Being online in 2020 is like living out a shittier, more mundane version of Blade Runner. There’s the same pervasive suspicion that the people we’re interacting with aren’t real—bots, sockpuppets, paid shills, etc.—minus all the cool stuff, like the brooding minimalistic synth soundtrack and gritty dystopian aesthetic. We’re all transformed into Detective Deckards with our own variations on the Voight-Kampff test that we use tell real users from the “replicants.”
There are apps like the BotOMeter, which uses an algorithm to tell you if a Twitter user is exhibiting “bot-like” behavior. Another called Fake Followers Audit will let you know if an account is being propped up artificially. Then there are other tell-tale signs that don’t require a program to spot. A recently created account is a red flag. Weird syntax and broken English might signify that the user is from a sockpuppet operation in a foreign country.
Or maybe the post history shows that the account was dormant for several years, then it suddenly discovered politics and started posting every 5 minutes. Sometimes campaigns and marketers buy old accounts to avoid the appearance that they’re astroturfing.
This reflex to scrutinize every Twitter account’s authenticity (particularly those supporting one’s political components) gave rise to one of the weirder episodes of online drama in the current presidential primary season. Supporters of Bernie Sanders accused Lis Smith, the top communications aide to Pete Buttigieg, of impersonating a Nigerian man online.
As far-fetched as it sounds, there were a lot of reasons to think it was true. The account, whose Twitter handle was “easychinedu,” posted a message that started with “Team Pete. Hey. It’s Lis,” leading some to speculate that she had forgotten to switch accounts before posting.
There were some other irregularities. He used American slang, like “y’all,” “yikes,” and “chutzpah” which aren’t commonly used in British English spoken in Nigeria or Nigerian Pidgin. Chinedu used the American spelling for words—“Savior” instead of the British “Saviour.”
He also posted “Today I woke up and became Lis Smith’s burner account. Bernie bros are hilarious” at 11 a.m. EST, which is a normal time to wake up on the East Coast, but it’s the late afternoon in Nigeria.
Some more odd details were turned up by OSINT (open source intelligence) hobbyists, who discovered that Chinedu had a Reddit account that suddenly switched from talking about nothing but Bitcoin—and he had one message about running sockpuppet accounts—to being a non-stop cheerleader for Mayor Pete.
Eventually, a Buzzfeed reporter made contact with the man behind the account, and it confirmed that the owner was in fact a Nigerian. Still, many were slow to believe, considering that the initial confirmation of his identity was done via email. Then two more journalists spoke to him via FaceTime, which was a lot of due diligence for what was essentially a non-story.
Smith and staff for the Buttigieg campaign used the incident to poke fun at Bernie supporters for getting obsessive and conspiratorial about one little account.
But is it really that crazy draw these conclusions? The whole theory had veteran OSINT enthusiasts, like Aric Toler of Bellingcat, convinced right up until the man’s identity was definitively confirmed.
Occam’s Razor states that the explanation with the fewest assumptions is likely the correct one. The Buttigieg campaign outsourcing online campaigning to low-cost Nigerian workers who are proficient in English is more plausible than a random Nigerian becoming enamored with Mayor Pete overnight.
The Buttigieg campaign has struggled with gaining black support. Buttigieg is currently polling at 4 percent with black voters—one-quarter of the support for Michael Bloomberg, who spent a whole decade terrorizing black youth with “stop and frisk” policing as mayor of New York. It’s unusual for a black American to be that fired up about Mayor Pete, much less a Nigerian.
The fact that Pete used stock photos of Kenyans instead of real black supporters in his Frederick Douglass Plan didn’t exactly help quell the rumor, either. Then there are countless examples of astroturfing in the form of “X for Pete” Twitter accounts set up at roughly the same time:
Journalist Shujia Hader, who is a Bernie supporter, interviewed Chinedu and wrote about it for The Outline. While he acknowledged that the narrative surrounding the whole strange episode was compelling, in the end, it turned out to be not true. In the light of new facts, he applied Occam’s Razor again:
If I were to believe this was a conspiracy, not only would I have to believe that Lis Smith made a sock puppet account, but that the Buttigieg campaign hired an actor to put on a private show just for me, in order to convince me of their story … Chinedu is a real person, not a figment of Smith’s imagination. Is he being paid to promote the Buttigieg campaign? If he was, it would have been a waste of money — his tweets didn’t get much traction, and he had only a couple hundred followers.
Of course, the whole dust-up was seized on as another example of frothy-mouthed pro-Bernie Internet mobs at it again. But if we’re being fair, it has to be acknowledged that this incident reflects a universal paranoia and derangement that afflicts all who are terminally online.
A broad swath of Twitter thinks Bernie Sanders is a “chaos agent” directly under control of the Kremlin, and that a majority of “Bernie Bros” are operating out of the Russian troll farm known as the Internet Research Agency. A lot of the people spreading this disinformation ironically style themselves as “disinfo experts” and “researchers”—not unlike members of the weird pro-Trump cult QAnon.
Sady Doyle, a writer who supported Clinton in 2016 and now backs Elizabeth Warren, accused leftwing columnist and Bernie supporter Liz Bruenig of using a sock puppet account to threaten to murder her children with absolutely no evidence.
An account of that death threat was printed in a New York Times article about online harassment from “Bernie Bros” albeit without Doyle’s allegations against Bruenig or anything actually positively identifying the person as a Sanders supporter. The disparities in due diligence on the part of reporters investigating this claim and the Chinedu affair should be noted.
Bad Bernie takes: “Bernie Bros”
№4 of a multi-part series deconstructing the worst bad-faith arguments against Sen. Bernie Sanders
Given the nature of the online world, in which anyone can claim to be anybody, a little vigilance and skepticism about accounts is healthy. Reddit has a whole community dedicated to exposing accounts posing as people of color online to cynically exploit identity to racist ends called r/AsABlackMan.
Social media’s role in the Arab Spring brought widespread recognition of its power as a political tool, and since then, we’ve seen novel and often disturbing applications.
From the Clinton campaign’s financing of Correct the Record social media teams to the use of bots in manufacturing consent for the recent coup in Bolivia, we’re seeing Twitter and other platforms deployed in increasingly sophisticated ways to shape public opinion. Most recently, Bloomberg has enlisted mercenary “influencers’ in the meme war at a flat rate of $150 each.
At the same time, while it’s natural to be suspicious of sock puppet accounts and bots, this can easily turn pathological. And it doesn’t help that it’s kind of fun to play Detective Deckard and investigate the replicants and “retire” them, so to speak, by calling them out as bots.
The phenomenon is also driven in part by Twitter’s own “clout” economy in which everyone wants to post “receipts” of their political opponents doing something stupid with the hopes that it might go viral. But ultimately it’s a huge waste of energy that perpetuates chronic online-ness, diverting attention from actual productive political activity, like the day-to-day work of campaigning in real life.
Sock puppet or not, Chinedu is a nobody. Whether Lis Smith is running the account or not, the Buttigieg campaign actually is astroturfing, but so what?
That’s what hollow campaigns with more money than grassroots support do.