I want to tell you a story. In the year and a half before the 2016 Presidential Election, I worked in a co-working space in Pasadena, CA. I got to meet all sorts of people. We talked about all sorts of things. A lot of these people were entrepreneurs, or tech people, or starting up startups. It was a smart, diverse, liberal-leaning group of people.
Then, 2016. The months of build up to the Presidential Election. Those same people started talking politics, much to my delight. How great it would be to talk to smart, diverse, liberal-leaning folks about politics!
Except…something weird happened. There were Bernie Sanders supporters who became mad at the world and couldn’t talk about anything except how wronged they were. There were people who I swore were liberal who couldn’t get over Hillary Clinton as a “flawed” candidate. There the protest voters. “Yeah, I hate Trump too, but every time I want to make a protest vote I’m told it isn’t the time. Now is the time.”
What was even weirder was that I would go home and read the talking points of what was happening online—and the next day people were spouting those exact same talking points.
I felt like I had a bit part in a bad movie.
Some people are calling the indictment of 13 Russian Nationals “bittersweet”. On one hand, it spells out exactly what they have seen all along. On the other—it is indisputable proof that our democracy was under attack.
For those people who saw what I saw—there was simply an enormous sense of relief. We don’t have to carry the weight of knowledge around any more. Sure, people will try to discredit what’s in the indictment. I understand that in this indictment there is no proof of collusion. It’s quite possibly only the tip of the iceberg. But people saw what I saw. There was a strategic, widespread, multi-faceted attack on our democracy by a foreign country. Laws were broken. Names have been named. And all those dots I’ve been connecting ever since Election Day? Other people have been connecting those same dots. [Sigh of relief goes here].
What did I see all those months? Here is a snapshot of how a propaganda campaign was not only carried out but quite possibly worked to influence voters in the last election:
Let’s start with a super-quick framework for how to think about social media. As I teach in Good Men Project’s Rising Stars class—Facebook and Twitter are set up differently.
The difference between Facebook and Twitter is that on Facebook you start by connecting with a core group of people you know and expand them outward. You have a friends limit, and most people tend to connect with people they already know, or at the very least, friends of friends. With Twitter, you can connect with thousands, tens of thousands or millions of complete strangers. And then, over time, get to know and interact with the ones you see often.
Because of that simple fact, Facebook and Twitter can be used strategically in very different ways. And sure enough, that is exactly what this propaganda campaign did. It used Facebook and Twitter differently.
Facebook used mostly trolls—because they needed real live people to connect with other real live people.
Twitter used mostly bots—robotacized trolls who could tweet and retweet automatically—because they didn’t have to worry about being “friends” with someone. The Twitter strategy combined bots with hashtags for maximum reach
Here is how they operated on Facebook: They were friends of your friends.
On Facebook, the trolls needed friends to succeed. So they set out to make friends.
Trolls focused on friendships in very key areas—Swing States, of course, but even down to districts where a few votes might make a difference. The trolls then looked for people with a big platform and lots of friends in those areas.
So, say you are someone who is active on Facebook, you live in a Swing State and have a sizeable platform. BINGO! You are now a target. If you are a Hillary supporter who is actively talking about Hillary, you’re golden. But even people talking about Bernie Sanders, Jill Stein or Trump himself were potential propaganda targets.
Now the troll (remember, this is a real person with a very specific strategy and goal) would look for your MOST right-leaning friends. Which of your friends are already talking about conservative news, the Alt-Right talking points or MAGA? The troll would friend that person.
That troll is now connected to someone you know.
You, the unsuspecting target, post a political post on Facebook. The troll searches for keywords and swoops in and comments on your post—but only *after* real people have commented. You check to make sure this new commenter is a real person. Sure enough, they’re not some random stranger! They are a friend of a friend! Ok, so you let their comment stand. You’re off on the next rant anyway. Plenty of stuff to post about before the election if you’re talking politics!
This is where people who say “how can people be so dumb?” get it wrong. The important thing to understand here is the trolls weren’t trying to convince YOU to change your mind. Their goal was to simply spread misinformation, propaganda, and most importantly *talking points*—using YOUR PERSONAL FACEBOOK NETWORK.
Here’s another example of the way this propaganda campaign worked—it was actually quite brilliant. The trolls followed standard political campaign marketing by targeting different demographics with different messaging.
1) If someone had been talking about Bernie Sanders — then the trolls pretend to be a Bernie supporter and talked about how the DNC had rigged the primaries to “steal” the vote from Hillary. The goal was to get people to either vote 3rd party and “change the system!” or simply not vote for Clinton.
2) If someone had been talking how bad Trump is — then the trolls don’t mention Bernie but went straight for “Hillary Is Evil”. The trolls would make the case that Hillary was “worse than Trump”—that is why there was so much false equivalence between the candidates out there.
3) If someone is wavering on Hillary but doesn’t really hate her, the trolls brought up things like her being an “establishment candidate”, her ties to Wall Street and how the Clinton Foundation was crooked, and with the goal of simply discrediting Hilary Clinton as a viable President. Wonder where the “flawed candidate” talking point came from? Look no further.
The one thing the trolls NEVER did was talk about how great Trump was and try to get people to vote for Trump. This was a “tell”. If someone was actually posting about how great Trump was—they were probably a real-life Trump supporter.
THIS WAS A SOPHISTICATED MARKETING EFFORT. It was far beyond “just trolls”.
But, you say, I SAW the “trolls” that appeared on TV shows! They had broken English and were from some Eastern European country and didn’t look like sophisticated internet marketers at all! Yes, those trolls were out there too. But those people were ‘false flags’ designed to make people believe that trolls were unsophisticated, incompetent and couldn’t possibly swing an election.
As it got closer to the election, the trolls did indeed get less sophisticated and sloppier. They were easier to spot. There were more “paid trolls”, with profiles that didn’t even pretend to be real. A troll might put up a Facebook page with a picture of an American flag and a photo of a guy holding a gun—you’re in. But those trolls only came in at the very end to seal the deal when it looked like Trump might actually win.
As the trolls became more prevalent and sloppier, I saw the ways that the trolls became more and more like PAID ADVERTISING. At that point I realized that what was going on was not just smart marketing, but could potentially be a violation of campaign disclosure laws—notably: “Political committees must include a disclaimer on all public communications and websites available to the general public, regardless of whether the communication expressly advocates the election or defeat of a clearly identified candidate in connection with a federal election.”
The trolls did not disclose who was paying them. If there was a Presidential campaign that knew this marketing effort was going on…then I’d have to ask the question: Was that a violation of campaign finance laws?
On Twitter, it was Botnetland.
On Twitter, a “bot” is something that looks like a real Twitter profile but is run completely by automated software. There is no real person hiding behind the curtain, except the person who set up hundreds of bots at a time. Who are these real people who set up the hundreds of bots? Why the Facebook trolls, of course!
The goal of the bots on Twitter was completely different than the trolls on Facebook. They didn’t worry about actual connections, they didn’t even worry about swing states. Their main goal was to get talking points, propaganda and disinformation out to as many people as possible. They did it by connecting to each other, first—a bot that is connected to other bots is called a “Botnet’. A literal network of robots, sending as many automated messages as possible out into the world.
They would also connect to each other through the use of hashtags. Caroline O. on Twitter aka @RVAwonk has done a great job with data, charts, and graphs showing exactly how botnets worked on Twitter.
Say someone wants to get a certain message out using bots. Let’s just use #Hillary4Prison. The bots would start tweeting that message out at 4 in the morning EST, when Twitter traffic was at an all-time low. The goal was to get that hashtag trending by the time real people woke up and got on Twitter the next day. #Hillary4Prison not working for the bots? Bots don’t care, LOL. Plenty more messages to try tomorrow at 4 am.
Botnets were used to test which messages resonated with people so that the trolls could get those messages in front of actual people on Facebook.
Are you thinking #DrainTheSwamp was bot-tested? Aha! You are starting to see the framework.
How the propaganda campaign used real-life events to drive the propaganda.
But wait, there’s more.
Again, this is what I saw. It has yet to be verified, just so you know.
The trolls and bots got VERY active at a few key times in the campaign—times that coincided with real-life events. The events were the RNC and DNC conventions, the three Presidential debates, and the Comey announcement.
Let’s look at the Comey announcement because the marketing strategy—er, troll strategy—here was very clear and obvious. It was eight days before the election, so there was little to lose—and the strategists/Russian operatives knew playing this right could make or break the election.
The minute the letter from Comey broke, the trolls went on a propaganda-spreading rampage. Here are the key points.
1) The news that broke wasn’t even really news. It was just an investigation with no clear indication of wrongdoing. On its own, it probably wouldn’t have been enough to ensure Trump would win the election. And yet, several forecasters, Nate Silver among them, show that the Comey announcement did swing the election.
2) Given that the “news” was that there was a new “investigation” going on about Clinton—people believed the propaganda machine story because the FBI had officially said there was an investigation going on. It was a combination of propaganda the trolls and bots had been spreading for months PLUS new “news” originating from a credible source.
3) It is my belief that the Comey announcement would not have helped swing the election without the help of the trolls and bots. The Comey announcement needed the trolls to succeed at doing the maximum amount of damage, and the trolls needed the Comey announcement to succeed in order to do the maximum amount of damage. The trolls needed an “October Surprise.”
Here’s why. The trolls needed a political story in order to go on to people’s Facebook timelines. If people are just talking about their kids, say—a troll can’t really get in that conversation and start talking about how evil Hillary is. You need people on Facebook to already be talking about politics in order to sneak into their comments. But if there is a *news event* about politics, something that gets onto Facebook’s trending list, then it is really easy to follow those stories to the timelines of different people who are already talking about politics.
The Comey announcement got people talking about politics all over again 8 days before the election so that the trolls had enough Facebook timelines and people commenting so they could go in for the kill.
4) Don’t forget, Rudy Giuliani signaled that this was going to happen—on network television, no less. An article by Seth Abramson states:
“Specifically, Giuliani says to his Fox News interviewers that the Trump campaign is planning “surprises in the way that we’re going to campaign to get our message out there, maybe in a little of a different way, you’ll see, and I do think it’ll be enormously effective, and I do think that all of these revelations about Hillary Clinton—finally—are beginning to have an impact.”
If there is anything I have learned in the past few years, it is that our democracy is worth saving. And that trolls and bots are *not* going to control the narrative. Not if I can help it. If we see what is going on—together—then together we can change it.
NOTE: Yes, I told a lot of people what I saw. Congresspeople, news organizations, tiplines, mainstream media, bloggers, tweeters, Facebook posters, resistance organizers…even the Federal Election Commission. We need to keep shining a light on systemic abuse of all kinds.
The indictments against the 13 Russian operatives verify much of what I have shared here. You can read the indictment here:
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