One of the most frustrating things about dealing with trolls on Twitter is that it’s impossible to identify a troll. If you call them a troll, why shouldn’t they call you a troll? What right do you have to suggest a stranger online is disingenuously arguing on behalf of a politician, a celebrity, or a brand of cereal?
Most people imagine that troll farms don’t exist outside of Russia. We know from the 2016 election that American politicians, even Democrats, are not above astroturfing. Correct The Record was a super PAC founded by David Brock that “aimed to find and confront social media users who posted unflattering messages about Clinton.” With its millions of dollars, it would pay online trolls to argue with Bernie Sanders supporters, creating the impression that the Twitterverse was more pro-Hillary than it actually was.
The Loyal Opposition is a PAC that lists its top priorities as:
– defending fair elections — including the physical infrastructure and countering voter suppression
– defending against propaganda and disinformation
– developing effective grassroots methods to push back on Trump and Putin’s war on western liberal democracies.
Their website is a generic blog dedicated to supporting whatever is happening within the Democratic party, but they also run a Twitter account with 36.6k followers.
Nick DeCaro, director of strategy and resources at The Loyal Opposition, produced this (a copy, as the original has now been deleted) opposition research document on Bernie Sanders. One might wonder why an employee at a company dedicated to defending fair elections would be spending any time producing and disseminating a 26 page document, completed with outline by subject, of links to negative articles about Bernie Sanders. One might also wonder how Nick DeCaro got 28.9k followers on Twitter.
The answer is simple: Nick helps in directing a troll farm.
This opposition research document is perfect for someone that doesn’t know anything about politics, but needs to argue that Bernie Sanders is bad. If someone says “Bernie Sanders is good when it comes to X,” the troll can search the document for X, copy the link, and then say “No he isn’t, look at this!” The job would require the same proficiency in English required to staff an international call center.
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I did an experiment using the first non-Twitter non-Youtube link in the opposition research document, a medium piece from 2015 called “The Sanders Gun Vote That Never Makes the Lists (But Should).” If you search for this link on Twitter, and then organize by “recent,” you will find that over 1/3 users tweeting the piece follow Nick or TheLoyalOpposition, and since some of these users send the link numerous times, over 2/3 of tweets including the link are by accounts that follow Nick.
If this alone is not suspicious, we should take a look at the executive director at The Loyal Opposition, Adrienne Kirschner. On her LinkedIn page, she indicates that her most recent education was spent studying group dynamics at UC Berkeley. What are group dynamics? According to Wikipedia:
Group dynamics is a system of behaviors and psychological processes occurring within a social group (intragroup dynamics), or between social groups (intergroup dynamics). The study of group dynamics can be useful in understanding decision-making behaviour, tracking the spread of diseases in society, creating effective therapy techniques, and following the emergence and popularity of new ideas and technologies.
Astroturfing is defined as the disguising of an organized campaign as a grassroots event. Group dynamics are exactly why astroturfing on Twitter works. We are social animals, and we value the opinions of our peers. If one is uninitiated to a subject, and they see consensus surrounding it, they will generally concede. If they see contention, however, they will find themselves either trying to figure out for themselves what is true, or conceding to the side with the most or the loudest voices. Sure, there are still people that spend time going in-depth and figuring out what’s true for themselves, but a majority of us just don’t have the time, and will go with the crowd.
When I tweeted about this, tagging The Loyal Opposition and Adrienne Kirschner, something funny happened. I got a reply from an account that doesn’t follow me, that I’ve never seen or interacted with. After they replied, they blocked me immediately. Someone came along to like the tweet, and then also immediately blocked me. Nick DeCaro follows them both. Am I crazy for wondering if they might be TheLoyalOpposition’s trolls?
I am confident, given the amount of time and resources spent hysterically characterizing Russian troll farms as undermining our election in 2016, that this story is going to get serious traction in mainstream media. I have reached out to Nick and Adrienne, and will update this piece if they choose to comment. Although I did not reach out to them, the founder and co-founder of The Loyal Opposition, Matt Scharfstein and Karen Kirchen, have both blocked me on Twitter.
Follow me on Twitter! @WillEverman