WASHINGTON ― A Twitter network of bots and “sockpuppets” played a critical role last month in amplifying President Donald Trump’s race-baiting tweets in support of Ed Gillespie, the Republican candidate in a mud-flinging Virginia gubernatorial race that will be decided Tuesday.
During his campaign, Gillespie, who was endorsed by Trump, reached deep into a rucksack of racist chicanery to smear his opponent, Democratic Lt. Gov. Ralph Northam. Gillespie tied Northam to the violent El Salvadoran MS-13 gang and blasted him for suggesting that Virginia’s Confederate statues be relocated to museums. The tight race promises to be a bellwether for white grievance politics in the 2018 midterms as well as the overall direction of the Republican Party.
It might also be a sign of how unwilling or unable Twitter is to crack down on abuse on its platform. A week ago, Twitter’s acting general counsel, Sean Edgett, testified before Congress about the steps his company has taken to prevent election-meddling. Edgett described an algorithm to catch malicious actors based on their behavior and to prevent them from starting new accounts.
“We get those before they tweet,” Edgett said.
Our research indicates otherwise.
Since at least the beginning of the year, a mysterious network of accounts on Twitter has fueled divisiveness in American political discourse, including in the Virginia gubernatorial race. This network, which includes sockpuppets (accounts operated by actual people under false identities) and bots, was identified by Susan Bourbaki Anthony, a team of data scientists with whom I collaborate to track the spread of propaganda on social media. We discovered it while examining the social media conversation surrounding August’s deadly white nationalist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia.
The accounts in this “cyborg” network had a similar name structure, which alerted SBA to their activity, and were consistently tweeting about Charlottesville. They were also largely synchronous when it came to their tweets, with the network essentially shutting down each night from 5 p.m. to 11:30 p.m. on the East Coast.
For the Virginia gubernatorial race, SBA looked at almost 135,000 tweets mentioning “Gillespie” from more than 70,000 unique users. The tweets in our sample were all sent between Oct. 13 and Nov. 2. Of those 70,000-plus users, 1,672 accounts belonged to the so-called cyborg network, which put up over 3,000 tweets. Around 90 percent of those tweets were retweets of others’ content. And 35 percent of the retweet total amplified messages from just one user ― Donald Trump.
SBA sampled from the larger Twitter conversation about “Gillespie,” rather than looking in depth at tweets from specified accounts. So all these numbers are the minimum possible amount. There were almost certainly additional accounts and even more tweeting and retweeting about Gillespie from the cyborg network. We have a portion of the network’s activity, but not the entirety. SBA has also not yet examined during which hours of the day the accounts in the network were active during the Virginia race. But we will be doing a deeper analysis.
For now, though, it’s instructive to look at how the network boosted Trump’s Gillespie tweets. Altogether, the president put up five of them ― four in October. Those four are the ones focused on here.
The first was a noxious bit of race-baiting about MS-13. Although Trump posted it before SBA began its data sample, several accounts in the bot network continued to circulate it. The other three Trump-Gillespie tweets happened during the sample period. They triggered immediate and heavy retweeting from the cyborg network.
We’ll examine the four tweets in order.
This anti-immigrant tweet, which all but slanders Northam, was retweeted 23 times by accounts in the cyborg network, despite being posted more than a week before our sample. Earlier that day, Trump hosted a Hispanic Heritage Month event at the White House during which he stated: “From our earliest days, Hispanic Americans have enriched our country and helped shape our history. Their contributions, through the generations, to art and music and literature, to science, scholarship, and exploration, are extraordinary.”
This tweet is tailored to appeal to low-income white voters in Appalachian coal country, where Trump had some of his biggest victories during his presidential campaign. Locals in southwest Virginia have expressed misgivings about Gillespie, a multimillionaire corporate lobbyist who was raised in New Jersey. Trump wants to change their minds.
Trump was most likely in the White House when he ― or perhaps an aide, given the attention to demographic detail ― tweeted this message. That morning, Trump played golf with Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) at the Trump National Golf Club until 2:55 p.m. He had a dinner scheduled that night for 8:10 p.m. at the Trump International Hotel. Somewhere in between shuttling around Trump properties and stuffing taxpayer dollars into the accounts of his family businesses, he put up this tweet, which the cyborg network retweeted 664 times.
This tweet references the white grievance campaign opposed to communities taking down Confederate statues, the same issue that purportedly attracted white nationalists to Charlottesville for the rally in August. Accounts in the cyborg network retweeted this message 136 times, with 47 accounts retweeting it within the first five minutes after it was sent, indicating that the network kicks in as soon as Trump tweets.
Coming on the heels of the statues tweet, this is another, more veiled reference to MS-13. It earned 120 network retweets, with more than a quarter of them coming within five minutes. Trump was clearly in the White House for both of these tweets, awaiting his daily bullet-point intelligence briefing.
We’re not the only ones to identify bot activity in the Virginia gubernatorial race. A Discourse Intelligence analysis commissioned by The National Education Association, whose Virginia affiliate has endorsed Northam, shows that Twitter bots and “cyborgs” are spinning hard to boost Republican backlash to a controversial ad put out by the Latino Victory Fund. The ad featured a child’s nightmare about a Gillespie supporter chasing immigrant kids in a pickup truck decorated with a Confederate flag. According to Politico, the ad was retracted and “barely ran on TV but got major attention online.”
The Discourse Intelligence analysis revealed that of the 15 accounts tweeting the most about the ad, 13 were fully or partially automated bots. (The other two are Republican political operatives.) Five of those accounts are either part of the suspected cyborg network we identified in our Gillespie analysis or have been retweeted by it, sometimes repeatedly.
“We are committed every single day to making sure that we are removing those actors from our platform,” Edgett, the Twitter lawyer, told Congress last week.
His company’s own data beg to differ.