On Monday, presidential candidate Andrew Yang released his proposal to fight climate change, which includes focusing more on nuclear energy, prodding companies to invest in green technologies, and subsidizing Americans to relocate to higher ground. Within hours, more than 30,000 tweets containing the hashtag #YangsClimatePlan made the proposal one of the top trending topics on Twitter.
This swell of largely supportive tweets for Yang’s climate plan wasn’t completely spontaneous. Yang supporters had been coordinating in Reddit and Facebook groups since Friday to ensure that the topic went viral, advising tweeters to use the hashtag #YangsClimatePlan instead of #YangClimatePlan and documenting the topic’s rise through Twitter’s charts. The candidate’s online army similarly coordinated efforts to get the hashtag #GoogleAndrewYang to trend periodically over the last week, and the hashtag #LetYangSpeak to trend after the first Democratic debates in June—after he accused NBC of cutting his mic. Yang, of course, is not the only candidate capable of inspiring an outpouring of endorsements on Twitter: Supporters for Sen. Bernie Sanders, for example, boosted the hashtag #myberniestories to the top of the trending charts in early August to publicize that campaign’s phone app.
The hard-to-miss enthusiasm of pro-Yang users on social networks—the #YangGang—has been a defining characteristic of the businessman’s long-shot presidential run. Profiles of his campaign emphasize the wide reach of his memes, the virality of his hashtags, and his supporters’ ability to overwhelm major online polls. What’s received less attention is the Yang Gang’s willingness to flood smaller, less-visible polls and online forums. Members of the YangForPresidentHQ subreddit have even taken to directing users to swarm Twitter polls put out by random supporters of other candidates. (I asked the Yang campaign what it thinks of supporters’ focus on these small polls and other targets and will update when I hear back.)
A user with the handle @NYforbernie2020, who is a volunteer for the Sanders campaign and other socialist candidates, deleted a poll last week pitting the Vermont senator against Yang after a post on r/YangForPresidentHQ directed members to brigade it. Before the poll was removed, 72 percent of the 13,731 participants had voted for Yang. The Reddit post read, in part, “I know you guys don’t think these are worthwhile but I can assure you they are. The last poll with Trump vs Yang there were quite a few Trump supporters in that thread that showed interest in Yang.” Members of the Reddit community have also been able to overwhelm other relatively low-visibility polls hosted by Trump supporters on Twitter and a straw poll on Daily Kos.
Yang’s supporters have targeted online voting systems on other sites as well—sometimes not to directly boost Yang, but to highlight issues that Yang is campaigning on. A Reddit post on Thursday encouraged the Yang Gang to boost the IMDb ratings for American Factory, a Netflix documentary released last week that, in part, examines the effects of automation on an auto-glass factory in Ohio. “Rate It at IMDB. It has a low rating right now with little people,” the post read. “It has very high rotten tomatos (97%) but IMDB’s score is obviously preemptively down voted by haters.”
Because the documentary is the first project released by Higher Ground, Barack and Michelle Obama’s film production company, some members of r/YangForPresidentHQ believe the former president is implicitly endorsing Yang and have called for others to spread clips related to his platform. The documentary had around a 6.8 rating on IMDb last week, and it now holds a 7.5 rating as of Monday, though it’s hard to tell whether the Reddit post was solely responsible for the jump. Some of the user-submitted written reviews explicitly mention Yang.
Another proposed Yang Gang target is political betting markets. On Reddit, some supporters have urged the group to place bets that Yang will win the presidency on PredictIt, a site where users can gamble on outcomes of political events. “All these news sources are looking at PredictIt as an indicator of popularity, but just like the stock market, PredictIt can be manipulated, especially with such low volumes. “Buy Yang shares now so we can pump up the price and get more name recognition for the Yangster,” one post read, though it doesn’t appear to have gained much traction. It’s also impossible to tell whether the subreddit was responsible for any movement in the betting markets. Members of r/YangForPresidentHQ did take notice, though, when PredictIt retweeted a poll from an Economist writer asking whether Yang could actually win the election. Votes in favor jumped from 2 percent to 13 percent within an hour of the poll being posted to Reddit, and then to 52 percent over the next few days.
While these smaller unofficial polls and ratings might not guarantee Yang a spot in a future debate or otherwise tangibly boost his electoral chances, they may help to cultivate the impression that his base is large and organically growing. That may very well be the case, but the level of coordination that occurs in pro-Yang groups is important context that isn’t obvious to the internet user who stumbles upon one of these Twitter polls. It’s similarly important to know that the Sanders campaign launched the #MyBernieStory hashtag, and other campaigns are constantly seeking ways to boost online chatter about their candidates.
Not everyone in the Yang Gang seems to be on board with focusing on minor measurements of the candidate’s popularity. “Why is this sub so concerned with online twitter polls and not phone banking and other ways of volunteering?” one user wrote on a post having to do with a Bernie vs. Yang Twitter poll. Numerous posts on r/YangForPresidentHQ have echoed this point, raising concerns that the community is spending too much effort on wielding influence online—and not enough on connecting to people offline.