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#CNNBlackmail

Getting a candidate or elected official to retweet something from a supporter can be a hellish process. I know because I’ve personally done this countless times over the past decade for campaigns I’ve worked on and for clients. Every public figure has gatekeepers who know how easily an errant social media post can become an unflattering news story. When a digital strategist proposes sharing user generated content on an official channel they have to be prepared to answer questions like: Who is this person? What do we know about them? Any potential problems from their own social media? from said gatekeepers. At least before Trump.

Right Wing MemeMonitoring supporters online is part of any presidential campaign or administration. I don’t think that would surprise anyone. What’s missing from coverage this past week is that the White House almost certainly reaches out to the online communities that support them, especially the “The_Donald” subreddit. They’ve likely continued relationships forged during the campaign with moderators, and influencers in that community. Most important, those relationships probably include those who run botnets. The #CNNBlackmail outrage you’re seeing online isn’t organic. It’s on message.

Reaching out to online communities on behalf of candidates and elected officials is my area of expertise. I’ve been observing the Trump White House’s relationship with them closely. I’ve questioned why Trump wasn’t tapping into his echo chamber previously, and assumed because when it comes to actual policy like healthcare Trump didn’t care enough about the actual policy to gin up their support.

Now Trump’s echo chamber is activated. Here’s what that looked like:

  • Trump staffers have forged relationship with influencers in online communities that support him. This almost certainly includes moderators over at “The_Donald” sub-reddit.
  • If done well, these relationships are two-way. Trump staff would provide messaging guidance and access. Influencers can keep Trump’s team up to speed on the pulse of the community, specifically what kind of red meat they need to stay engaged.
  • The infamous CNN wrestling tweet is content directly lifted from the community. Trump’s tweet is the meatiest of red meat, and a call to action for his army of supporters online. The tweet was planned in advance but likely meant to appear spontaneous.
  • “The_Donald” user HanA**holeSolo immediately took credit for the meme video Trump used in his tweet. However, he changed his tune when CNN tracked him down, apologizing for his actions before deleting his account. Mods of “The_Donald” both removed the apology and insisted that CNN is blackmailing HanA**holeSolo because they chose not to reveal his identity while also reserving the right to do so in the future.
  • Here’s where things get interesting: Trump’s supporters online began pushing #CNNBlackmail as a meme/hashtag. But recent guest author Conspirador Norteño‏ looked into the hashtag on Twitter and found that of the 814 accounts frequently using it, all but 30 were flagged as trolls. Most of the accounts were also created recently. @RVAwonk also did some research and concluded that the hashtag is being pushed mostly by bots. One non-bot account that jumped on the #CNNBlackmail train? The President’s son, Donald, Jr.
  • Despite the bot activity, both right wing and traditional media covered #CNNblackmail as a story. Almost no one mentioned potential bot activity. Nor was there any consideration of the Trump team’s role in ginning up energy around this non-controversy. The result is that it seems like a significant portion of people on social media are outraged over something almost no one outside of Trump’s online support base actually cares about.

reddit homepage 7/5/17There’s a growing awareness of the role bots and their human programmers play in creating right wing outrage online. The next step is getting reporters to cover bots not just in a vacuum, but whenever they’re covering social media outrage of any kind. Look for the bots needs to become part of the reporter/editor checklist, especially when it comes to covering political activity on social media. More broadly bots play a role in a larger ecosystem that includes political operatives on Trump’s team. The more we understand about how the echo chamber functions, the better equipped we are to dismantle it.

Meanwhile this echo chamber has potentially dangerous consequences for reporters. For the first time in our history, journalism advocacy groups are documenting attacks on the press. Media personalities at CNN and their families have received harassment and threatening phone calls. Jared Yates Sexton, a reporter who figured out the identity of HanA**holeSolo, has been targeted with similar threats and harassment online. The Trump administration has made it clear they view the media as their enemy. Their fostering of this echo chamber puts reporters and their families directly in harm’s way. Media is the current target but given how Trump and the Frog Squad operate, they won’t be the last.

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Podcast Life

I talked fake news and Seth Rich conspiracies with Oliver Chinyere for his podcast Fake It Til You Break It.

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That’s all for this week. Thanks as always to Nicole Belle for copy editing.