Donald Trump’s Agit-Prop Army: The Rise of Zombies, Trolls, and Twitter-Ants
Many of Trump’s avid supporters on Twitter have huge audiences. Individual followers may have follower counts in the tens of thousands. His following, and his follower’s followings, apparently number in the millions.
But here’s the odd thing …
Some of Trump’s cheerleaders are tweeting at a rate of once every four minutes. How can they do that and still hold a job? Who is this army of busy Twitter-ants? Who loves Donald Trump so much that they would tweet every four minutes?
What are Bots and Zombie Armies?
A bot.net is typically a number of open, vulnerable computers that allow a “zombie army” to infiltrate home personal computers for the purpose of spreading viruses through a network of infected computers. In the original meaning of the term, the zombies are automated viruses that perform certain actions, like clicking on certain websites within specific time frames to create a denial-of-service attack.
But it is also being used in pop-terminology to describe an army of propaganda shills, working on social media to create a wave of viral disruption.
Sometimes the accounts you see following an artist, celebrity or political figure really are passionate supporters. But sometimes they are accounts that were purchased for 10 cents apiece and then populated with information that makes them look like they belong to a unique individual, when in actuality there may be just one person managing a hundred similar accounts, like a puppetmaster.
There are approximately 48 million bot accounts on Twitter, according to a study performed by researchers at the University of Southern California and Indiana University. Some of these accounts are simple robots that retweet propaganda; some are managed manually by active posters; most are a hybrid of the two.
The Rise of Social Media Shills and Fake Accounts
Twitter’s rules on the issue of buying and selling Twitter accounts are murky at best, and its enforcement of the rules inconsistent, so there is a thriving gray market dealing in sales of Twitter accounts. Most of these accounts are created from reams of free email accounts, given simple handles like @KNP2BP (whom we’ll visit in a moment), and parked until they are needed or sold. Depending on their age and whether or not they already have a following, Twitter accounts sell for anywhere from a penny apiece to 70 cents each (in U.S. dollars).
In fact, there are now sites that advertise and sell “aged” accounts — that’s right, they age them like wine. This prevents the account from looking as though it were just created, which is particularly useful, one would imagine, for political campaigns where you want your propaganda accounts to look like solid American citizens who’ve been around for awhile and who have just suddenly acquired a keen grassroots passion for their candidate.
Some sites also sell “proxies” — server accounts which let you control multiple Twitter feeds. Twitter generally limits users to five Twitter accounts per IP address. More than that, and Twitter may start requiring phone verification, or will even start closing accounts. By using proxies, you can appear to be accessing your army of Twitter feeds from different IP addresses.
In addition, there are stealth-marketing firms that create armies of bots, trolls and shills for paying clients. As part of their shadowy services they also publish blogs with false and incendiary information, spread rumors-for-hire and malicious memes on social media, create fake trends, and attack people online. Then they create dozens, even hundreds, of Twitter accounts to help propagate their work.
International Black Market for “AgitProp”
Mexico, Russia, Turkey, China, the U.S. and several South American countries have been pegged as some of the worst offenders. Erin Gallagher, who writes for Medium, lists some of the nicknames these bots have in other countries:
- Mexico — peñabots
- Turkey — AK trolls, previously “imamın ordusu” (army of the imam)
- Egypt — legan electronya
- China — 50 cent army
- Russia — nashibots
- US — agitprop
A team of researchers at Oxford Internet Institute at the University of Oxford studied the digital propaganda swirling around the 2016 U.S. election and found that:
“… around 19 million bot accounts tweeted in support of either Trump or Clinton in the week leading up to Election day. Trump bots, however, outnumbered Clinton bots 5:1. Trump bots also worked in a more sophisticated fashion, working to colonize pro-Clinton hashtags (like #ImWithHer) and spread fake news stories and disinformation on how to vote to potential Clinton supporters.”
During a Senate Intelligence Committee hearing, former FBI agent and cybersecurity expert Clint Watts told the panel that “the Russian misinformation campaign didn’t stop with the election of President Trump.”
Phillip Howard, the author of Pax Technica: How the Internet of Things May Set Us Free or Lock Us Up, also researched bot activity during the election. He says, “Social media bots and online trolls didn’t stop at the election — they are still working to spread fake news today.”
It is however, difficult for most people to discern if an account is fake, or manned by honestly passionate supporters. I wanted to see what I could discover, so I decided to poke the ant hill.
Trolling the Trollers
One of the hallmarks of a propaganda army is that they will tag each other when provoked. It’s hard to tell whether the tagged accounts are each manned by a different person or if one person is sending out tweets through the various accounts. But it’s relatively easy to spot accounts that clump together, because they will have similar characteristics — huge numbers of followers and an astronomical number of previous tweets.
This is why I think of agitprop as being an army of ants. They work in teams, like a colony, passing stuff to each other. In attack mode, they may do it manually, tagging three “friends” who each in turn tag a few more people, signaling everyone to join the attack. When they’re just retweeting memes and conspiracy theories, it’s done digitally. Many of these accounts are easily piped to others to automatically retweet what the master account publishes.
I wanted to find out more about some of these supposedly passionate Trump supporters, so I trolled them. (Trolling is like bear-baiting. You throw something out there that is an affront to your targets and likely to enrage them to the point that they will react.)
I randomly picked a photo meme that was attacking the mainstream media for reporting on Melania’s choice of shoes. And I said something mildly insulting. I said they were “f**k me shoes”. In all honesty, I think her shoes are fine and wouldn’t mind owning a pair myself. And oh Lordy, the attack began. It was like sitting down next to a homeless dog. I was instantly covered in social media fleas.
My eye was caught by one poster who said I was clearly a “SATANIST” for my comment on Melania’s footwear. I am a writer, so I’m a bit of a fashion hazard most days, but I thought that was taking it a bit far.
While the fur and feathers flew, I identified a few accounts that I thought merited a closer look. Once I had attracted some attention, it wasn’t hard to find several suspicious accounts, because they repeatedly tag one another — one of the symptoms of agitprop.
Classy Women 4 Trump (@ClassyLady4DJT)
This account, @ClassyLady4DJT, shows that it was formed in April 2016, so it is one year old. It has over 64,000 tweets. If this owner tweeted 12 hours a day, that would be 180 tweets a day, or 15 tweets per hour — one tweet every four minutes!
Many of the posts are actually retweets, but even those usually contain some personal commentary accompanying the retweeted post, along with popular hashtags like #TrumpsArmy #TrumpTrain and #MAGA. So someone has been very busy, all day every day on this account.
The owner of the account did not respond to repeated requests for an interview.
Classy Women frequently retweets Sandra (@SandraTXAS) so I decided to take a closer look at this account as well. Sandra apparently joined in April 2009 — eight years ago. With over 142,000 tweets, the account appears to average 50 tweets a day.
But here’s something even more interesting. There were no tweets made by this account at all until late 2013. The year 2013 has only 20 tweets. So this tweet-storm has only been active since the beginning of 2014 — or for about 40 months. That changes the math significantly. This Twitter account racks up an average of 118 tweets a day.
A lot of the same themes and conspiracy theories pop up here over and over again — fake news, evil Democrats, Satan worshipping, and of course, praise for Trump.
Trump Chick (@JustMy_NameHere)
Boy if this handle, @JustMy_NameHere, doesn’t scream “fake”, I don’t know what does. This account was created in October 2010, but had only one innocuous ‘hello’ tweet that year. Then there was no activity at all for six years. In October 2016 the account suddenly started spewing hundreds of pro-Trump, anti-Clinton posts, many tagging Alex Jones or WikiLeaks.
The account went from zero activity to heavy posting, retweeting, and hashtagging like a pro. The account has racked up over 37,000 tweets in less than seven months, or an average of 186 tweets a day.
Kristin Billitere (@SpecialKMB1969)
Another member of the Classy Lady group, @SpecialKMB1969 was created in March 2011, and from March to early June there was chatter about modeling, dieting and self-healing. Then nothing for the rest of 2011 and no activity again until October 2015 when formerly sweet little Kristin went from posting inspirational and healing quotes to suddenly churning out dozens of tweets a day promoting Trump in ALL CAPS and hashtagging #TrumpTrain #TrumpStrong, #MAGA, and dozens of similar tags.
This account has over 121,000 tweets, which over the course of 18 months is an average of 224 tweets a day — making it the most prolific account I looked at.
I did find Kristin on Facebook and she claims to have joined the Trump campaign in St. Johns County, Florida in July of 2015 as the campaign chair. Perhaps she simply resurrected her old Twitter account and turned it into a campaign machine. According to her Facebook page she left the campaign in October 2016, but she continues to post in support of Trump.
Her current Twitter profile still claims that she is Chair of St. Johns County. During her tenure with the campaign she openly described herself as an “entrepreneur inspired by the Trump Movement” and Chair of the St. Johns and Ponte Vedra campaigns.
However, I contacted the Republican Party of St. Johns County, which has an official Twitter feed, @StJohnsCtyREC. Diane Scherff, who is the Chairman, Vice Chairman and Publicity Director for the St. Johns County Donald Trump Campaign, said “I don’t know who that person is. I was the Trump Chairman for St. Johns County the entire time. I did it all — social media, door knocks, and office.”
Billitere declined to comment or be interviewed for this article, and she blocked me on Twitter when I requested an interview.
“I don’t know who that person is. I was the Trump Chairman for St. Johns County the entire time.”
Kathleen joined Twitter in June of 2011 but had absolutely no activity for almost four years — then she started posting almost exclusively about politics. She has 159,000 tweets, an average of 189 tweets per day. I think Kathleen, a retired government worker, is a “real” person as opposed to a bot account, but at this rate, she’s posting at least 15 tweets per hour over the course of a 12 hour day, so I can’t be certain. This does not include replies to other Twitter accounts.
@FleederMae joined in December 2008, with two brief posts in December. Then there was no activity in 2009 or 2010, three posts in 2011, and activity finally started with political posts in 2014. With only 42,000 posts, FleederMae is one of the lower propensity accounts I looked at, posting just 35 times a day.
How to Battle the Zombie Apocalypse
Colombian hacker Andrés Sepúlveda wrote a software program called Social Media Predator, and in a March 2016 interview with Bloomberg, Sepulveda explained that the program let him — and others — direct a virtual army of fake Twitter accounts.
“Sepúlveda said that voters trusted what they thought were spontaneous expressions of real people on social media more than they did experts on television and in newspapers. The software let him quickly change names, profile pictures, and biographies to fit any need. Eventually, he discovered, he could manipulate the public debate as easily as moving pieces on a chessboard.”
Russians have been using social media disinformation techniques since 2008, according to a recent Rand report, which called them a “firehose of falsehoods”.
Trying to battle the zombie-ant armies of disinformation may feel a little bit like being the doomed extra in a bad B-roll movie, but there are a few things you can do:
1. Vet social media accounts before you follow them. Don’t follow an account just because you think they agree with you ideologically.
2. Check to see that social media users actually have a life — look for photos and posts about family, sports, pets and travel.
3. Block or blacklist sites that are known propaganda hubs or seem suspicious. Sites identified by non-partisan researchers PropOrNot as egregious propaganda offenders include angrypatriotmovement.com, americasfreedomfighters.com, beforeitsnews.com, and wearechange.org.
4. Report social media accounts if you believe they exist solely to disseminate biased information, especially if the accounts regularly attack others.
Originally published at www.huffingtonpost.com on April 26, 2017.