Hyped Company Twitter Accounts Seeking Covid Vaccine Trials: Report

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More than 100 Twitter accounts heavily promoted Ocugen shares.

A network of Twitter accounts pushed messages to boost the stock price of a biotech company as it sought permission to conduct a clinical trial of its Covid-19 vaccine, according to research provided to Bloomberg News .

The tweets promoted shares of Malvern, Pennsylvania-based Ocugen Inc. at rates well above market value, according to research by Alethea Group, a startup that tracks misinformation. The company’s stock price nearly doubled in just over a week.

The findings suggest a coordinated effort on social media to influence interest in an otherwise little-known medtech company, according to Lisa Kaplan, founder and chief executive of Alethea Group.

“Individuals sharing information about businesses online is nothing new, but the use of social media manipulation tactics for financial gain is something we’ve long anticipated and expect to increase,” Kaplan said. “Given the volatility in public markets, there is an increased incentive for these types of attacks, which ultimately hurts companies, investors and shareholders.”

In October, Ocugen applied to the US Food and Drug Administration for clinical trial authorization for a Covid-19 vaccine. The vaccine, known as Covaxin, was developed by Indian company Bharat Biotech International Ltd. and does not use the messenger RNA technology that Moderna Inc. and Pfizer Inc. relied on for their vaccines.

The company officially filed the application on October 27. The shares then surged 88% over the next seven days, closing at $15.67 on November 2, before shedding all those gains on November 15, when it closed at $8.32.

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After surging last year, Ocugen is now trading well below its peers

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During that time, more than 100 Twitter accounts heavily promoted Ocugen stock, urging followers to invest, saying the stock’s value would soon exceed $200 per share, according to screenshots of the tweets, including many have since been deleted. “$OCGN buy rumored sell MFS news #OCGN #Bullish,” said a tweet replicated by a handful of Twitter accounts that used image photography, according to analysis by Bloomberg News.

Ocugen did not respond to messages seeking comment.

The researchers said the accounts acted like bots and posted more than 15,000 tweets, sometimes within minutes of each other. Account names included @SmileAI10 and @moviecriticbot, and they often used the #OCGN and #Bullish hashtags. Alethea researchers analyzed tweets from 105 Twitter accounts over a two-week period last year. In the two months immediately preceding Ocugen’s application for FDA approval, the same accounts sent a total of some 3,400 tweets, according to Alethea’s findings.

Neither @SmileAI10 nor @moviecriticbot responded to messages from Bloomberg News seeking comment. The @moviecriticbot has since been suspended.

The amount of bot activity on the social media service has become a point of contention in Elon Musk’s efforts to buy Twitter Inc., as he threatened to walk away unless the social media company does. can prove that bots accounted for less than 5% of users.

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It remains unclear who operated the Twitter accounts that participated in promoting Ocugen stock, and Alethea researchers have not definitively determined that the motive was to increase the stock’s value.

The username and password credentials for some of the Twitter accounts that promoted Ocugen were available in publicly available databases on the GitHub codesharing site. The fact that the accounts were accessible to anyone with knowledge of the GitHub page suggested to researchers that anyone could have monitored suspicious Twitter accounts, since the username and password data was public.

The network’s reach was relatively limited and it apparently failed to attract the attention that would be desirable for anyone trying to influence public opinion on a large scale, according to an analysis by C. Shawn Eib, principal analyst at Alethea. . Group having discovered the activity.

Much of the activity appears to have been coordinated through a Twitter profile known as @RecvProfit, an anonymous user who uses a stock image and frequently tweets about cryptocurrencies, non-fungible tokens and marketing techniques. digital, according to Eib. Followers of the account would replicate @RecvProfit tweets within minutes, sending their own posts and promoting @RecvProfit as retweets.

The account could have been the creation of an individual who invested in cheap stocks and then used inauthentic social media activity to try to inflate the value of the stock price, the researchers said.

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The @RecvProfit account did not respond to multiple messages seeking comment on this story. The account has since been suspended.

While the specific motive for Ocugen’s tweets remains unclear, the case appears to be another example of how social media is a new tool being used to carry out traditional investment schemes, said Christopher Hetner, former Senior Cybersecurity Advisor to the Chairman of US Securities. and Exchange Commission who now works as an advisor to the National Association of Corporate Directors.

Last month, the SEC warned investors to beware of “pump-and-dump” efforts in which promoters inflate a company’s stock price by spreading positive but often false rumors. They then dump the shares before the hype dies down.

In April, a Florida day trader pleaded guilty to spreading false rumors in financial chat rooms and public company news services in order to drive up prices and earn more than $130,000 in ill-gotten gains. In 2019, the SEC indicted nine defendants in connection with a conspiracy to hack the SEC’s EDGAR database to steal nonpublic data that allegedly helped them make more than $4 million in profits.

“Pump and dump systems aren’t new, but social media gives the SEC a whole new element to consider in terms of risk management,” Hetner said.

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