The meteoric rise of Donald Trump from unlikely fringe candidate to 45th President of the United States has many attributions. How you interpret the phenomenon known as “the Donald” is likely strongly correlated along partisan lines. If you hate Trump, you can find ample material across the internet that is replete with reasons why he is the new Great Satan and how racist, stupid white Americans got him elected.
If you love Trump, his presidency confirms that justice is on your side, and that a grassroots movement of honest, hardworking Americans got sick of corrupt politicians and pandering celebrities of telling them how to live their lives, and said, enough is enough.
But then there’s the Russian issue. With the U.S. intelligence community unanimous in their assessment that Russia played an active role in attempting to influence the 2016 presidential election, Democrats and many of Trump’s enemies have pounced on assertions like that of FBI Director James Comey, when he said yesterday in testimony to the House Intelligence Committee that Russia acted to counter Hillary Clinton, and promote Donald Trump’s candidacy. To them, this is a clear indicator that Trump is either some weird new Manchurian Candidate and Russian agent at worst, or a corrupt oligarch Russophile at best.
While Comey has announced that an investigation is underway to determine what, if any, connections exist between Trump administration officials and the Russians, no theory has been offered as to why the Russians chose to meddle on behalf of Trump. But we do have some idea as to the how, and it’s at least due in part to a fairly cunning use of social media.
For better or worse, social media has come to be a major news source for millions of Americans. During the election, any time Trump seemed to have what would normally be a campaign-ending gaffe—like his leaked audio recording where he spoke freely of grabbing women by the vagina—social media outlets like Twitter would have a sharp spike in trending stories from right-wing websites, usually negative towards Hillary Clinton.
Wondering if it was something more than simply Reddit trolls from r/The_Donald, some researchers analyzed Trump’s Twitter and Instagram following, and found that a sizeable percentage of followers were bots. Bots refer to fake, automated accounts that have the ability to rapidly retweet articles and disseminate information across the internet. Some organizations, like the Computational Propaganda Project, studied the use of bots, and said that roughly half of all Clinton traffic, good or bad, was bot activity. For Trump, it was much higher, at 80%.
Anyone who has hung out on Instagram understands the power of “likes” and followers, a form of social media currency indicative of status. Some celebrities and Butt Models have hundreds of thousands to millions of followers. Not surprisingly, many of these of these followers are fake. They are bots, purchased for their ability to spam and give the appearance of greater popularity.
Forbes Magazine reported a study which showed that roughly 15% of Trump’s Instagram followers are bots, and that an unusual proportion of those originated in Russia or were otherwise Russian controlled. The report did not (and could not) conclude that this was direct evidence of a Russian intelligence operation, but it’s at least noteworthy.
FBI investigators are reportedly looking into any possible collusion between Russian agents and some of the right-wing websites whose content was so readily disseminated by bots. Even the French Intelligence agency, the Directorate-General for External Security, is preparing for an onslaught of Russian bot activity in support of right-wing candidate Marine Le Pen in their upcoming election. It seems unlikely the Russian government simply enjoys political candidates “who speak their mind,” but they certainly enjoy the intense political discord and disunity that has been associated with their popularity.
Featured images courtesy of Yahoo