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October 30, 2020
News Technology

Conservative group used a bunch of teens to evade Twitter and Facebook moderation

Artist: Alex Castro

One way to avoid having your repetitive pro-Trump posts tagged as belonging to a bot is to hire teenagers in Arizona to behave like bots — and that’s exactly what The Washington Post reports conservative group Turning Point Action did.

These kids posted messages such as “Don’t trust Dr. Fauci” to Twitter, Facebook and Instagram, the Post reported. They echoed President Donald Trump’s disdain for mail-in ballots, and posted erroneous claims about voter fraud, using the repetitive posting behavior that is most common in bots or trolls.

The campaign occurred over the course of months, and the Post identified at least 4,500 tweets that came from the Turning Point Action effort. “In 2016, there were Macedonian teenagers interfering in the election by running a troll farm and writing salacious articles for money,” Graham Brookie, an expert in digital forensic research, told The Post. “In this election, the troll farm is in Phoenix.”

Turning Point Action, led by Charlie Kirk, is affiliated with Turning Point USA, a Phoenix-based conservative youth group. That group told The Post in a statement that comparing their operation to a troll farm was a “gross mischaracterization.” Instead, the effort was described as “sincere political activism conducted by real people who passionately hold the beliefs they describe online, not an anonymous troll farm in Russia.”

Because the participants used their own accounts, they evaded some of the safeguards these tech companies put in place after 2016. The people who participated shared a document with each other to coordinate the phrases they used to post to social media, and were instructed to edit the phrases to make the posts seem more real.

This isn’t Turning Point’s first brush with coordinated inauthentic behavior. In the last election cycle, inauthentic right-wing behavior came from the Russian Internet Research Agency. As part of that effort, the IRA boosted Turning Point’s content to help Trump, experts told the Senate Intelligence Committee. This time, “it sounds like the Russians, but instead coming from Americans,” Jacob Ratkiewicz, a software engineer at Google, told The Post. His PhD research was on astroturfing in political campaigns.

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