts, according to an analysis that cybersecurity firm Mandiant shared with The Daily Beast. In one case, an account seems to have stolen a photo of John Mayer.

A Mandiant spokesperson for the firm’s analysis team said the network does appear focused on supporting Cuellar, and that the proprietors seem to have taken steps to mask their identity.

“There does appear to be some coordinated activity” among the network, the spokesperson noted—both in amplifying Cuellar’s tweets and criticizing his Democratic primary opponent, Jessica Cisneros.

“We identified at least two profile photos from these accounts that appear to have been appropriated from other social media accounts, an indicator that these accounts are misrepresenting their identities,” the spokesperson added.

The accounts are riddled with other red flags. Their user names follow a similar formula. They have very few followers. Many don’t even follow the congressman’s account, yet somehow they track his every move.

In a relatively bland tweet on Feb. 10, for instance, Cuellar voiced support for an electric vehicle grid in Texas, adding that he voted for the bipartisan infrastructure deal to help bring that project to life. In the comment section below, the crowd went wild.

“As always doing everything for people. That’s why Mr. Cuellar is recognized,” said one commenter.

“Texas will be better off with you, my family and I will vote for you Mr Cuellar,” said another.

“Henry has the best proposals,” one chimed.

Another outside researcher shared data with The Daily Beast showing that many of the accounts were created in the days following the FBI raid.

The investigation is said to be attached to a sweeping federal probe into American businessmen and their dealings with Azerbaijan, according to ABC News. Cuellar’s own ties to the country stretch back at least a decade, and this isn’t the first time they have drawn scrutiny. In 2013, his office and a cohort of congressional colleagues came under the microscope regarding a trip eventually revealed to have been funded by the country’s state-owned oil company.

While the members of Congress who were a part of the trip were eventually cleared by the House Ethics Committee, the federal investigation netted a guilty plea in 2018 from a Turkish-American businessman and Cuellar donor who had lied to Congress about the source of the money.

Shelby Grossman, a social media research scholar at Stanford, also told The Daily Beast she noticed some Spanish-language activity within the accounts.

“Several of the accounts replying positively to Rep. Cuellar’s tweets have a long gap between tweets that is marked by a change in language—tweeting in Spanish in 2021, and then tweeting in English in 2022,” Grossman said. “In at least two cases the Spanish tweets were deleted… These are tactics commonly used by digital marketing firms, where the accounts are used for different marketing campaigns over time.”

The accounts aren’t just pro-Cuellar, they have also gone after Cuellar’s primary opponent, Jessica Cisneros, a progressive who’s making her second attempt to unseat the moderate congressman. The race has grown increasingly caustic in recent weeks, with Cuellar on Tuesday releasing a new ad calling a vote for Cisneros “a risk we can’t afford.”

Lisa Kaplan, CEO of the disinformation tracking firm Alethea Group, told The Daily Beast that her examination suggested a coordinated effort to attack Cisneros while promoting Cuellar.

“This tactic of repeatedly posting comments on high profile accounts is something we consistently see in our work to understand the information landscape,” she said.

The trolls are calling Cisneros a “hypocrite,” with others adding, “In texas the experience is worth, you don’t have it.”

“You’re too young to represent us in congress,” one account said.

“You always want to pretend that you are doing well, but you are defeated,” said another.

Several of the accounts focusing on Cisneros were created just around the time she launched her primary bid in August 2021.

The network is not stopping at attacking Cisneros’ personal account. Cuellar reply guys are also targeting her on third-party posts, such as apparently coordinated replies to a CNN report that Cisneros had won a major endorsement from fellow progressive Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT).

Some accounts piled on to a photo posted from a Feb. 12 rally Cisneros hosted alongside Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) and fellow progressive congressional candidate Greg Casar, who is running in Austin.

Cuellar and Cisneros’ political faceoff is in its final days, with mail ballots in Texas already being distributed and early voting having begun on Feb. 14. Election Day is March 1.





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