As anyone who has tangled with Trump supporters on Twitter can attest, there is an aggressively swarming quality to that crowd. In seemingly a blink of an eye, your mentions can become swamped by the MAGA crowd. The sheer aggressiveness and prolificness of Trump’s Twitter army has led many people to speculate about Russian involvement — that many of them are bots being controlled by some central operator.
But according to a fascinating new article from BuzzFeed’s Joe Bernstein, for a big chunk of those accounts, at least, there’s a simple explanation: the evil-genius Twitter organizing of an online figure named MicroChip.
MicroChip, Bernstein explains, is “a notorious pro-Trump Twitter ringleader once described by a Republican strategist as the ‘Trumpbot overlord.’” Bernstein got the first interview with him, and it turns out that MicroChip’s twitter proficiency can explain a lot of what’s been going on since the alt-right first embraced Trump.
As the story of how MicroChip first built his Twitter empire shows, his strategy was part social networking, part software:
As MicroChip found other like-minded accounts, he said, they began to organize themselves into enormous, 50-person direct message groups. Within these groups, members would distribute content from the Drudge Report and Reddit’s r/The_Donald subreddit, then tweet it with a commonly decided hashtag, and retweet one another’s tweets ad infinitum. MicroChip called the DM rooms, simply, “retweet groups,” and by September of last year, there were 15 of them. Some of the groups were chock-full of egg and anime avatars, according to MicroChip, but others were composed of Christian conservatives or hardcore Zionists. Taken together, they were like a strange Twitter mirror image of the Trump coalition.
MicroChip added automation to these dedicated DM groups, which he insisted are populated entirely by real people with real accounts. He started using AddMeFast, a kind of social media currency exchange, in which people can retweet or like other tweets in exchange for points that they can then can spend to list their own content (such as pro-Trump hashtagged tweets) to be promoted. You can also buy these points, and an investment of several hundred dollars, according to MicroChip, can yield thousands or even tens of thousands of retweets.
A third component of MicroChip’s blended army of DM groups and crowdsourced social media signal boosters were simple Google script bots. These bots, which MicroChip said “you don’t have to do any programming at all to run,” can be programmed to find and like or retweet tweets featuring certain terms or hashtags.
In much the same way, Mike Cernovich admitted to the New Yorker that he is much more concerned with whether a hashtag or meme would travel well than with whether it is true, and that figuring out what works is a constant process of experimentation and iteration; MicroChip, too, cares about one thing and one thing only: getting pro-Trump, or anti-anti-Trump, stories to trend. And while Cernovich has a big microphone of his own, MicroChip has developed a massive network of smaller ones that, through their combined effort, often manage to break through to the mainstream.
That story of the alt-right’s crossover success is a bigger one, of course — here’s a Columbia Journalism Review story on it — but Bernstein’s account of MicroChip’s success brings to mind an important concept from political science: preference intensity. Let’s say you have a town of 100 people evenly split on the question of gun control. But whereas all of the 50 people in favor of gun control are only moderately so, and fit their advocacy for gun control into broader, busy lives, the anti-gun-control folks are incredibly fervent. They are single-issue voters, and they spend 30 hours a week, on average, lobbying the local politicians to enact looser gun laws. This is an oversimplified example, of course, but the end result is likely to be that, although the town is split on gun control, the policies its leaders enact tilt more toward the preferences of ardent Second Amendment fans.
Something similar is going on with social media and communities like the alt-right. They don’t have the numbers of their ideological opponents, but they have way more obsessive figures who devote hundreds or thousands of hours to one goal and one goal alone: virality. “It’s high volume and it takes work,” MicroChip told Bernstein. “You can’t take a break — you sit at the screen waiting for breaking news 12 hours per day when you’re knee-deep in it.” His accounts are constantly getting banned, but he has new ones set up to jump into the game whenever that happens. Even if there are five anti-Trump folks for every one MicroChip, it is very hard to compete with that level of obsession. (It’s no wonder that there’s so much overlap between the alt-right and 4chan, given 4channers’ propensity for constantly being online and devoting untold hours to their “ops.”)
And social media, particularly Twitter, is built in a way that privileges that sort of obsession. If you know how to “hack” the ways Twitter spreads information, you can have an outsize impact. This can explain, for example, how it sometimes feels like Twitter is absolutely infested with rabid anti-Semites, when in reality there just aren’t that many of them. Those with the strongest preferences to spread pro-Trump or anti-Semitic or whatever other sort of propaganda on Twitter, and with the know-how and free time, are at a huge advantage. They really can, as MicroChip’s story shows, change the world. Mostly for the worse.