What began as a grassroots online campaign featuring a schoolboy has grown into a mass hashtag protest against Russia's exclusion from the Winter Olympics — backed by what appear to be fake Twitter accounts and users connected to past pro-Kremlin causes.
Many ordinary Russians are undoubtedly upset about an International Olympic Committee (IOC) decision to ban Russia's team from the Pyeongchang games in South Korea early next year due to "unprecedented" doping violations.
However, this public sentiment has been amplified by apparently automated or semi-automated Twitter accounts known as "bots" and "trolls," according to analysis of social media traffic by Reuters and a British-based security researcher.
Social media companies, including Twitter, are under intense scrutiny in the United States where lawmakers suspect their platforms were used as part of an alleged Russian effort to sway the 2016 U.S. presidential election in favor of Donald Trump. The Kremlin has flatly denied the accusations.
President Vladimir Putin dismissed the IOC's decision, made on Tuesday, as "orchestrated and politically-motivated."
State media have in turn reported extensively on the protest movement around the "NoRussiaNoGames" hashtag, saying they are covering a public backlash just as any other news outlet would do and denying their work is orchestrated.
But researcher Ben Nimmo said that while much of the public support for Russian athletes online was authentic, the Twitter activity showed not all of it can be taken at face value.
"What we've got here is a small but genuine hashtag campaign, which is being exaggerated and amplified by Russian state propaganda outlets to make it look like the campaign is huge and an upwelling of popular anger," said Nimmo, who works for the Digital Forensic Research Lab of the Washington-based Atlantic Council think tank.
Twitter did not answer written questions sent by Reuters but referred to its user policy which prohibits spamming by both automated and non-automated accounts.