If you’ve been following the Twitter fiasco that is the Donald Trump campaign, you will be aware of his association with the Alt-right and with Russia bot accounts.
Broadly speaking, Trump has two categories of support on Twitter. Alt-right trolls, and Russian bot accounts pretending to be patriotic Americans.*
In many cases, these two groups cross over. The altright contains actual humans, such as @prisonplanet, and many, many bots.
In this article I shall however examine the way in which Russian bots are created and used to follow and boost Trump online.
It is not that Donald Trump does not have widespread support. He does; even at his current polling lows, his support includes millions of Americans. It is, rather, that Trump’s supporters are incredibly unlikely to use Twitter.
Broadly speaking ,Trump’s real supporters aren’t on Twitter – and Trump’s Twitter supporters aren’t real.
After the first debate, which all scientific polls and focus groups showed that Donald Trump lost resoundingly, the hashtag #TrumpWon started on Twitter. It was pushed entirely by bots. The BBC confirmed the bot advantage yesterday:
However, my own interest was in seeing how the Trump campaign worked with the alt-right and the bot accounts generated in Russia.
When #TrumpWon trended on Twitter after the first debate, it was obviously faked to the seasoned observer. I retweeted an interesting image posted by a user called Dustin Giebel who tracked the bots to St. Petersburg where there is a troll farm:
— Louise Mensch (@LouiseMensch) September 27, 2016
This tweet was RTed 3,500 times. Giebel was a pro-Hillary supporter relatively new to Twitter and as I read his feed, before my own tweet went viral, he was using a tool called TrendsMap. I duly logged on to Trendsmap to see the locator for myself. It was obvious right away that Giebel’s image wasn’t from their tool, as it does not display with maps and circles, but instead uses small square markers – I never thought the map was created using the tool, but rather that the data had been. (As I compose this article, Giebel has confirmed my initial surmise, that he plugged in the trendsmap data to a personal plug-in for Google maps that he built himself; as he said ‘I still think I’m right’ – me too). Trendsmap denied that its tracker showed the trend starting in Russia, and that was sufficient for Washington Post to write a completely wrong “debunker” piece asserting that it had not started in Russia, in which Chris Cilliza merely reprinted their press release.
Such a challenge inspired me to look at the contradictory data. Firstly, Trendsmap appears to use IP locators to locate tweet accounts. If the account is using a VPN, it may very well show that it was created someplace other than Russia. So Trendsmap, in asserting that the trend did not start in Russia, was only ever talking about the IP address of the tweeter. It was not, and could not, deny that Russian bot accounts were pushing the trend as it only tracks IP.
Twitter locators on the other hand do not use merely IP. They might ‘see’ the account as starting elsewhere or located elsewhere.
So whether or not #TrumpWon started in Russia could not be determined merely by crossing Trendsmap locators and the hashtag. The behavior of a Twitter account is another factor in determining if it is a Russian-controlled bot.
Below, I will discuss several accounts, found on Trendsmap, which are Russian bot accounts but which Trendsmap locates elsewhere, eg in the UK – that’s VPN for you.
— Louise Mensch (@LouiseMensch) September 27, 2016
Definition of a Bot
There are two types of bot. Firstly, there are the purely automated accounts. These and only these are the types of bot referred to in the BBC study (which, again, did not track the most popular hashtag, #TrumpWon).
The second type of “Bot” is a human being who is working for the Russian government in a troll farm in St. Petersburg, pretending to be somebody he isn’t – like an American mother in Florida (@StaceyBrewer18, temporarily known as “Mom For Trump” on twitter).
Russian Troll Farm Bots Working With Trump Campaign Account @DanScavino
I used Trendsmap for my researches. First, I searched the tool for the “trending topic” @DanScavino.
Next, I found a bunch of Trump favoring egg accounts that displayed themselves RTing the @DanScavino account – Trendsmap allows you to see this in real time.
When you click on the profile of the newly created bot account, however, its retweet of Scavino immediately disappears.
Three such bots that I videoed in the act of using this method were @Commander6080, @Sbragusa, and @jamesdgriffin. All have profiles that pretend to be Americans and to live in the USA.
How might this affect a twitter trend? What is the point of it? One scientist theorized as follows. It is a “fake trend” theory called “A Handoff”:
Let’s say you had a hashtag you wanted to get trending. You have a thousand bots (or Russian Trolls) and a popular account like Ricky Vaughn. You have the bots start using the hashtag, they start flooding twitter until it gets a high count (but not in the top 20 trends) then have a real person, Ricky Vaughn, start pitching the hashtag to his followers. Here is where the window of timing kicks in: within minutes, Ricky Vaughn can have something trending, but before he gets the hashtag to the top 15 you have almost all of the bots automatically delete their tweets with the hashtags. You‘ve now started “a trend” quickly and have had it associated with “Ricky Vaughn” and not a 1,000 odd bots or Russian trolls.
Here is a video of @Commander6030 using the method:
Here is “Susan Ragusa” using it:
… and here is “James D Griffin” from “New Jersey, USA” using it.
Russian Troll Farm Bots Working With The @PrisonPlanet account
As I got closer on my researches to pinpointing the way that various bots work with the trigger accounts, @PrisonPlanet, one of the most actively involved accounts, a human being and verified account working for infowars, blocked me on Twitter after literal months of interacting with me. The name of this man is Paul Joseph Watson. He denies any knowledge of how the Russian troll farms use his account, which must mean he never looks at who is re-tweeting him.
— Louise Mensch (@LouiseMensch) September 28, 2016
I tested this theory today, and it still held up. In the links are photographs of Watson’s retweeters demonstrating how an egg account with a fake profile sits at the top of his RTs.
Again, it is important to distinguish between the two types of ‘bot’. Pure robots, and robots with human curation. These are trained human beings and they work in many languages. They start from a troll farm in St. Petersburg, Russia, reported on in the New York times. But only if they are sloppy will the VPN still locate them outside of America:
— Louise Mensch (@LouiseMensch) June 8, 2016
One good example of a human curated Russian bot is Mom For Trump. Mom for Trump pretends to be in Florida. ‘S’he displays an intense interest in Russia despite a profile pretending s/he is a military wife. Here is a link to his tweets about Russia. Here is a link to his tweets about Putin; and here is a link to his tweets containing the adjective Russian.
He will regularly tweet out Russian news sources like Sputnik:
— Mom For Trump (@StacyBrewer18) September 17, 2016
Although this is supposed to be a military wife, he boosts Russia’s military at America’s expense:
Russian jet flies within 10 feet of US Navy spy plane, defense official says | Fox News | https://t.co/JyqXykg2Kw
— Mom For Trump (@StacyBrewer18) September 7, 2016
— Mom For Trump (@StacyBrewer18) April 25, 2016
— Mom For Trump (@StacyBrewer18) July 1, 2016
(the link to the embedded video says ‘Here’s something you never saw or heard about in the West.’
Update: I find the identical tweet and link in a “British” Putinbot whose handler I have become fond of, @AfredAlbion:
And of course he, Mom For Trump, RTs @PrisonPlanet regularly. “Mom For Trump” cares what the internal Russian parliament is doing:
United Russia MP drafts bill ordering up to 10 years in prison for female genital mutilation https://t.co/RbuabzSysZ
— Mom For Trump (@StacyBrewer18) August 22, 2016
and even follows the Russian ambassador to the UN:
I don’t blame Russia. He killed innocents in Syria during cease fire. Russians think Obama is assisting ISIS. https://t.co/YlwHzfUMlh
— Mom For Trump (@StacyBrewer18) September 18, 2016
The interesting thing about analyzing Mom For Trump is his use of most of the tropes pushed by Breitbart’s Steven Bannon, now a Trump advisor. These are:
- Nigel Farage
Many of the “EU located” Putinbots will also hawk the Russian puppet Viktor Orban, the PM of Hungary. Here’s a Spanish-language Putinbot who has chucked in an avatar boosting Assad for good measure (his account reads “the tiger of damascus”).
Sí eres blanco y cristiano encomienda tu futuro a Le Pen, Putin, Trump y Orban…o tu descendencia lo pasará muy mal.
— EL TIGRE DE DAMASCO (@tigrededamasco) October 8, 2016
“American” bot accounts curated by humans display an unhealthy interest in Nigel Farage who was denied a place in the official leave campaign.
The Putinbot Link Between Brexit And Trump
I first noticed the Russian bots during my work online to support Brexit. This is because English bot accounts, that is, Russians who locate their VPN in the UK in order to pretend to be British, were pushing Brexit. As a passionate supporter of Brexit for valid, progressive reasons, I did not want to risk the result of the referendum by drawing attention to Putin’s love of Brexit – it might have endangered the result. It is a great satisfaction to watch Boris Johnson draw up sanctions on Russia now.
Human curated bots will always favor both Brexit, and Trump. Here is an English-based Putinbot, Gilli 5. He is pretending to be a woman located in London, but he has an intense interest in Trump.
He also of course backs Brexit:
— Gilli (@gilli5) October 17, 2016
— Gilli (@gilli5) August 18, 2016
Sadly, as most Britons reading this will know, Donald Trump is utterly despised in the UK. “Gilli5” forgot that he was not meant to show he was really tweeting from Russia and is a Russian:
— Gilli (@gilli5) October 25, 2015
— Louise Mensch (@LouiseMensch) September 28, 2016
Gilli is also working with Scavino and Prison Planet.
— Gilli (@gilli5) October 19, 2016
But let’s look at “American based” Putinbots with their intense, Steve Bannon approved interest in the nobody, Nigel Farage:
WATCH: Nigel Farage declares VICTORY in EU referendum with barnstorming speech https://t.co/mbXZzdI6SQ
BREXIT IS WINNING! GO BRITS!
— Mom For Trump (@StacyBrewer18) June 24, 2016
Racism & fascism terms are used to shut down free speech. Ppl like you overuse these terms, therefore they are meanless. Go Farage & Trump! https://t.co/dhqwsIpsjs
— Mom For Trump (@StacyBrewer18) October 14, 2016
Here’s “Veterans For Russia” sorry Trump:
— Veterans For Trump (@Veteran4Trump) June 30, 2016
Car bomb explodes in Russia at check point: ISlS claims responsibility; killing a Police Officer injuring 15+ https://t.co/wvLuGT2Ovv
— Veterans For Trump (@Veteran4Trump) March 30, 2016
— Veterans For Trump (@Veteran4Trump) September 8, 2016
“Veteran4Trump” like “Mom4Trump” references the identical “barrell roll incident” we saw earlier:
— Veterans For Trump (@Veteran4Trump) May 2, 2016
Looks like Russia’s president is going to take care of what Obama refuses to do! Russia’s largest warship enroute https://t.co/HoPLfBY5IU
— Veterans For Trump (@Veteran4Trump) July 4, 2016
(I’m slightly losing the will to live here, but I plough on).
Finally: Accounts The Russian Troll Bots Have in Common
These are the accounts that you will always find interacting with the Russian bots. Before he was banned by Twitter, Ricky Vaughan. And Micro, who gets banned and reincarnates with a new number at the end of his name: the latest is @WDFx2EU7 (surely it should not be beyond the wit of Twitter engineers to block the avi photo and any combo of the letters and Micro).
Next, @JaredWyand. You will find tweets by him in the feed of all the putinbots. And after him, “Linda Suhler PHD” whom I assume is himself a bot, but certainly appears in the feeds of all of them. Here is a tweet where “Linda” is tagging in the multi-banned @WDFx@EU7.
Coda: Finding A Common Message Pushed Out by Both Types of Putinbot
One easy way to spot a Russian troll, whether curated or automated, is to look for them pushing out the identical message. Do we remember that “Putin: How Obama Created ISIS” video?
My friend @AfredAlbion (go easy on him CIA, I think we can turn him) tweeted that video out in 2014. “Mom For Trump” tweeted it out this year. What if we run the search through Twitter?
This happens (see link). Please note the “various” “diverse” profiles Russian men are adopting here. We have an Hispanic woman, a Muslim woman, a white far left Bernie Sanders supporter, and a patriotic redneck.
— Global Revolution (@jacobflowers) October 14, 2016
RESPECT FOR HIS WISE WORDS!!
— Sofia Cunha (@Sofia_Exoia) October 19, 2016
I found listening to Putin very informative. See what you think.https://t.co/drd5gBgR6F
— Lainy Sunshine (@ACTwithLainy) October 18, 2016
— Red,White & F#*k You (@Patriot762x51mm) October 18, 2016
— Phillipa60 (@gengh60) October 17, 2016
— Somurys (@Somurys) October 16, 2016
but wait! There’s more! By using this method we can see how the Russian troll farm places its fictional accounts around the world and in multiple languages. Australia, Germany, Japan, Africa…
— 武者小路 丈径 (@takemichi01) August 13, 2016
Vladimir Putin Tells Everyone Exactly Who he believes Created ISIS.https://t.co/BsdDrjMKSt
— Tumišang Masemola (@BTMasemola) August 20, 2016
Here’s Dutch, from a Holland-based account:
Putin legt glashelder uit wie uiteindelijk ISIS gecreëerd heeft!! Putin Tells Everyone Exactly Who Created ISIS https://t.co/1o5lxfZwA9
— JW van den Born (@janwillemvdborn) August 12, 2016
También me hago las mismas preguntas. Nadie responde. Putin Tells Everyone Exactly Who Created ISIS https://t.co/nUKmEAxRCN
— Nadya (@Nadya_Neviges) August 2, 2016
— Bruno B. #E4E #LPE (@bbidoill) April 5, 2016
Below, Linda Suhler PhD [sic] and Jared Wyand. I hope you enjoyed the tour of the trolls with us today. As I like to tell my Putinbots, “Better Luck Next Bot”!
— Linda Suhler, Ph.D. (@LindaSuhler) October 19, 2016