Pro-Trump & Russian-Linked Twitter Accounts Are Posing As Ex-Democrats In New Astroturfed Movement
“If you readers were listening to Ted-Ed TV Channel yesterday you would have gotten a glimpse of how the Russians and Trump election teams spoofed the 2016 election. The games are again in play for 2018 and if we aren’t careful they will again destroy our democratic process of electing our politicians. Our elections should be democratic but they are playing a different game. Divide and Conquer!!!”
#WalkAway the deceptive propaganda campaign by foreigners to this country.
As pundits, politicians, and other Very Serious People spent last weekend admonishing “the left” for not being civil enough in their approach to pushing back against the Trump administration’s cruel policy of forcibly separating immigrant children from their parents, a peculiar and carefully crafted narrative began to take shape on social media. A closer look at this emerging narrative—a self-described “grassroots movement” of former Democrats fleeing the party—revealed an astroturfed campaign driven by pro-Trump Twitter users and amplified by automated and Russian-linked accounts.
The surge of tweets started on Saturday, June 23, when news broke that White House press secretary Sarah Sanders had been quietly asked to leave a restaurant in Lexington, VA, the night before. The social media campaign really took off the next day, after Rep. Maxine Waters (D-Calif.) said in a speech that administration officials who support Trump’s policies should expect to face pushback when they go out in public.
Most of the tweets were strikingly similar, and the vast majority pushed a very familiar narrative. Using the hashtag #WalkAway and claiming to be former Democrats, social media users shared their stories of leaving the Democratic party after being turned off by the “hate” and “division” of “the left.” Many of them cited the incidents involving Sanders and Waters as examples of the “intolerance” and “bullying” that supposedly drove them to support Trump after years—in some cases, decades—of voting for Democrats.
Tweets using the hashtag #WalkAway. (With the exception of one tweet sent on 6/23/2018, the above examples were all sent on 6/24/2018).
If this sounds familiar, there’s good reason for that—it very much echoes the “civility” debate playing out right now among the Very Important Thinkers and on the opinion pages of the Very Serious Newspapers. The basic narrative is one that we’ve heard countless times before, but this time it’s being exploited by a new cast of characters, and, at least in some cases, with the intent to deceive.
The primary functional goal of an astroturfed campaign like this one is to manipulate public opinion by gaming online algorithms to amplify certain content and push it onto people’s social media feeds and to the top of search engine results.
The high volume of tweets associated with this campaign is also indicative of an effort to drown out real, reasoned debate between humans and replace it with content that pushes fringe or extreme viewpoints into the mainstream, ultimately hijacking and derailing public discourse. This particular psychological operation also aimed to use issues like race and sexual orientation to widen existing divides and promote infighting within the progressive movement.
Finally, astroturfed social media campaigns like the “WalkAway Movement” aim to create manufactured consensus, or the illusion of popularity, so that an idea or position without much public support appears more popular and mainstream than it actually is.
Below, I present the anatomy of this astroturfed movement, starting with its origins and moving on to its artificial sources of amplification, the shaping of its narrative, and the boost it got from far-right and Russian media platforms including Breitbart and RT. I also discuss the potential functions of a psychological operation such as this one, as well as the lessons—and warnings—it offers as we head into the 2018 midterms and beyond.
The Anatomy Of An Astroturfed Movement
The “WalkAway Movement” officially started in May 2018, with posts dating back to May 19 on the group’s Facebook page. (Unofficially, the blueprint for this campaign has been in the works for quite some time.) Since its creation, the Facebook page has also added a public group for members to post content. As of June 30, the Facebook page had nearly 12,000 followers and the public group had almost 19,000 members. That breaks down to an average of 266 new followers a day and 422 new group members every day—quite a lot for a brand new “grassroots” movement.
A short time later, the campaign jumped over to Twitter, with user @usminority (“The Unsilent Minority”) spearheading the movement, or at least spearheading the public face of the movement. One of the first tweets that gained significant traction appeared on May 31, and was obviously meant to elicit the attention of influential Trump supporters (11 such accounts were tagged in the tweet). A handful of other tweets using the hashtag #WalkAway were widely circulated over the next couple of weeks, including one on June 11, one on June 14 and another on June 16, when Trump supporter Wayne Dupree joined in. All of those tweets garnered thousands of retweets and “likes.”
Early tweets using the hashtag #WalkAway.
At that point, nothing about the hashtag would have been particularly noteworthy to the casual observer, besides the fact that it was pretty clearly manufactured by Trump supporters.
That all changed on the weekend of June 23, when a flood of tweets using the hashtag suddenly appeared within a span of just a few hours. Even more remarkable than the sheer volume of tweets and the speed at which they appeared was the engagement rate associated with each tweet, which ranged from several hundred to several thousand times the average Twitter engagement rate.
Engagement rates are calculated by looking at the number of likes, replies, retweets, and mentions received relative to your total following. There’s debate over the best formula to use, and a lot of factors can influence engagement rates, but in general, large Twitter accounts tend to have average engagement rates below 1 percent, or one reaction for every 100 Twitter followers. For accounts with smaller followings, this tends to be somewhat higher (i.e., for an account with 100 followers, an average of just two reactions per tweet would result in a 2 percent engagement rate). Of course, there are exceptions to the rule—some tweets go viral and far exceed the expected engagement rate—but exceptions to the rule are just that: exceptions.
In the case of the “WalkAway Movement,” every tweet was a deviation. The vast majority of (early) tweets using the hashtag #WalkAway were sent by accounts with less than 100 followers (many with less than 25), which in itself is an aberration and indicates that many of these accounts were likely created or repurposed recently, possibly for the explicit goal of amplifying this hashtag. Most of the tweets sent by these accounts had far more than 100 likes and retweets—and that’s not even looking at other types of reactions.
Low-follower, high-engagement tweets using the hashtag #WalkAway. Screenshots taken June 24, 2018.
So what do those numbers look like when expressed as engagement rates? Absolutely off-the-charts.
A sample of these tweets is pictured below, with the number of engagements and the engagement rate associated with each tweet displayed on the bottom row. The average engagement rate for tweets using the hashtag #WalkAway was over 500 percent, with many exceeding 1000 percent and some even reaching rates of 3000 to 4000 percent and above. I’ve tracked a lot of hashtags—including organic and non-organic movements—and I’ve never seen anything even close to this. This is not what a viral hashtag campaign looks like; this is what a manufactured and artificially amplified digital operation looks like.
Engagement rates for tweets using the hashtag #WalkAway ranged from 400% to over 4000%. Average engagement rates on Twitter are typically in the single digits.
Bots, Trolls, and Russian-Linked Accounts
Over the next several days, the hashtag was been picked up and amplified by Twitter accounts linked to Russian influence operations, as evidenced by its prominent position on Securing Democracy’s Hamilton 68 dashboard, which tracks activity in a network of 600 such accounts. These accounts include human users, bots, “trolls,” cyborgs (accounts that are automated some of the time and human-controlled at other times), and media accounts for propaganda outlets like RT and Sputnik.
Early in the morning on June 25, #WalkAway appeared as a trending hashtag on Hamilton 68. Trending hashtags are measured by the percent increase in usage by accounts in the network, and are indicative of a new and rising trend. Later that morning, #WalkAway jumped into the top 10 hashtags overall, as measured by the number of times it was used in the past 48 hours by the accounts monitored by Hamilton 68. Over the next several days, #WalkAway climbed from the 7th most popular hashtag among accounts linked to Russian influence operations (on June 25) to the #1 hashtag (on June 30), where it has remained through the time of this writing (the early morning hours of July 5).
“Well viewers just a few snippets of how this game is being played for the upcoming 2018 election. We ask each of you to pass this information along to all potential and current voters in your control districts. Gather your friends and neighbors for block parties, laugh joke and have a good time, then start planning your revolution to a free and open election process that will benefit each of the partygoers who have a serious stalk in who represents them.”