When Trolls Attack

If you are a social media activist, organization or candidate, every now and then one of your tweets will trigger a coordinated troll attack. I know this because I have been the target of several over the past few years. These days, the knee-jerk reaction is to think these attacks are coming from Russian bots and trolls, after all, the news is filled with such stories. But it is at least as likely that the attacks come from coordinated alt-right trolls driven by social media instigators with networks of willing retweeters and troublemakers who gladly take their cues to implement a “ratio” attack.

Getting “ratioed” is how networks of political trolls cyber-bully activist voices into submission. Once a tweet is identified as being worthy of attack, a network of several hundred trolls commence replying to the tweet with insults and attacks designed to clog up the activist’s notifications stream. These replies are compounded by trolls retweeting each other, turning each attack reply into dozens of notifications. This is called getting “ratioed” because the ratio of negative comments to likes and retweets is amplified.

In principle, if thousands of people reply to a tweet with substantive criticisms, creating a wave of opposition to a tweet and its tweeter, it is a good measure of opposition to the comment and commenter. But when the replies are repetitive, non-substantive, out of context, and driven by a community of hundreds who do this to people frequently, the implications of the “ratio” attack is seriously diminished. In effect, the attacks become simply 1) an annoyance and 2) a display of the bullying nature of the attackers.

In an age where we are increasingly craving meaningful dialogue on important policy issues, ratio attacks by political extremists trying to bully people into silence is exactly the opposite of what we seek. Still, the practice happens far too often.

My most recent experience with a “ratio” attack centered around one of my tweets about gun control.

Since the shooting at Marjorie Stoneman Douglas High School, where a teenager with an assault rifle killed 17 students and staff, and wounded another 17, several MSDHS students have become prominent activists. Most of the students have been advocating for gun control measures as part of their effort to make our schools safe. One of the students, Kyle Kashuv, has taken a different track, advocating against gun control.

Kashuv has differentiated himself not only in his policy position, but also in his tactics. Most publicly, he has chosen to meet with lawmakers in Washington to lobby them for policy changes to make students safe that do not include any gun control. As we might imagine, his position has made him the darling of the Trump Administration and NRA-backing Members of Congress. In fact, Kashuv has managed to meet with the President, the Vice President and several members of Congress, thanks to help from former Trump White House staff Anthony Scaramucci and Sean Spicer.

That is impressive work for a 17-year old high school student. And if you read his tweets over these past weeks, he will tell you how impressive it is. He also makes it clear that he thinks the other MSDHS students who are pursuing a grassroots campaign on social media, TV, and at rallies are failing because they are just trying to get attention and cause disruption. He makes it abundantly clear that compared to his more conventional working of the powers that be in Washington, they are a bunch of amateurs.

Let us leave aside any discussion for the moment about how conventional lobbying for gun control has gone nowhere for decades and that true political movements do not start in Washington, they start at the grassroots and take over parties and governments. That is a longer debate, which would likely lead to conclusions that the MSDHS students in the #NeverAgain campaign are pursuing as legitimate a strategy as Kashuv.

Instead, let’s look at the other tactics Kashuv is using in addition to his insider meetings with Trump, Pence and Members of Congress. In particular, let’s look at Kashuv’s collaboration with a network of cyber-bullies, including alt-right ring-leaders like Jack Posbiec.

My own experience with Kashuv’s collaboration with Posobiec’s troll network started on March 15, around dinner time — I imagine that some of you are now thinking, “Beware the Ides of March,” and well I should have been wary). I was reading through a bunch of tweets about why we should not take policy advice from teenagers, posted mostly by people who want to protect teenagers’ right to own assault weapons, when I came across a tweet by Kashuv (note, I admit I did not know who he was before I tweeted a reply to him… you know… “Beware…”).

Kashuv was snarkily attacking Alyssa Milano (the actress) for her praise of David Hogg (one of the MSDHS students advocating for gun control). Specifically, Kashuv was asking Milano what qualified her to make a judgment about Hogg. Specifically, he asked when she got her political science degree and what practical political experience she had.

As a longtime political science professor and political operative, I decided to reply in defense of Milano and Hogg.

Figure 1. QT reply to @KyleKashuv’s comment to @Alyssa_Milano

Note a few things about my tweet to Kashuv: 1) it did not attack Kashuv, 2) it spoke directly to Kashuv’s request for academic credentials, and 3) it responded substantively, with a light-hearted touch, to his comment.

Now, obviously, I did not mention when I got my degrees, nor did I mention my experience as a political operative. There was not enough room to include all that. Nor did I mention that I had been following the social media efforts of David Hogg and some of the other MSDHS students in the #NeverAgain campaign. Nor did I mention that I had recently been interviewed by The Hill about their social media success. In other words, I had all the credentials Kashuv seemed to be demanding of Milano, so I came to her defense. I did this for several reasons. First, I have been quite engaged with the gun violence debate for many years. Second, I am very engaged in anything related to the use of social media for advocacy. Third, I found it ironic that a 17-year old high school student exercising his right to engage in politics seemed to think that Milano did not have the same right. And fourth, I found it hard to accept a 17-year high school student demanding college credentials as a requirement for expressing a political view since he certainly does not have any.

So, I chimed in with a tweet, then went back to enjoying the St. Patty’s entertainment at the National Press Club. When I checked my Twitter feed a few hours later, I saw that I was under attack by a few hundred trolls.

Nearly all the attacks were about my mentioning my political science degrees. Apparently, to these attackers, that was bad form, even though it was a direct response to Kashuv’s demand for such credentials from Milano. Comments ranged from “you should get a refund,” to “I will never send my kids to any school where you teach,” to “those who can’t do, teach.” Not only were these comments devoid of context from Kashuv’s original tweet, but they were so wedded to the idea that academic credentials are worthless that I was reminded of an observation by Lara Brown, the Director of the Graduate School of Political Management at George Washington University (where I also teach) that lack of expertise, for many Americans these days, has become their preferred expertise.

Given what I do for work (as a political operative and opinion researcher), I have access to content analysis software and the entire Twitter firehose, including every tweet for the past twelve months. So, I dug into the replies to my tweet, built a list of Twitter accounts participating in the bullying and analyzed what they say on Twitter, who they attack and who influences them. Here are some of the things I found:

Despite asking for academic credentials, when I offered them, Kashuv immediately dismissed them as useless. Makes you wonder why he asked for them in the first place. Was it because he planned to dismiss them upon getting them? Or just that credentials are worthless if the person with them disagrees with him?

Figure 2. @KyleKashuv rejects the value of the academic credentials after requesting them

Given that Kashuv has over 100,000 followers, it is not surprising that he generated so many likes and retweets. But Kashuv took it a step forward. He tweeted my tweet to @JackPosobiec, a well-known instigator of alt-right trolls.

Figure 3. @KyleKashuv asks @JackPosobiec for help in attacking me

Kashuv seemed to have known that his solicitation for help from Posobiec was problematic, because he eventually deleted that tweet, hoping to wipe away evidence that he was trying to orchestrate a cyber-bully attack on me. After all, if Kashuv wants to keep playing the “I’m better than the other Parkland students because I am talking to the President and Congress to pass my anti-gun control solution to school shootings while they are just rabble-rousing on social media, TV and at rallies,” he does not want people to know that he is deliberately collaborating with someone who pushed the Pizza-gate conspiracy. He does not want people to know that he is launching cyber-bully attacks by alt-right #fakenews purveyors.

Figure 4. @KyleKashuv deletes tweet soliciting help from @JackPosobiec

Obviously, there is much more to be told here. I have barely scratch the surface exploring the history of tweets posted by these trolls. There is much to learn, like who else have they attacked, what issues trigger their attacks and who are their influencers. But thanks to the public nature of their attacks on me, I now have a list of about 700 of them to analyze. I can hardly wait.

Meanwhile, if you find yourself under attack from one of these alt-right groups trying to “ratio” you, keep your cool. Do not bother to engage them on the facts. They do not care about facts. And, like feeding gremlins after midnight, if you engage with them they will amplify and multiply their attacks. Usually, just ignoring them will make them go away, even if it takes a few days. Remember, while they may think they are winning by posting a lot of negative replies to your tweet, the people you are talking to via social media are unlikely to be persuaded by their comments.