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.
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
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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”
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.”
READ MORE by following the links. There are many examples of tweets and FB posts made by these “bots” and FAKE accounts.
Pro-Trump & Russian-Linked Twitter Accounts Are Posing As Ex-Democrats In New Astroturfed Movement
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