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Pro-Trump & Russian-Linked Twitter Accounts Are Posing As Ex-Democrats In New Astroturfed Movement
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.
WalkAway Facebook page and group.
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).
Left: June 25 at 12:30 a.m. EST. Center: June 25 at 11:31 a.m. EST. Right: June 26 at 4 a.m. EST
Left: June 28 at 8:30 a.m. EST. Right: June 29 at 2:24 a.m. EST
Left: June 30 at 11 p.m. EST. Center: July 1 at 5:15 a.m. EST. Right: July 2 at 5:15 a.m. EST
In addition to being amplified by accounts linked to Russian influence operations, the “WalkAway Movement” also got a boost from Russian propaganda outlets RT and Sputnik.
On June 28, Sputnik featured a segment about the campaign on its “Fault Lines” radio show. On July 3, RT promoted a video showcasing the movement on its YouTube page, and, a short time later, published an article about the campaign on its website (archived link). The founder of the “WalkAway Movement,” Brandon Straka, even did an exclusive interview with RT this week.
Russian propaganda outlet RT promoted the #WalkAway movement on multiple platforms, and even featured an interview with the founder.
The #WalkAway hashtag has also been among the top hashtags tweeted by accounts classified as bots and trolls by software developer Christopher Bouzy’s Bot Sentinel tool. In the network of bots and trolls tracked by this tool, #WalkAway emerged as the #2 hashtag on June 25 and quickly jumped to the top spot, where it remains as of July 2.
Of course, this doesn’t mean that everyone using the hashtag is a bot.* There are obviously humans participating in this astroturfed campaign, but their tweets are being amplified by automated accounts, artificially expanding their reach and creating the impression that the “movement” is larger than it actually is. This also has the effect of gaming algorithms so that the hashtag and associated keywords appear as “suggested search terms” on platforms like Google, YouTube, and Twitter, while URLs associated with the campaign get pushed to the top of search engine results.
*Even after explicitly stating that not all #WalkAway tweets were sent by bots, people taking part in the “WalkAway Movement” will still claim that this article called them all bots. This strawman is used as a defense every single time I track a bot-pushed hashtag. So let me state clearly for the record: This article is not implying that all of the people tweeting under this hashtag are bots.
#WalkAway was among the top hashtags tweeted by bots and trolls for the duration of last week, starting on June 25. (Left: June 25 at 11:30 a.m. EST. Right: July 2 at 2:45 a.m. EST).
To get a broad view of what topics people using the hashtag were tweeting about, I looked at the hashtag cloud associated with #WalkAway. Hashtag clouds provide a visual representation of popular hashtags used along with the initial search term, and thus can provide important insight into topical themes and patterns of conversation.
Across time, conspiracy theory-related hashtags—including #QAnon, #QArmy, #Q, #TheGreatAwakening, and #DeepState—all featured prominently in #WalkAway hashtag clouds. Pro-Trump hashtags, like #MAGA and #Trump, were also among the most consistent and common themes—another giveaway that this movement of self-declared “former Democrats” was actually a creation of Trump supporters posing as ex-Democratic voters.
Hashtag clouds associated with #WalkAway on June 25 (Left & Center) and June 26 (Right).
As seen above, in the hashtag cloud on the far left, Maxine Waters also featured prominently in tweets using the hashtag #WalkAway.
When I looked at the hashtag cloud for #MaxineWaters, I found that the reverse was true, as well: There was such a significant degree of overlap between the two keywords that #WalkAway appeared independently in the #MaxineWaters hashtag cloud. Piggy-backing on trending topics is a common tactic used to boost the visibility of hashtags and/or keywords.
Hashtag cloud associated with #MaxineWaters on June 25.
Over the next several days, the narrative associated with the hashtag #WalkAway began to take shape. While pro-Trump and conspiracy theory-related hashtags still appeared in the cloud, issues related to race and LGBTQ rights became much more prominent over time. Criticisms of the Democratic party, the DNC, and specific Democratic politicians also became a central theme in the #WalkAway narrative, but the messages were extremely repetitive—almost as if some of them had been scripted prior to dissemination.
Hashtag cloud associated with #WalkAway on July 2.
Other prominent narratives associated with the #WalkAway movement include:
Portraying the Democratic party as “sick,” “crazy,” and as the symbol of corruption, hate, division, and destruction.
Framing progressive values as anti-American.
Accusing Democrats of treating Blacks as “slaves” and “second-class citizens.”
Rehashing the 2016 Democratic primary election.
Phrases such as, “I was a lifelong Democrat,” “I’ve always voted for Democrats,” “I voted for Obama,” “Today’s Democratic party is not the party I joined X years ago,” “I didn’t leave the Democratic party—the Democratic party left me,” and “The Democratic party no longer represents me.”
Using identity politics … to attack “the identity politics of the left.”
Exploiting existing divisions around issues like immigration, and amplifying the extremes. In some cases, this also involved misrepresenting positions and statements, such as claiming that Maxine Waters called for violence or equating #AbolishICE with calling for open borders.
Many of these narratives are reflected in the tweets below. Additionally, as seen in this sample, memes and other visual imagery were commonly featured in tweets using the hashtag #WalkAway.
Tweets from June 25 through June 30.
A randomly selected sample of tweets using the hashtag #WalkAway.
In a short span of time, the “WalkAway Movement” had made its way onto all of the major social media platforms, including Pinterest (in multiple countries), Instagram, and YouTube (in addition to Twitter and Facebook).
It also jumped off of social media and onto traditional websites, making headlines first in The Patriot Post (on June 15), then nearly two weeks later in the Epoch Times (June 28), Legal Insurrection (June 30), Breitbart (July 1), and, as mentioned previously, RT (July 3).
Patriot Post article (June 15); Epoch Times (June 28)
Legal Insurrection (June 30); Breitbart (July 1)
By the early morning hours of July 2—just one day after the Breitbart article was published—the link was already the 4th highest trending URL and the #4 most-shared URL overall on Hamilton 68, demonstrating the close ties between Breitbart and channels of Russian influence. The overlap between Russian media and far-right American media is a phenomenon that I’ve also documented in previous articles.
Breitbart’s article about the “WalkAway Movement” was quite popular among Twitter accounts linked to Russian-influence operations. (July 2)
As the hashtag campaign gained momentum on social media, it also started to influence Google’s search algorithm. By June 26, the first suggested search term for the three characters “#Wa” was “#WalkAway” (and the fourth suggested search term was “#WalkAwayMovement”). On July 2, simply typing the word “walk” into Google’s search engine yielded “walk away movement” as the third result. This eventually produces a feedback loop—as people click on the search terms and subsequent results that come up first, Google registers the traffic and pushes the search result higher, making it more visible and driving more traffic.
Suggested search terms on Google were produced in a private browser to ensure that my own search history did not influence the algorithm and subsequent results. (Left: June 26. Right: July 2).
The “WalkAway Movement” is yet another example demonstrating that digital manipulation and disinformation are not platform-specific problems, and thus cannot be solved with platform-specific solutions. While certain fixes — like developing more sophisticated methods of detecting automated accounts and limiting the creation of new bot networks — would absolutely reduce the potential for manipulation via social media, ultimately these are human problems that will only be solved by bolstering our own human defenses.
Weaponized Social Media
It’s tempting to brush this off as a stunt, largely because that’s exactly what it looks like. The narrative—“I was a Democrat/progressive for my entire life but I decided to abandon my values and switch parties when the least popular, least qualified, and most unprincipled Republican president in modern American history took office”—is patently absurd, and some of the testimonials-by-tweet are, quite honestly, laughable. Furthermore, most of the accounts tweeting under the hashtag are either brand new or didn’t even bother to delete the evidence that they were already Trump supporters before “joining the movement” to walk away from the Democratic party.
However, while we can all acknowledge that the “WalkAway Movement” is not, in fact, going anywhere, that doesn’t mean we should discount the tactics or ignore what this astroturfed movement represents.
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For one thing, there is reason to believe that this psychological operation — and to be clear, that’s what this is — represents a trial run for future social media manipulation efforts. I am not going to discuss all of those reasons, but based on the publicly available evidence alone, many characteristics of the “WalkAway Movement” suggest that there may be more going on than meets the eye. As I’ve written about previously, information warfare involves much more than “fake news” and propaganda.
Weaponizing information, disseminating it on social media and other platforms, and artificially amplifying it are among the most visible manifestations of information warfare, but there are more insidious methods that are not necessarily apparent to the casual observer. Developing effective methods of digital manipulation requires an understanding of the target population — and what better way to understand the nuances of a target population than embedding yourself amongst them and running a trial to gauge responses? This could be achieved by exploiting an existing online movement or hashtag, or by manufacturing a new one explicitly for intelligence gathering purposes.
Intelligence gathering during this type of trial run could include methods such as surveillance, profiling, social network mapping, and sentiment analysis, as well as more traditional techniques like message testing. Social media not only provides vast troves of publicly available information, but also yields dynamic streams of data that can be manipulated (as in an experiment) for the purpose of intelligence gathering. If you want to know how a particular population or subgroup will respond to specific messages, the easiest way to find out is to craft and disseminate those messages to the target group, and watch how they respond.
The same is true for studying patterns of interaction, group dynamics, and other social behaviors. For example, if you want to know how to engage a certain type of user, testing out different Twitter profiles or communication styles would likely yield important insight for future efforts. On a similar vein, if you want to cause chaos or just generally stir up trouble, figuring out how to provoke other users—and determining which users are most receptive to provocation—would be extremely helpful. This is a great reason to heed the advice, “Don’t engage the trolls.”
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The “WalkAway Movement” also provides a glimpse into the issues and methods that are likely to be used in future psychological operations and disinformation campaigns, particularly as we approach the 2018 midterm elections. While many of the issues—race and racism, LGBTQ rights, immigration, etc—are the same ones that were used by Russia during its 2016 influence operation, they are being wielded in a different manner two years later.
Although Russia did target the left in 2016, there are reasons to believe that the left will be the target in 2018—meaning, the primary target. This doesn’t mean we won’t see a repeat of 2016 tactics targeting Trump supporters and right-wing voters, but rather that these tactics may be used as a supplement to those aimed at left-leaning voters. Thus, the “WalkAway Campaign” should serve as a warning to Democratic voters, who need to be prepared not to walk into the traps that are being and will be set.
Consider, for example, that at the same time Russian-linked Twitter accounts were amplifying #WalkAway and joining Trump supporters in reprimanding Democrats for a supposed lack of civility, they were also boosting the hashtags #AbolishICE and #MaxineWaters. In other words, they were working both sides of divisive issues and amplifying the most polarizing positions (and in some cases, intentionally misrepresenting those positions) in an apparent effort to erase the middle ground, discourage reasoned discourse, and make it seem like compromise is either not possible or not desirable.
Consider also that this took place amid nationwide outcry over Trump’s “zero-tolerance” policy, which led to the separation of thousands of immigrant children from their parents. The heartbreaking pictures and gut-wrenching sounds of children sobbing and crying out for their parents even touched a nerve with some of those who might be inclined to support Trump’s immigration policies. Clearly, diverting the public’s attention away from this cruel policy and the human suffering it caused would be of interest to Trump. And you know what would be a way to distract from that? Amplifying a hashtag that is all-too-easy to misrepresent (#AbolishICE), thereby allowing Trump to shift the debate to Democrats calling for “open borders” (even though ICE is not the agency that enforces our borders), while also conveniently exacerbating existing divisions over immigration within the Democratic Party.
Democrats need to be aware that these strategies will be used with increasing frequency, intensity, and sophistication as the 2018 midterms draw nearer. There is an alarming degree of hubris among some non-Trump voters, who seem to believe that Trump supporters are uniquely susceptible to social media manipulation, disinformation, and other types of information warfare. While it’s true that Democrats and other non-Trump voters have more readily accepted the evidence that Russia interfered in the 2016 election and has continued its effort to sow chaos and discord in American society, this has not necessarily translated into preparedness—and you can be sure that political operatives in Russia and in the U.S. have taken note of this.
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That brings us to what may be the most important takeaway: Russia clearly still sees Trump supporters as potential accomplices — witting or unwitting — in its ongoing efforts to sow chaos and division in American society. Likewise, after nearly two years of warnings from the U.S. intelligence community, Trump supporters clearly aren’t taking the threat of Russian interference seriously. While most of the people involved in the “WalkAway Movement” likely had no idea that Russia was also involved in pushing the campaign, the founder of the movement was obviously aware and apparently saw no problem with it, even going as far as sitting for an interview with one of the most well-known channels of Russian propaganda. Of course, this doesn’t mean that he is “working with Russia” and it certainly doesn’t prove anything about his intent. However, it does show that Trump’s continued attempts to deny and downplay the threat posed by Russian influence operations are having an impact on his supporters.
Instead of taking the threat seriously, his supporters view Russia as a potential friend and ally, and apparently don’t see anything wrong with accepting help from a Kremlin-funded propaganda outlet.
While the “WalkAway Movement” isn’t likely to convince—not to mention convert—many people, it offers important insight for those interested in understanding psychological operations aimed at manipulating and influencing social media users. This includes people who are interested in developing better defenses against manipulation, as well as those who want to develop more effective methods of manipulation.
Perhaps the most important observation is how quickly Russian propaganda outlets and Russian-linked social media accounts took notice of the campaign and started promoting it. While not exactly surprising, this tells us that Russia is still actively monitoring U.S. social media and looking for opportunities to amplify narratives that are aligned with the Kremlin’s goals.
Similarly, the “WalkAway Campaign” also shows that Russian interests are still very closely aligned with far-right U.S. media outlets and pro-Trump social media users, indicating that we will likely see continued cooperation (witting or unwitting) in the future. This is also a reflection of Trump’s failure to condemn Russia’s interference in our elections and society, which appears to have given his supporters the impression that it’s not something to be taken seriously.
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The fact that #WalkAway — a hashtag that was clearly amplified by Russian-linked and automated accounts — remains an active and trending topic on Twitter also tells us that the platform is still highly susceptible to manipulation, and has a long way to go if it wants to minimize the influence of bot-driven operations. In this case, the subject matter wasn’t inherently problematic, but artificial amplification of any content on a wide scale is cause for concern. When automated accounts are used to “like,” share, and post material, they end up gaming algorithms and pushing content onto social feeds when it otherwise wouldn’t be there. The result is that rational debate between humans is replaced by soundbites, arguments, and content designed to amplify extreme or polarizing positions. The use of automated accounts can also help create false impressions of popularity, support, or opposition, and can ultimately even influence news cycles and shape public perceptions on a mass scale.
With midterm elections approaching, we should all be prepared to see more frequent and more sophisticated efforts aimed at manipulating our information space and distorting our perceptions of reality. Dark money in politics is bad enough, but the dark arts it funds take insidious influence to a whole new level.