This is is an internet mystery that is now mostly defunct. I’m going to write it down here anyways in case someone can tell me what was going on, or will be able to in the future.
UPDATE, 2020-05-17: UrracaWatch briefly went back up briefly in December 2020. It is down again, but this time I was able to capture a version on The Internet Archive. Here’s a link to that archived version.
In July 2019, a few people on Professional Biodefense Twitter noted that they were getting follows or likes from some very idiosyncratic twitter accounts. (Some more screenshots are available at that link.)
The posts on these accounts had a few things in common:
- Links to apparently random web pages related to chemical weapons, biological weapons, or health care
- These links are routed through “UrracaWatch.com” before leading to the final link
- No commentary
The accounts also have a few other properties:
- Real-sounding usernames and display names
- No other posts on the account
- I tried reverse-image-searching a couple account-related images and didn’t see anything. James Diggans on Twitter tried doing the same for account profile photos (of people) and also didn’t find results.
The choice of websites linked were very strange. They looked like someone searched for various chem/bioweapon/health-related words, then chose random websites from the first page or two of search results. Definition pages, scholarly articles, products (but all from very different websites.)
Some example UrracaWatch bot account handles: DeterNoBoom, fumeFume31, ChemOrRiley, ChristoBerk, BioWeaP0n, ScienceGina, chempower2112, ChemistWannabe. All of these looked exactly like the Mark Davis @ChemPower2112. (Sidenote: I really wish I had archived these more properly. If you find an internet mystery you might want to investigate later, save all the pages right away. You’re just going to have to take me on faith. Alternatively, if you have more screenshots of any of these websites or accounts, please send them to me.)
And here are some facts about the (now-defunct) website UrracaWatch:
- The website had a very simple format – a list of links (the same kinds of bio/chem/health links that end up on the twitter pages), and a text bar at the top for entering new links.
- (I tried using it to submit a link and didn’t see an immediate new entry on the page.)
- There were no advertisements, information on the creators, other pages, etc.
- According to the page source code and the tracker- and cross-request-detecting Firefox app Ghostery, there were no trackers, counters, advertisers, or any other complexity on the site.
- According to the ICANN registry, the domain UrracaWatch.com was registered 9-17-2018 via GoDaddy. The domain has now expired as of 9-17-2019, probably as part of a 12-month domain purchase.
- Urraca is a spanish word for magpie, which was a messenger of death in the view of the Anasazi people. (The messenger of death part probably isn’t relevant here, but they mention the word as part of a real-life spooky historical site in The Black Tapes Podcast, and this added an unavoidable sinister flavor.) (Urraca is also a woman’s name.)
(I don’t have a screenshot of the website. A March 2019 Internet Archive snapshot is blank, but I’m not sure if that’s an error or was an accurate reflection at the time.)
As far as I can tell, nobody aside from these twitterbots have ever linked to or used UrracaWatch.com for anything at all, anywhere on the web.
By and large, the twitterbots – and I think they must be bots – have been banned. The website is down.
But come on, what on earth was UrracaWatch?
- Advertisement scheme
- Test of some kind of Twitter-scraping link- or ad-bot that happened to focus on the biodefense community on twitter for some reason
- Weird psy-op
I’m dubious of the advertisement angle. I’ve been enjoying a lot of the podcast Reply All lately, especially their episodes on weird scams. There’s an interesting point made in my favorite episode (The Case of the Phantom Caller) in dissecting a weird communication, which I asked myself here – I just can’t see how anyone is making money off of this. Again, there were occasional product links, but they were to all different websites that looked like legitimate stores, and I don’t think I ever saw multiple links to the same store.
That leaves “bot test” and “weird psy-op”, or something I haven’t thought of yet. If it was propaganda, it wasn’t very good. If you have a guess about what was going on, let me know.
Automated content aggregating farms randomly choose topic words. Here they chose biodefense or “biowar protection” etc. Then try to get some traffic to the page, as part of that SEO they make twitter bots that follow people related to the randomly chosen topic words, tweet random google results. Once the page starts getting off the ground, they add ads to it. I think google has some process whereby it needs to see “real” traffic to a webpage before it starts paying for ads on it. So that may explain why it had no ads / way to make money when you saw it.
Urraca could come from choosing a random far synonym for biowar/death. The algorithm chose a far synonym because others already had domains registered.
Just an algorithm trying to randomly make money, IMO.