When Donald Trump confronted revelations that he used money from his charitable foundation to settle private legal disputes and purchase portraits of himself, a tireless army of tweeters went to work to keep the focus on Hillary Clinton’s foundation instead.
Then Trump stumbled on a debate question about why he refuses to release his taxes, and the same army has since rushed to create the appearance of a grass-roots demand that Clinton be held accountable, instead.
The accounts pumping out the tweets created the appearance of authentic outrage but had all the hallmarks of fakes, according to researchers who specialize in “bot” networks — short for robot — that shower social media with phony messages appearing to spring up from the grass roots.
The pro-Trump networks tweet incessantly, but only to praise Trump and bash Clinton and the media, constantly retweeting Trump staff, pro-Trump pundits and other fake accounts, thousands of which recently added “deplorable” to their usernames.
Indeed, the Clinton Foundation tweets follow a pattern of pro-Trump Twitter activity spotted by professionals throughout the campaign — accounts made to look like real people that are instead run by software and designed to amplify a certain messages — that serves to neuter negative coverage of the New York businessman.
“The bot nets usually turn whatever the issue is back on Hillary,” said Phil Howard, a professor at Oxford University’s Internet Institute and the principal investigator at the Computational Propaganda Project, which has closely tracked the networks. Howard has noted the same pattern in response to stories about Trump’s refusal to release his tax returns, with bots alleging that Clinton is keeping even bigger secrets from the public. “They tend to be used to confused or muddy,” he said.
In addition to fully automated bots, Trump has benefited from the Twitter activities of “trolls,” dedicated, human provocateurs, and “cyborgs,” accounts that blend automated activity with human input.