My Podcast Page was Targeted by Trump Trolls
Last week, I posted a podcast about my experience talking to attendees of the Bernie Sanders rally in Ventura, CA on May 26, 2016. Before this post, all my podcast episodes were recorded conversations with friends of mine or people I reached out to on the internet who had unique perspectives. Certainly no one who might be considered famous, perhaps my brother-in-law who is a well-regarded author and historian was an exception. As it goes, my podcast, for 17 weekly episodes was received as I expected, friends and family and an assortment of curious acquaintances would check it out garnering perhaps half a dozen listens a day. I had previously tried spending $20 on it to have it promoted to people on Facebook who were interested in my topic. No post seemed to fare so well as when I decided to spend $20 on my podcast post with "Bernie Sanders" in the title this past Saturday.
It may have been the right time, four days before the California Primary on June 7; or, it may be that anything with "Bernie Sanders" in the title is of interest to particular groups of people. Almost instantly, the Facebook page of my Bernie Sanders episode started getting likes and shares, which, of course, was my goal. What I didn't expect was the sudden and consistent attention of Trump supporters flooding my comments section with memes, rants, and insults. When I saw the first four or five, I was somewhat flattered that a Trump enthusiast would take the time to respond to my post. After all, perhaps third or fourth down on my list of why I put out a weekly podcast is to spur conversations about topics I care about. I'm happy to be talking to Trump people about my passions as much as anyone else. However, several hours later, the comments section was still alive with regular posts and memes attacking Bernie and promoting Trump. The pro-Trump commenters were even starting to garner pro-Bernie responses.
A typical post was a single pro-Trump meme, which I won't bother to repost here because the internet is lousy with them. A typical one-off comment was like, "Now when the fairy tale of Bernie is finally over jump on the trumptrain and stop killary [sic]," or an attempt to invalidate the message of Sanders, "Embracing socialism is admitting that the government knows how to spend your money better than you do." There was a theme of indicting all Sanders supporters as being akin to those committing the reprehensible attacks on Trump supporters last week in Albuquerque, NM, "You mean Trump supporters didn't riot and attack you? Must be nice." I allowed the posts to remain that were on topic but banned and deleted anything that was a direct personal insult toward the other commenters or racist. I am no stranger to divisive insults and heated exchanges, so I felt no particular need to sanitize my comments section. I know that the algorithm that Facebook uses to elevate some posts over others includes considering the attention they get, and the number of comments posted and replied to. For all that I disagreed with the subject of the comments, I knew they were helping my post become more visible to others, and that suited my purposes fine. The Trump comments were allowing my post to reach more people organically, therefore returning more value for my initial $20 investment
Sunday morning, 24 hours into all this attention, I checked my FeedBurner stats, a Google app that tracks traffic for blogs and podcasts. I wanted to see if my downloads and views had increased at all. They had not. There wasn't any apparent increase in my podcast traffic outside the usual spike I see every time I release a new episode; I had lots of attention on Facebook, but no new listens. In a manner of speaking, my eyes came into focus. I looked again at the pro-Trump comments; they were common, sophomoric attacks aimed like scattershot at the broad idea of Bernie Sanders or Democrats, but nothing specific about the content of my podcast. They were written as an invitation to respond, to provoke and enrage. I was being trolled.
The effort was targeted, consistent and the tone and syntax of many of the comments were similar. I started looking through the profiles of the various pro-Trump posters and found they fell into two categories: The first were whom I'd consider real people who support Trump. Their public profiles had a collection of Trump memes but other non-Trump related post, pics of kids, recipes, and jokes, the stuff that regular people post when they either don't know how to make their profiles private (like most of us) or are unconcerned about the issue altogether. The second group had profiles that were suspiciously similar. There was almost no content, pro-Trump or otherwise. Most public posts were photos of the poster stretching back a few years, so apparently not created just for the purpose of trolling for Trump, but perhaps the profile owner made every other post private, retroactively, except a few selfies. The person depicted was almost always an adult male of various ages but invariably "White." (Read this post to know why I put white in parentheses). Nearly all the pics contained some artifact of the rugged individualist cliche': a scraggly beard, straddling an ATV, a hunting trophy, cradling a rifle, cowboy cosplay. A curious thing I noticed was that every single one of these profiles that fell into the latter category has exactly one picture that was overlaid with the French Flag. At first, I didn't think much of this detail, lots of people had profiles pictures showing solidarity with the French after last November's attack. It occurred to me later that Trump trolls might all have that iconic French flag profile pic overlay to provide cover for posting anti-Muslim rhetoric to provoke outrage, in cooperation with Trump as he launched into that particular flavor of his persona. Because they were private profiles, I had no way of looking back to posts from November 2015, but the coincidence was not subtle, and it happened that profiles like this posted the earliest, most offensive and insulting comments, thus blocked by me from my page first.
One post, in particular, was a very well written rant (my first clue that it was not organic) about one man's experience at the Bernie Sanders rally in Chico, CA. One sentence stood out to me as so perfect, painted such an image and drove home such a point that it deserved to be in an English book instead of a hastily written Facebook screed, "I didn't see one person with a pair of work boots." I know good writing when I see it and not seeing work boots as a correlative for characterizing people as lazy and entitled was good. Too good. I googled the sentence and found the exact rant, posted the day before, on a pro-Trump forum which pointed back to the original author, who posted his experience on Facebook a day before the forum post. All three instances were under different screen names. When I accused the rant poster of being a paid troll, he accused me of, "...going Full Retard," an example of the poster's actual vocabulary, I'm sure. When I posted the link back to the source of the rant, he stopped posting.
If not paid professionals, at the very least, I suspect these trolls are organized volunteers who systematically raised the profile of my post to a specific audience until organic Trump supporters found their way to my page and started commenting. They were followed shortly after that by Bernie fans, the actual target of my marketing, offering defensive rebuttals. Thus my post about my podcast became a proxy battleground for ideological differences among political factions. People passed over my podcast. My only hope in salvaging my $20 marketing fee is hoping that people, who may have found their way to my post to participate in the culture war, may see my posts again and come back to check it out next time. I hope that curiosity might take over, and they'll give it a listen, then give me what every podcaster wants, what I refer to as the Three "R's"-Rate, Review, and Recommend. I can do without the fourth "R" -Rant. This election cycle we have heard rumors of paid internet trolls artificially stoking the passions of people to create enthusiasm for one candidate or another. I never imagined I'd see it play out in my little patch of the internet. I'm curious what the training manual for this sort of work looks like. How much does it pay? Do people ever look at themselves in the mirror or lie awake at night and realize they are being paid to make people angry and afraid? The thing I'm most curious about is why these trolls would still bother to be working against Bernie Sanders supporters at this late stage in the game?