The 2016 Election Is Turning Us All into Caricatures
Sockpuppets are real, but astroturfing isn't limited to fake accounts.
Image: Kitron Neuschatz
About a year ago, I started keeping an eye on election chatter on social media. The New York Times Magazine had just done an article on Russian troll farms that flooded the internet with disinformation to undermine political opponents at home and demoralize enemies abroad.
I was convinced that something similar was happening in the United States, if on a smaller scale. During the 2008 primaries, writer and activist Liz Henry discovered that an entire cabal of do-or-die Hillary voters (known as PUMAs, short for either "People United Means Action," or "Party Unity My Ass," depending on whom you asked) on the internet weren't real people.
Blogs such as hillaryis44.com and puma-pac.org—hubs of chatter for voters who were supposedly intent on nominating Hillary Clinton over Barack Obama at any cost—were full of fake comments, posted at the astounding rate of one per minute at odd hours of the night. She examined those posters and found that the handles looked automatically generated—"osaka puma, TexasTigress, asian4hillary, tennaseepuma, landiPUMA" to name a few. A Google search couldn't trace them back to real people with internet histories, and Henry concluded that they were mostly "astroturfers"—false identities spamming comments sections.
To this day, it's not clear who funded the fake PUMAs. Was it a pro-Clinton strategy? Was it meant to make Clinton look bad? Or—more nefariously—was it a foreign attempt to dishearten the United States?
Admittedly, this all sounds outrageously paranoid, but this is the reality of politics in a wired world. So when the primaries for the 2016 election began, I became convinced of a similar instance of political trolling.
When Black Lives Matters protests began disrupting Bernie Sanders rallies, the left condemned BLM. But some of the social media backlash looked suspicious, and I wasn't the only person who thought that.
Eve Ewing, then a graduate student at the Harvard School of Education, and now a postdoctoral scholar at the University of Chicago, told me that she had received a barrage of messages from Sanders supporters parroting the same talking points and linking her to the same YouTube videos of Sanders's past statements on race and civil rights.
A few weeks later, I spotted a troubling post to Reddit's r/offmychest—a confessional subreddit. "Sometimes, PR companies hire young, cheap workers like me to create a false sense of consensus online," wrote the poster. "I browse comments sections searching for mentions of our politician. They give us a script. If commenter mentions A, we mention B. If a commenter mentions 'random negative thing x,' we respond with a vague counterpoint calling our candidate 'authentic' or saying 'look at his record' without specifying."
The post was eventually removed, as moderators said it was fake. Try as I might, I never found any other clues.
I kept an eye out for pro-Sanders abuse on Twitter, but what I saw was a surge of apparently real people harassing commentators, pundits, and ordinary citizens for not supporting Bernie Sanders.
Then they came for me. I tweeted a criticism of Sanders supporters, and it kicked off weeks of persecution. One man sent a series of death threats to a friend who had defended me. Another man claimed that he'd "twist my tits off." Others spread lies about me in hopes that more would jump in (it worked).
These weren't anonymous internet trolls. One leftist political blogger, when informed that death threats had been made against me, said that I deserved what was coming and admitted that he had been part of a coordinated attack. A columnist at a Baltimore publication said the harassment was actually good, since my political beliefs were so reprehensible.
In hindsight, my suspicions about astroturfing came from a blindspot. I began this line of inquiry because I was pro-Sanders and couldn't believe that like-minded people could behave like this. I was more willing to believe that shady political operatives were inventing horrible internet personae than believe that they legitimately existed.
Social media was important in the 2008 and 2012 elections, but it's even bigger in 2016. And we're seeing that elections turn people online into caricatures of themselves. Elections are making real people indistinguishable from Russian troll farms.
It doesn't appear the Reddit confession from the supposed paid astroturfer was real. But it offered one piece of useful advice: "People should know not to take the political things they read on here too seriously," the commenter wrote. "If you want to have a genuine discussion about that, keep it in person or on Facebook where you know the people you're talking to."
It's OK to be passionate about politics: a lot is at stake, after all. But this election, try to behave like a human being.