Toward the end of last week, there was a real shocker of an announcement in the industry when Ford announced that it will be adopting the Tesla/”NACS” charge plug for vehicles starting in 2025. When there’s a big story like that, one important aspect of ongoing coverage is to see how other players in the industry respond to it. Because the news came late in the week, many organizations weren’t able to respond before the holiday weekend, but two players did get back to me with statements (which I covered and analyzed a bit here).
Before posting them here on CleanTechnica, I wanted to get word out to readers of just the raw statements a little faster on Twitter, and what I found covering these two companies in separate tweets shocked me a little. Here’s my tweet about Electrify America’s statement:
“Electrify America, the nation’s largest open ultra-fast charging network, is built on the widely adopted SAE Combo Charging System (CCS-1) standard. Over 26 automotive brands utilize the CCS-1 standard today. Since our founding, we have focused on building an… pic.twitter.com/1D0LnstugJ
— Jennifer's EV Adventures 🌞⚡🚘📷 (@JenniferSensiba) May 26, 2023
And here’s my tweet sharing a statement from charging manufacturer FreeWire:
Freewire announces the inclusion of Tesla/NACS plugs on their equipment by mid-2024.
"FreeWire commends the recent announcement by Tesla and Ford to make NACS charging accessible to more vehicles. For a sustainable transition to electric transportation, it is… pic.twitter.com/urojsswNqm
— Jennifer's EV Adventures 🌞⚡🚘📷 (@JenniferSensiba) May 26, 2023
One Big Difference In The Replies
Both tweets got a lot of engagement (at least by my lowly 2500ish follower standards), but I noticed a completely different attitude being taken toward Electrify America compared to Freewire, which got me curious.
Before I go on, I do want to make sure it’s clear that I’m not accusing all criticism of Electrify America as having come from bots and sock puppets. There are lots of legitimate reasons to be critical of the company, and lots of very much human-run social media accounts sharing this criticism. Failures to start a charge on the first try are really frustrating, especially in the cold or the rain. Slow charging speeds are another big problem for some drivers (I get that every time with my Bolt, as it does 55 kW max). There is even the occasional stranding that happens when a station is completely down.
Informing the public about these problems is not only honest, but it’s good journalism. Holding Volkswagen Group accountable for fulfilling its obligations under the Dieselgate settlement and putting pressure on Electrify America to fix these problems is very, very important.
But not all criticism is constructive and honest. I’ll pick a reply out to make this point with:
On the surface, this sounds like good evidence that Electrify America is terrible. But, the grammar is just a little off and it just doesn’t smell quite right. So, I took a look at the account that posted it and found that there’s no profile picture, no header image, no description in the profile, and generally no other effort put into the account. It has almost no followers and it’s practically brand new.
Here’s another one, but with a blatantly dishonest take:
Once again, we’re looking at a very much low-effort sock puppet account with all of the same signatures of being a paid troll as the first one:
I won’t share the tweets here because you can try this yourself, but I did some more experimenting to see if the bots would show up to bash Electrify America based on keywords. All I did was tweet just the name of several large companies in the cleantech space, like Tesla, ChargePoint, EVgo, and (last, but not least) Electrify America. For most companies, there was no response except friends asking me what I was doing. For Electrify America, several low- and medium-quality accounts responded as if I was saying something about the company, telling me about how terrible they are in a complete non-sequitur fashion.
What Is Clear
Based on what I’ve seen, it seems clear that somebody has it out for Electrify America and they’re engaged in an astroturfing campaign to discredit the EV charging brand. As I said earlier, there’s a lot of good criticism by real people, but there’s also this effort to make the company’s problems look bigger than they really are and look like they’re upsetting more people than they really are. They used a mix of what are probably manually-operated fake accounts and bot accounts that are triggered by the company’s name to inject negativity into real conversations others are having.
What We Don’t Know
What we don’t know, and probably couldn’t figure out without Twitter’s internal help, is who is doing this astroturfing and why. I’ll speculate on possibilities here.
One potential perpetrator is a foreign government. The most well known among such groups are the Wumao, also known as the “50 Cent Party” or “50 Cent Army,” a term used to describe Chinese state-sponsored online trolls. These trolls are paid by the Chinese government to post comments and engage in online discussions that promote the government’s interests and policies, manipulate public opinion, and discredit critics or opposing views. The term “wumao” (五毛) literally translates to “50 cents” in Chinese, which is believed to be the amount these trolls receive for each post they make. However, it’s worth noting that the actual payment structure may vary and some may not be paid at all.
Similar state-sponsored online trolling activities have been reported in other countries as well, such as Russia’s “Internet Research Agency” and Iran’s “Iranian Cyber Army.” These groups typically operate with similar goals, such as promoting their government’s agenda, spreading disinformation, and influencing public opinion both domestically and internationally.
These operations can have significant consequences on public discourse and democratic processes. They can contribute to the polarization of opinions and the erosion of trust in institutions, media, and facts. As a result, many governments and social media platforms have started taking measures to counter these activities, such as implementing stricter content moderation policies, improving user verification processes, and sharing information about coordinated disinformation campaigns.
While it’s tempting to think that an entity like Electrify America is too small of a target for these government efforts, we need to keep in mind that the Chinese government has left fingerprints on similar campaigns against cleantech companies in the past and it would make a lot of sense to try to weaken or sow mistrust between different cleantech companies in the United States.
There are also other possibilities to consider, such as a group of investors trying to pump stocks with astroturfing, competing companies that would like to see Electrify America fail, or perhaps even Volkswagen itself trying to get out of having to run a charging provider (I don’t think this last one is likely, but it’s sure to come up in the comments).
Not Much Can Be Done Other Than Pointing It Out
The problem with trying to combat these sorts of bot and astroturf campaigns is that it’s a lot like trying to drink from the firehose. Social media accounts are free to set up, and even identity verification can be manipulated to make it appear that fake accounts are real people. No matter how many fake accounts and bots you expose and even get banned from social media, more are made every day to quickly replace them.
The only way to combat them is to teach social media users how to spot them. They almost always have low numbers of followers, don’t seem to get English quite right, and will show up to comment on posts of people they don’t have any kind of a relationship with. They’ll often have a tame and normal-looking front page where they’re fans of TV shows, sports, or other such things, but their replies are all about other things.
If enough real internet users figure out that they’re being manipulated, these sorts of attacks would be difficult to pull off.
Featured image: “Twitter Bots,” generated by Jasper.AI
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