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Troll Watch: Targeting 2020 Presidential Candidates


As more and more people enter the 2020 presidential race, their announcements have been followed almost immediately by negative or disturbing memes and suspicious teardowns on Twitter. This activity has been noticed by those who keep an eye on the uglier side of social media, so we're taking it to our regular series Troll Watch.


MARTIN: This is where we've been keeping track of cybersecurity attacks as well as the themes, memes and conspiracies being pushed by bots and trolls. That's what Kelly Jones does as a news intelligence journalist for Storyful. That's a company that monitors social media content, so we asked her to tell us what she's been seeing lately. Kelly, thanks so much for joining us.

KELLY JONES: Thanks for having me.

MARTIN: So you were telling us that the trolls work fast. What did you see around Senator Elizabeth Warren after she launched her exploratory committee?

JONES: We found roughly 65,000 mentions about Warren herself or some of her more dubious nicknames like Fauxcahontas (ph) or Pocahontas. One example of a claim that we found was that users could spot a blackface doll in the background of her Instagram AMA when, in fact, it was a vase on top of her kitchen cabinet.

MARTIN: Talk to me a little bit more about that, if you would, like, how it moves into the mainstream.

JONES: What happened was a poster shared it on 4chan, which is an anonymous chat board. So we were not able to identify who this person was or what their motivation was. It was amplified on a fringe news site, and how we define a fringe news site is not something that's mainstream or cable news or your typical site that you would search. It moved from there to being shared on mainstream networks, like Twitter, where conservative commentator Tomi Lahren even picked up the claim. And that was just within three days. The fact that one poster could make this claim and it was amplified so quickly really says something.

MARTIN: Yeah. It does say something, you know? Twitter recently suspended a couple of suspicious accounts that had been targeting Kamala Harris, the California senator, with false information that she is ineligible to run for president because her parents are foreign-born, which, even if it was true, wouldn't disqualify her from being president because she was born in the United States. So what would raise a red flag and make a Twitter account seem suspicious?

JONES: What we consider suspicious in nature are if they have unusual Twitter handles, if they retweet or post systematically or irregularly, say, in large numbers or if they tag several handles using the same text.

MARTIN: So, you know, the examples that we've talked about so far - the targets are women. And there's been a lot of discussion, recently, about women being targeted on social media. But there are men who have announced. And are they being targeted in the same way?

JONES: We have seen certain automation and memes, again, being used, for instance, related to Cory Booker. So we are definitely seeing both sides for male and female.

MARTIN: But is there any special attention being given to women, or are there any special themes that are being directed at these women candidates?

JONES: I think what we're seeing a lot is the question of are these people fit to run. Are these women specifically fit to run? And that is something that we're going to be seeing throughout up until 2020, I feel.

MARTIN: OK. And you started doing this work during the 2016 election. Are you seeing any changing tactics? I'm just wondering. How does what you're seeing now compare to what you saw during 2016?

JONES: I think that the idea of automation or suspicious accounts is going to be an ongoing theme through the election. Obviously, the idea of memeing is going to be a theme because these people who are posting this content are creating these images to cause political discourse. And, in fact, one poster we saw on a fringe network claimed that they memed Trump into presidency.

MARTIN: Kelly Jones is a news intelligence journalist for Storyful. Kelly, thanks so much for talking to us.

JONES: Thanks for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.