21st Century Wire
Over the years I’ve covered elections, color revolutions and wars, and thus have had the unique opportunity to observe firsthand how the online consensus-building and narrative management sphere has evolved. That said, nothing can quite compare to the bot-fest unleashed this past week by the DNC’s Biden-Harris campaign. In terms of analytics, it dwarfs anything we’ve seen previously in terms of speed and scale.
Hyper-partisan online warfare is now a reality in domestic politics. This 2020 US Presidential Election has supplied more than a few ugly examples of this. The biggest one so far has to be Jack Dorsey and Twitter’s iron curtain drop on the New York Post, who committed the offense of publishing damning evidence on the Biden family’s various overseas enterprises. The high priests of information in San Francisco claimed the story violated their community standards. It’s obvious that Twitter executives viewed this information as a threat to the Biden campaign and so they proceeded to shutdown not just the New York Post‘s social media account, but they also suspended anyone else who posted the story, including the White House Press Secretary. As for the rest of the mainstream media, they wouldn’t even cover it, and taking their cues from the Biden campaign, they summarily wrote it off a “Russia disinformation.” Yes, they did that.
So is this the new normal – allowing a Democrat-oriented corporation to censor important information across its ubiquitous platform during a major election cycle?
Before we look at the Biden-Harris campaign’s online operation, let’s briefly review some of the genealogy of real-world weaponized online political influence operations. One of the first real-world operations I witnessed was Iran’s ‘Green Revolution,’ which had an international diaspora element to it, but it was fairly obvious then that a good percentage of the impressive wave of English language tweets and social media posts was being driven by western agencies. By that time, the US military’s information warfare unit was already using an array of new dashboard technologies, similar to the current version of Hootsuite, enabling operators to manage hundreds of Twitter accounts simultaneously. These same efforts were repeated for the Arab Spring, and specifically for the war on Syria, like with Iran, oriented mainly for western and international audiences, and with the expressed purpose of disseminating and managing specific narratives or points of view aligned with the objectives of the Pentagon and US State Department. There were both western-based cells of activists, and also large boiler rooms too. The same operation was harnessed with the Ukraine’s Maidan ‘color revolution’ in the winter of 2013-2014, and later with the West’s prosecution of its war of attrition in the Donbass. Some of the leaders in this emerging field have been Israeli tech firms who’ve demonstrated to their clients an ability to manipulate political opinion and manufacture trends across broad user groups on the major social media platforms. It’s crucial to note that these same covert cyber operations have also been used against western citizens by the Pentagon and its contractors – a “Shadow War” designed to counter and suppress any media sources deemed to be either sympathetic to a country like Iran, or any alternative news source reporting factual information (which Washington doesn’t like) during a live military operation.
Large parts of this same technology are now germane to western political campaigns. Much was made of Obama’s famed digital strategy in 2008, but the real turbo-charged capability came into its own during the 2016 Presidential Election, and with Ted Cruz’s presidential primary campaign arguably running the most incredible campaign spam machine ever seen up to that point. Among the organizations contracted by Cruz was the notorious Cambridge Analytica. According to Federal Election Commission (FEC) filings his campaign paid at least $750,000 to the big data firm who claimed to specialize in “behavioural microtargeting,” but in reality Cambridge was really subcontracting out to a myriad of digital firms who performed various tasks. Presumably one of those was a human troll and bot farm. Similar digital services were also employed by both the Clinton and Trump campaigns in 2016.
Since the summer, we’ve been watching the Biden 2020 social media campaign with great interest, but shocked to see very little happening early on, despite the many hundreds of millions of dollars raised. It really seemed like a hard sell. Like his campaign in general, Biden’s social media operation was a fairly mild affair in comparison to other campaigns. Rather strangely, it’s only really become activated after the election on Nov 3rd.
Aside from their daily hashtag campaigns, the campaign’s online information warfare effort has really stepped up in the last 10 days, and it’s now engaging in swarming and public mobbing. I experienced it myself this week after commenting on one of Biden’s daily hashtag campaigns called “Biden Won Day” (#BidenWonDay), presumably a PR effort to flood Twitter with pro-Biden messaging to counter the growing public skepticism over contested election results.
"Biden Won Day"? Still, before the votes have been counted? You have to ask yourself why they are trying so hard, and are in such a rush to complete their coronation. I think the answer is obvious – to cover-up the fraud which just took place… https://t.co/dFE7PYFd6c
— Patrick Henningsen (@21WIRE) November 10, 2020
Within just around 2 minutes of me posting the comment, hundreds of comments poured into the thread, mostly mindless one-liners, stand-alone hashtags, memes, vile profanity and various other invectives.
In just 10 minutes there were already over 1,000 comments in the thread. Within an hour it totaled nearly 2,000 replies.
Just to reiterate, in all the years observing various social media campaigns, I have never seen anything like this. What was generating this instant waterfall? While some of the many thousands of tweets in this thread could very well fall under the banner of human user (we checked a sample of roughly 50 accounts, and at least half appeared to be not politically active nor US-based), it was obvious there was some degree of automation, and had all the characteristics of a troll farm.
India’s Troll Farms
After a bit of research into the Biden-Harris digital operation, I found a likely answer to my question. It’s no secret to anyone in the digital subcontracting business that India’s troll farm industry is the largest in the world. It boasts a global clientele, and it is also the cheapest, and most decentralized and robust in the world. This service is available for anyone who is willing to pay – western PR agencies, fashion brands, entertainment companies, and political campaigns. The more money you have, the more online muscle you can flex. As it turns out, in 2020 one of this shady industry’s biggest and best paying clients has been the Biden-Harris campaign.
As one troll farm operator in India told ,
“We don’t pick and choose. Joe Biden the person is irrelevant to us. We got a target in August to follow him and engage with his tweets, and we did. The agencies in Delhi who we work with don’t tell us any details, and we don’t ask.”
With very little popularity online and with the election drawing near, in August the Biden campaign reached out to troll farms in India in order to artificially boost Joe’s lack luster Twitter presence, and received an immediate injection of tens of thousands of fake followers which were literally purchased from troll farms located throughout rural India. On this point, Newsweek added:
“Within two weeks of Biden selecting Kamala Harris as his running mate on August 12, his Twitter following jumped by 738,595 new followers — a 9.1 percent leap. The number hit 11 million by the third week of October.”
If memory serves me correctly, aren’t these the very same practices that federal law enforcement agencies spent the last four years condemning as systemic during the 2016 presidential election?
Politically, this should have consequences, but the media are hardly interested in advancing the story. Regardless, it does mean that Joe Biden lied when he made his grandiose announcement in June of 2020 , “not take part in the spread of disinformation over social media in his campaign for president, including rejecting the use of deep fake videos, synthetic social media accounts and bot networks to attack opponents.- So much for honesty.
Somewhat ironically (or not), it was during Kamala Harris’s failed primary campaign which claimed it was under siege by armies of “Russian bots.” Upon closer examination though, her wild claims turned out to be hollow indeed. Still, her story was dutifully laundered through most mainstream outlets. During her appearance on The Breakfast Club radio show, Harris was asked point blank if she thought she was being targeted by Russian bots, to which she answered, “Well, we already know we are.” The story was so outlandish that even CNN was forced to walk it back after it emerged there was no evidence to support her tale. She literally made it up. So much for character.
To buttress the Democratic Party narrative of ‘foreign interference’ during this election, partisan journalists at major outlets like the New York Times churned out a steady stream of colorful stories warning of the specter of Russian bots, seemingly laying in waiting to attack the Biden-Harris campaign. Outlets like NYT ran the all-too familiar inane ‘how-to’ pediatric online slide shows (for adults) supposedly teaching hapless voters how to be vigilant against malicious phantom bots, and how to achieve personal resilience and not be swayed by ‘disinformation.’ Of course, these mythical legions of Cozy Bears never materialized, but the narrative was planted by the Democratic Party and the mainstream media, providing a pivot point if they ever need to leverage and re-spin the narrative later.
What was also apparent from the testimony given to Newsweek is that the Biden-Harris troll farms in India are effectively working for slave wages. While the US-based digital consultants may be charging thousands per day to the Biden-Harris campaign, it’s all but certain that they’re paying mere pennies (Rupees) when they sub-sub contract-out to overseas troll farms. Again, additional irony for Kamala Harris being of Indian decent that her campaign is employing slave labor in India to help prop-up its digital facade. This sordid practice harkens back to December 2019 when it was revealed that Democratic Party financier, billionaire oligarch Micheal Bloomberg, was caught using prison labor to make phone calls for the former New York mayor’s failed Presidential campaign. Again, clever sub-contracting solutions by the campaign’s ethically vacant gold-plated PR and digital consultants.
Much was made by Twitter over alleged ‘foreign meddling’ by bot accounts on its platform during previous US election cycles, so you’d think that Silicon Valley firms would want to clamp-down on any paid-for abuse on their social networks, as it distorts and ruins the normal ebb and flow of communal discourse on the platform. This latest fake digital wave by the Biden camp further demonstrates that the likes of Twitter and Facebook are only really concerned with either imaginary threats (“the Russians!”), or any pro-Trump activity or news which might damage the public messaging of campaigns they are favoring, in this case Joe Biden’s. This completely one-sided approach to censorship and de-platforming is egregious in the extreme, and should be classed as election meddling and interference by Twitter and Facebook. The Biden campaign are literally purchasing foreign online assets (users in trolls farms) in order to both inflate its presence online and also to attack critics, swarm the threads of journalists, and Trump supporters.
Again, these are the very same tactics and online behaviors which Democrats and their media surrogates have been waving the finger of righteous indignation at for the last four years, and which have been used to tie-up the resources of the federal government to probe and investigate (and finding nothing to substantiate their claims in the end) this supposed grave threat to our national security.
Most disturbing of all, is that Twitter and Facebook are now aggressively policing, ‘fact check’ road-blocking, and even censoring anyone who dares to question the election results and bestowed legitimacy of “President Elect” Joe Biden. This may be standard fare in China, but we are meant to be living in a pluralistic society. Allowing these firms to suppress information and discourse during a historic election is frankly unforgivable, and should prompt a criminal investigation at the federal level.
The truth of matter: hypocritical partisans in the mainstream media, Silicon Valley, the DNC and the Biden-Harris campaign, are doing more damage to trust in democracy and the Fourth Estate than anything Russia could ever dream of, or want to for that matter.
Author Patrick Henningsen is an American writer and global affairs analyst and founder of independent news and analysis site 21st Century Wire, and is host of the SUNDAY WIRE weekly radio show broadcast globally over the Alternate Current Radio Network (ACR). He has written for a number of international publications and has done extensive on-the-ground reporting in the Middle East including work in Syria and Iraq. See his archive here.