Politics & Policy

Inside Donald Trump’s Potemkin Twitter Army

(Andrew Renneisen/Getty)

If some of Donald Trump’s supporters seem to follow him like unthinking robots, it might be because some are.

Patrick Ruffini is co-founder of Echelon Insights, a digital-analytics company, and founder and chairman of Engage, a digital agency. When tracking the activity of hundreds of pro-Trump Twitter accounts, he noticed something fishy.

For a while, Ruffini says, he’s had “this notion that not all of Trump’s Twitter support is organic.” When he looked into it, he discovered that at least 465 pro-Trump tweeters seem likely to be fake. Ruffini compiled a list of these accounts in a spreadsheet.

Sometimes these accounts independently tweet the exact same tweet around the same time — a clear indication of inauthenticity.

Recently, these apparent bots began to instruct Twitter users to call the FCC to complain if they were still receiving Ted Cruz robocalls after opting out.

The Daily Caller noted, “A search for ‘@tedcruz opted out robocalls’ turns up dozens of accounts sending out the exact same message. A search for ‘@tedcruz opted out emails’ returns the same, with many of the same accounts and the exact same wording.”

When he called out these accounts on Twitter, Ruffini began to be bombarded with angry responses from them, which to him seemed like a startling overreaction. Some threatened to take action against him. Their anti-Cruz tweets began to be deleted; Ruffini had been collecting them on the spreadsheet in cells beside their account links, but now the tweet links lead to error pages.

Some of the accounts have zero Twitter followers and have tweeted hundreds of thousands of times about Trump, and about little else, even though few of them actually follow Trump’s feed. Others have never tweeted anything Trump-related besides the anti-Cruz tweet — the rest of their tweets are essentially spam. Ruffini said some of these Trumpbots have also tweeted porn-related spam at him, much as other Twitter bots do. Still others tweeted or retweeted some of the same spam tweets, along with Trump tweets. Several of the accounts have overtly sexual handles, as if they double as some sort of “porn bots,” and several accounts have been suspended.

#share#Though Ruffini concedes that he cannot directly tie the accounts to the campaign, plenty of circumstantial evidences suggests a connection. These bots are tightly coordinated and remain very on-message with the official campaign.

They will often attack pundits whom Trump has recently hit out against. Lately they seem to be focusing on hitting Cruz and Kasich. They have also retweeted Trump aides, such as Dan Scavino, director of social media for the Trump campaign.

Several of the accounts in Ruffini’s list seem to be authentically rabid fans rather than bots. One example is the first account on the list, who calls himself MicroChip and tweets @WDFx2EU. So his list of accounts could include both fans and bots, though MicroChip himself could be connected to the campaign. His tweets also seem to toe the Trump line very tightly.

Trump tweet:

MicroChip tweet, shortly after:

https://twitter.com/WDFx2EU/status/718225720187752450

What’s more, a striking number of the accounts in Ruffini’s list have retweeted MicroChip’s subsequent retaliation tweets against Ruffini.

Given their coordination, on-message tweeting, and retweets of Trump aides, some of these accounts could plausibly be gears in the Trump campaign machine. The press secretary for the campaign did not respond to a request for comment.

Even if the accounts were created by some independent party, we can rest assured that the Twitterverse is not as populated with diehard Trump supporters as it may seem.

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