WASHINGTON – One tweet claimed coronavirus numbers were intentionally inflated, adding, “It’s hard to know what to believe.” Another warned, “Don’t trust Dr. Fauci.”
A Facebook comment argued that mail-in ballots “will lead to fraud for this election,” while an Instagram comment amplified the erroneous claim that 28 million ballots went missing in the past four elections.
The messages have been emanating in recent months from the accounts of young people in Arizona seemingly expressing their own views – standing up for President Donald Trump in a battleground state and echoing talking points from his reelection campaign.
Far from representing a genuine social media groundswell, however, the posts are the product of a sprawling yet secretive campaign that experts say evades the guardrails put in place by social media companies to limit online disinformation of the sort used by Russia during the 2016 campaign.
Teenagers, some of them minors, are being paid to pump out the messages at the direction of Turning Point Action, an affiliate of Turning Point USA, a prominent conservative youth organization based in Phoenix, according to four people with independent knowledge of the effort. Their descriptions were confirmed by detailed notes from relatives of one of the teenagers who recorded conversations with him about the efforts.
The effort generated thousands of posts this summer on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram, according to an examination by The Post and an assessment by an independent specialist in data science. Nearly 4,500 tweets containing identical content that were identified in the analysis probably represent a fraction of the overall output.
“In 2016, there were Macedonian teenagers interfering in the election by running a troll farm and writing salacious articles for money,” said Graham Brookie, director of the Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Lab. “In this election, the troll farm is in Phoenix.”
The effort, Brookie added, illustrates “that the scale and scope of domestic disinformation is far greater than anything a foreign adversary could do to us.”
Turning Point Action, whose 26-year-old leader, Charlie Kirk, delivered the opening speech at this year’s Republican National Convention, issued a statement from the group’s field director defending the social media campaign and saying any comparison to a troll farm was a “gross mischaracterization.”
“This is sincere political activism conducted by real people who passionately hold the beliefs they describe online, not an anonymous troll farm in Russia,” the field director, Austin Smith, said in the statement.
He said the operation reflected an attempt by Turning Point Action to maintain its advocacy despite the challenges presented by the coronavirus pandemic, which has curtailed many traditional political events.
“Like everyone else, Turning Point Action’s plans for nationwide in-person events and activities were completely disrupted by the pandemic,” Smith said. “Many positions TPA had planned for in field work were going to be completely cut, but TPA managed to reimagine these roles and working with our marketing partners, transitioned some to a virtual and online activist model.”
The campaign draws on the spam-like behavior of bots and trolls, with the same or similar language posted repeatedly across social media. But it is carried out, at least in part, by humans paid to use their own accounts, though nowhere disclosing their relationship with Turning Point Action or the digital firm brought in to oversee the day-to-day activity. One user included a link to Turning Point USA’s website in his Twitter profile until The Washington Post began asking questions about the activity.
In response to questions from The Post, Twitter on Tuesday suspended at least 20 accounts involved in the activity for “platform manipulation and spam.” Facebook also deactivated a number of accounts as part of what the company said is an ongoing investigation.