Future Tense

Pro-Trump Twitter Spammers Spent the Impeachment Hearing Naming the Alleged Whistleblower

The public-hearings information war got off to a single-minded start.

William Taylor and George Kent stand near a table in the hearing room.
Congress held a hearing Wednesday featuring William Taylor (right), the top U.S. diplomat in Ukraine, and George Kent, a deputy assistant secretary of state. Olivier Douliery/AFP via Getty Images

As public impeachment hearings in the House of Representatives got going on Wednesday morning, a constellation of pro-Trump Twitter accounts was also getting to work. Dozens of pro-Trump accounts published lists of other accounts to follow and retweet during the proceedings. These lists identified hundreds of unique accounts, some of which Twitter had already suspended, and included calls to action to tweet in support of the president throughout the day. A majority of these accounts had tens of thousands of followers, and in turn followed tens of thousands of accounts—a hallmark of Twitter spammers. The comments on these lists often contained the hashtag #IFBP, short for “I follow back patriots.”

In the ensuing hours, this apparent network of accounts spread inflammatory and sometimes disinformation-filled posts concerning the Ukraine affair. Some tweets contained the false assertion that Nancy Pelosi’s son was a gas company executive in Ukraine, while others made the suggestion that news of President Jimmy Carter or Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg dying would break to distract the public from the Democrats’ supposed failure during the hearing. (Both are very much alive.)

Over the course of the hearings, there were also thousands of posts naming and spreading misinformation about the alleged intelligence community whistleblower (whose identity has not been confirmed or revealed by mainstreamed news sources), which these Trump-defending accounts helped to disseminate. Approximately 3,860 tweets containing his name appeared on the platform in a single hour. Last week, Twitter declared that identifying the alleged whistleblower did not violate its policies, even though Facebook and YouTube had decided to remove mentions of his name from their respective platforms.

Many of these tweets named the alleged whistleblower in criticizing House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff for claiming not to know his identity. Some simply repeated the alleged name over and over again in list form. And others spread unfounded claims that the whistleblower was involved with Hunter Biden’s activities in Ukraine. A meme that was popular prior to Wednesday, but which spread on Twitter as a commentary on the hearing as it was being broadcast, purports to show a number of pictures of the whistleblower alongside prominent Democrats like House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer. The man in the pictures is in fact Alexander Soros, billionaire philanthropist George Soros’ son. Many posts also attempted to establish tenuous ties between the elder Soros and the whistleblower.

A portion of this activity seems to have been spurred by Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul naming the alleged whistleblower on Wednesday morning while calling on Congress to bring him in for questioning. Followers of the QAnon conspiracy theory also claimed that Q had confirmed the identity of the whistleblower during the hearing.

A Twitter spokesperson said in a comment, “Per our private information policy, any Tweets that include private information about any individual, including the alleged whistleblower, would be in violation of the Twitter Rules.” Twitter presumably does not consider the alleged whistleblower’s name to be “private information.”

It seems that only a handful of publicly viewable posts on Facebook contained the alleged whistleblower’s name while the hearing was being broadcast—nowhere near the number of times it appeared on Twitter. Based on a search of the alleged whistleblower’s name, it also appears that only one video containing his name in the title has been uploaded to YouTube thus far on Wednesday.

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