Twitter Hashtags Are a New Battlefield for Information Warfare

Hashtags should be viewed as skeptically as FOX News

Manny Otiko
Feb 11 · 5 min read
Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) has been subject to information warfare through Twitter hashtags (Nrkbeta/Flickr)

hen I saw #AOCLied and #AlexandriaOcasioSmollett trending on Twitter last week, I realized what it was — information warfare. Information warfare, which has existed for several years, has taken on a new battlefield. Social media has become a new tool for shaping minds. But just like propaganda, information warfare on social media doesn’t have to be accurate. It just has to fit a narrative.

The hashtags were designed to convince people Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.,) known as AOC, lied about hiding during the Capitol attack. Ocasio-Cortez’s office is in the Cannon building, which is attached to the main Capitol building by a tunnel. Both buildings were evacuated during the Jan. 6 attack. She never said she was in the main Capitol building. But the hashtags were part of a smear campaign to make people believe she exaggerated to gain sympathy.

“Ocasio-Cortez was attacked on social media with bad-faith attempts to discredit her story by people who falsely claimed she exaggerated the danger she was in because she wasn’t actually inside the main Capitol building where the House and Senate chambers are located,” said Snopes, a site that debunks online rumors and conspiracy theories. Snopes also called the AOC smear “mostly false.”

But even though this story has been debunked, many people will still believe it. Disinformation has a nasty habit of sticking in people’s minds. Many Republicans still believe President Barack Obama was born in Kenya, and that lie was shot down more than 10 years ago!

Information warfare is just the latest way of attacking her. But many hashtags are blatantly incorrect. I recently saw a hashtag about President Donald Trump that read #bestpresidentever. It was ridiculous, but it was there to drive a narrative and get Republicans fired up.

“The sad thing about disinformation is that once the truth comes out, the damage has already been done,” said Ocasio-Cortez in a tweet. “People have already been misled, radicalized & believe lies to a point where their hatred has brewed to violence. That’s what led to the 6th, and it’s happening right now.”

The war against AOC

Conservatives loathe Ocasio-Cortez. She’s liberal, she’s not white and wants to upset the political order. She’s also a Democratic socialist, which is worse than being a Satanist in many Americans’ eyes. So naturally, she’s become a target ever since she burst onto the political scene.

Her name frequently appears in the FOX News ticker as an example of everything wrong with the Democratic Party. Other Republicans have used her as a boogie man to scare donors into digging into their wallets to stop AOC and other People of Color from taking their houses and money.

“She is the frequent target of smear campaigns and disinformation. She has stated multiple times that right-wing smear campaigns have prompted death threats against her,” said Snopes.

AI-driven propaganda

Information warfare is just the latest way of attacking her. But many hashtags are blatantly incorrect. I recently saw a hashtag about President Donald Trump that read #bestpresidentever. It was ridiculous, but it was there to drive a narrative and get Republicans fired up.

Many of these hashtags are driven by bots, software programs that automatically retweet a word or phrase. And that’s the reason why a hashtag can appear and in a couple of days have more than 100,000 retweets. The retweets are being driven by artificial intelligence.

However, a new counter-offensive has started in information warfare. Cyber warriors have hijacked these tweets and reposted information contrary to what the hashtag is trying to promote. I did this when I saw the “bestpresidentever” hashtag. Although it was trying to promote Trump, I filled the hashtag with negative Trump stories.

Hijacking hashtags

Young people, who are more skilled at this technology than their elders, have proved adept at cyberwar counter-offensives. When the anti-AOC hashtag was trending last week, fans of Korean pop music, known as K-pop stans, filled the hashtag with images of Korean pop stars and cute animals.

“K-pop fans are known for hijacking hashtags and for spamming their feeds with photos and videos of K-pop performers,” said Newsweek. “On Sunday, K-pop fans flooded the #BidenLied hashtag, which originated in Twitter users disappointed in the news on stimulus checks, but soon turned into a feed of Korean girl groups. In January, K-pop fans pulled a similar stunt when supporters of former President Donald Trump tried to get the hashtag #ImpeachBiden trending, just says after President Joe Biden’s inauguration.”

Last year, TikTok users and K-pop fans reserved tickets at Trump’s super spreader rally in Tulsa, Okla. And because of their efforts, large segments of the crowd were empty because seats had been reserved by people who never intended to use them. It was a humorous, skillful way to troll Trump from the safety of your own home.

Hashtags have a motive. They don’t just magically appear. Like Fox News, the goal of many of these hashtags is to get you to believe something that’s not true. It’s a new form of the old game of propaganda and mind control. When you see a hashtag, you need to look at it as critically as you view a Fox News headline.

‘I thought I was going to die’: AOC describes Washington Capitol attack (YouTube)

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Manny Otiko

Written by

Manny Otiko writes about race, politics and sports. He has been published in Salon and LA Weekly. Follow him on Twitter @mannyotiko.

The Startup

Get smarter at building your thing. Follow to join The Startup’s +8 million monthly readers & +724K followers.

Manny Otiko

Written by

Manny Otiko writes about race, politics and sports. He has been published in Salon and LA Weekly. Follow him on Twitter @mannyotiko.

The Startup

Get smarter at building your thing. Follow to join The Startup’s +8 million monthly readers & +724K followers.

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