It Sure Looks Like Trolls Are Weaponizing Call-Out Culture to Weaken Democrats

Beto O'Rourke, Elizabeth Warren, Kamala Harris
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by NOAH BERGER/AFP/Getty Images, PAUL RATJE/AFP/Getty Images, and Mario Tama/Getty Images.

The election trolls have logged on. Except, despite the cleanup efforts of Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube following the 2016 campaign, they never really logged off, with coordinated disinformation campaigns still trying to sow confusion on social media during the 2018 midterms. But now they’re getting ready for the big show. With 12 Democratic candidates already vying for the White House and more to come, memes and misinformation that appear to be coordinated and possibly connected to foreign propaganda efforts are already afflicting the race. According to a report Wednesday in Politico, Democratic contenders have been the targets of online propaganda aimed at sensationalizing missteps and promoting falsehoods. If these troll campaigns share a goal with the efforts of 2016 and 2018, then the point may be to widen societal divisions already prominent in American life and, in particular, weaken the Democratic Party. In particular, they seem intent on weaponizing a productive moment in our politics in which public figures are finally being held to account for their past actions, and Democrats are sometimes asking other Democrats to resign. The trolls want Democrats to eat each other.

So far, we don’t know the source of this activity—it’s not clearly linked to the Internet Research Agency, the Russian disinformation factory that was behind thousands of accounts stirring unrest during the 2016 and 2018 elections. Wherever it’s from, what has been found so far does appear to be coordinated and bears many of the traits of past foreign operations. Politico analyzed data collected by a group called Guardians.ai, a firm that specializes in protecting pro-democracy groups from cyberattacks and disinformation campaigns. Guardians.ai analyzed a network of 200 Twitter accounts that were active “in one of the largest influence operations of the 2018 cycle” in churning out extreme and divisive content, some of which displayed signs of automation. Looking at those same accounts again, the group found that since the start of this year, the network pivoted to focus on Sens. Kamala Harris, Bernie Sanders, and Elizabeth Warren as well as former Rep. Beto O’Rourke. The researchers found that over the course of 30 days this year, between 2 and 15 percent of all Twitter mentions of the four Democratic politicians originated from this network. In other words, a group of trolls that stirred the pot during the midterms is very, very busy once again.

Take one recent rumor that was boosted by the apparent troll network on social media, accusing Warren of having a piece of racist memorabilia on top of her kitchen cabinet. The meme was a blurry screenshot from a Warren Q&A on Instagram Live that posters claimed contained a Sambo figure biting into a piece of watermelon. The allegation was promoted by right-wing pundits on Twitter and Facebook—until it was debunked. It turns out the knick-knack wasn’t a racist memento at all, but rather “an ordinary reproduction of a Greek vase,” according to Snopes. The false allegation was shared on the New York City Republicans Facebook page in a now-deleted post, according to PolitiFact. The meme later traveled far enough that Warren’s campaign felt the need to debunk the claim on her campaign website. The intent was obvious, and it dovetailed with Warren’s cringe-worthy attempts to prove her Native American ancestry last year: The trolls didn’t just want Warren to look like she’s tin-eared on race, but like an actual racist.

This example of disinformation appears to have been initially promoted on the anonymous, anything-goes message board 4Chan—often an early stop of any effort to spread misinformation online—though it’s not clear who planted the meme or what their motivation was, other than adding to a narrative that paints Warren as racist. Right now, candidates on the left are particularly susceptible to such character attacks—if they are true, after all, they might be disqualifying. Beto O’Rourke was also targeted on Twitter by an account that had only tweeted once since it was created in May 2018. That one tweet, however, carried the allegation that the Texas politician once left a message on an answering machine in the 1990s that contained racist language. The single missive was quickly amplified by other accounts and reached as any as 1.3 million people, Politico reported.

These troll efforts aren’t only trying to smear candidates using issues of concern to the left—sometimes they’re just sexist and racist. Sen. Harris appears to be a favorite early target, according to Guardians.ai, which found that Harris attracted more activity on Twitter than any other Democratic presidential candidate in the 30-day period it studied. Days after Harris announced her candidacy, former San Francisco Mayor Willie Brown wrote a terse op-ed for the San Francisco Chronicle admitting that he dated Harris, apparently because reporters had been calling him about it. That was on Jan 26, but even now, weeks later, chatter about their decades-old relationship is still proliferating on social media. On Facebook, videos made about their relationship have racked up hundreds of thousands of views, and on Twitter, replies to Harris’ tweets are saturated with lewd comments accusing Harris of using sex as a ladder to success.

Trolls of both foreign and domestic vintage helped make the 2016 election the cacophony we remember. Now, as candidates struggle to differentiate themselves at a time when voters on the left may punish a candidate who has crossed ethical lines, it’s safe to expect trolls on social media to play every misstep up to its fullest—potentially as part of another propaganda effort to ensure victory for Donald Trump. Even if a meme you see that disparages a Democratic candidate is based on truth, it’s important to remember that its goal might be to simply weaken Democrats by making candidates toxic for swaths of the left, and ultimately make 2020 a repeat of 2016.

Future Tense is a partnership of Slate, New America, and Arizona State University that examines emerging technologies, public policy, and society.