Saboteurs sneaking into social-justice movements is nothing new—social media has just made it even more difficult to detect them. Here's what to look out for.
If there is one good thing to emerge from the shocking blow of the 2016 Election that put a narcissistic, TV-obsessed fascist in the White House, and stocked the House and Senate full of GOP deplorables, it is the explosion of an unstoppable, ever-growing and strengthening resistance movement. And social media has made it easier than ever to make it happen, with a proliferation of social activist groups popping up all over Facebook and Twitter, helping to organize people around the country for impromptu and planned protests in cities around the country, disseminate and share information, delegate action items, and discuss strategies in real time.
However, there is a caveat in using social media: It makes it easy for infiltrators to worm their way into our groups. While there have always been infiltrators in activist groups, such as CIA plants in the civil rights groups of the 1960’s, it’s even harder to read people online. How do we know people are who they say they are? What should we be looking out for?
As a political activist, I struggled during this election cycle against the continual onslaught of propaganda. The Trump campaign focused more on social media than traditional outlets. They employed the use of “bots” and paid “trolls” by the hundreds of thousands toward the end of the election, most of which operated from Russian and Ukrainian IP addresses. To explain: A bot is an automated program designed to tweet specific messages at a designated time or prompt. Donald Trump had several following him so that they’d be the first responses to his tweets. A troll is a real person—not merely someone with an opposing view, but someone with the goal of either antagonizing the opposition or purposely spreading misinformation.
Now, there are plenty of people who comment on social media and online magazines and are genuine victims of propaganda. But to be clear, many trolls come from fake accounts. A common scenario during the election involved creating a fake African-American Trump supporter. Often times, these individuals were exposed by the discovery that their profile picture was lifted from someone else’s account or stock photo databases—this can be done by performing a reverse-image search. Other telltale signs are a recent account creation-date or having less than ten followers. We developed a certain amount of savvy at recognizing accounts like this.
Now that the election has given way to the Resistance, we are dealing with more than just trolls and bots, but actual infiltrators engaged in social-media activism, and the risks have increased accordingly. But activism on social media has a general model that attempts to minimize this occurrence.
On Twitter, activists organize using DM groups, members participate in an ongoing direct message thread that functions as a ‘chat room’. There is a hierarchy to these groups that serve as a vetting process: Generally, someone is asked to join a group based on the recommendation of a group member. Once in the group, you may be invited into other groups depending on the level of your activism and expertise—usually each subsequent DM group is more exclusive and targeted in scope than the one before. Activists in these groups are leaders within the Resistance. Information is disseminated to their followers, who are citizens ready to take the proposed actions (e.g., marches, petitions, phone calls).
Facebook is a similar structure. Public (or open) groups are formed to share information and discuss issues related to the Resistance. One you have been active in these groups you may request to join or be invited into closed groups. As with Twitter, the more exclusive groups are composed of the core leaders in sociopolitical grassroots activism.
Even with this vetting system in place, infiltrators do still get through. An infiltrator is someone pretending to be with the Resistance for the purpose of gathering counter-intelligence or undermining the cause. It is important for members of the Resistance to understand both the goals and the signs of an infiltrator. Generally, an infiltrator has four potential goals:
1. Gather contact information of Democrats, Hillary Clinton supporters, or members of the Resistance for marketing purposes or harassment. Information is a valuable commodity. An individual or organization may be compiling data and lists for economic gain or to hand over to the opposition. Besides, marketing purposes, someone may be gathering personal information for ‘doxxing’. Doxxing is the practice of publicly posting someone’s private information, usually for the purpose of harassment. Be wary of anyone who is asking for your contact information. Social-media activism can successfully be conducted without exchanging phone numbers or emails. If a person or website is asking for contact information, then you need to examine them more closely. If someone asks you to text or email them, be aware that they now know your contact information. This is a low-cost method of data collection. If a website is asking for information, check the URL on WhoIs to check the domain registration. If the registration is private, be aware that was done at extra effort and cost. Use caution when filling out online petitions, as this is a method used by doxxers – make sure you are familiar with the person originating the petition. An added safety precaution is to use an alternate email identity for filling out online forms and petitions.
2. Perform oppositional research on groups and leaders and keep tabs on our activities and knowledge. This is classic counter-intelligence work. Another term for this type of infiltrator is a “mole.” In this instance, a person would funnel information about leadership, strategies, or protests to the opposition. Keep an eye out for people who lurk, but don’t engage in actual Resistance action items. Obviously, any indication that information discussed in your action groups has been leaked is cause to examine your members. Using a website such as AllMyTweets.com allows you to review and search a user’s tweet history. This can be useful to establish that one’s political views are what they say they are.
3. Exploit fear and anxiety to discourage action, particularly the fear of retribution or violence. Remember that the GOP appeals to emotion to con their base. They can and do use the same method on us. Most of us are already considerably stressed from the current political climate. This leaves us particularly vulnerable to this type of approach. A GOP group leader who had infiltrated the Facebook group Pantsuit Nation was recently quoted as saying, “We don’t care if they like what we have to say, we don’t need them to agree with us. We just need them to give up, shut up, and stay out of our way.” This mentality is hard enough to deal with when it is coming from a troll, but when fear and hopelessness is coming from a ‘peer’ on the inside, it is even more effective. Trust your instincts. If someone consistently brings up fearful scenarios and/or consequences, they may be a wolf in sheep’s clothing.
4. Foster distrust and division within the Resistance and within the Democratic Party. The Democratic Party is already suffering from divisions that leave us with another vulnerability. We saw this during the election. Trump supporters would pretend to be Bernie Sanders supporters to further exploit discord within the party. While the Resistance is united in its anti-Trump/anti-GOP stance, there are still factions that don’t agree about the future of the Left. An infiltrator may attempt to further widen this gap. They may even attempt to create factions within action groups. Beware of someone who wishes to DM privately to “gossip” about group members, or to complain about group leadership and direction.
Followers are another criteria to consider when judging the legitimacy of a social media activist. Too few followers should raise questions, but so should too many. Compare number of followers to the start date of the account and number of tweets. If someone has gained tens of thousands of followers in a short time, this is equally a cause of concern. It implies that the followers are bought and not organically cultivated. Another sign of this is a high number of followers, but low engagement on their tweets. Look at who they are following, especially their first several follows. The purchased “Russian trolls” from the election nearly always followed Donald Trump as their first few follows.
In some cases, infiltration attempts are quite well known and can be cautioned against. James O’Keefe, of Project Veritas, is a known infiltrator. His modus-operandi is to secretly record and then release an edited video designed to incriminate the Left. We post pictures of O’Keefe and warn protesters to be wary of him and his crew. Likewise, online antifa groups, far-Left antifascism groups, are a target for infiltration by neo-Nazi’s, like Richard Spencer, and the KKK. In fact, it is suspected that Reddit’s /r/ antifa is a “honeypot” for the KKK, meaning it is run by the KKK, but meant to attract anti-fascists. This type of ruse is a very easy way to collect and monitor counter-intelligence.
In addition to infiltrators, The Resistance must also remain skeptical of charlatans. The recent trend of “rogue” and “alt” accounts that claim insider knowledge are worrisome. With an electorate so badly damaged from misinformation, I must point out that there is no way to validate these accounts. Even location is self-reported without geo-location activated on one’s account. It is difficult to know the goal of these account holders. It could be as banal as wanting to role-play and garner attention, or it could be another active disinformation campaign by foreign adversaries or our own political opposition. We all strongly desire answers, but take care not to suspend your disbelief and risk manipulation of our cause. Be wary of anyone who claims to have insider knowledge that they can’t tell you because “it’s not safe” or is makes vague statements they can’t validate.
This is a highly emotional time. Fear, anxiety, anger—even the excitement of being part of the Resistance—make us vulnerable targets for those who wish to take advantage of us or undermine our efforts. We must be vigilant. Stay Strong! Stay Aware! Resist!
There’s never been a more important time for quality journalism. You can help by supporting DAME’s reporting, commentary, and cultural criticism. Because it matters who covers the news. And it matters who covers women’s issues in the news. Become a supporter today.
AN INDEPENDENT FREE PRESS HAS
NEVER BEEN MORE IMPORTANT.
Your financial support helps DAME continue to cover the critical policies, politics and social changes impacting woman and their allies.