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The Sweep: Twitter Bots for Trump
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The Sweep: Twitter Bots for Trump

Fake accounts can have real consequences.

Former President Donald Trump addresses the annual Conservative Political Action Conference in National Harbor, Maryland. (Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)

Appetizer

Marianne Williamson announced Saturday that she is again challenging Joe Biden for the Democratic nomination. She is the first—and likely only—person to do so despite the fact that a majority of Democrats still say that they would rather have “somebody else.” This FiveThirtyEight write up lays out the dynamic nicely: 

Only 31 percent of Democrats and Democratic-leaning independents said they want the party to renominate Biden, while 58 percent said they’d prefer someone else, according to an ABC News/Washington Post poll from Jan. 27-Feb. 1. That lack of enthusiasm is unusual. According to historical CNN polling, majorities of Democrats wanted to renominate Bill Clinton in 1996 and Barack Obama in 2012, and a majority of Republicans wanted to renominate Trump in 2020.

Is Williamson’s entrance into the race a sign of weakness for Biden? I’d argue it’s the opposite. Here’s a guy who is underwater in every poll that asks whether his own party is excited to have him as their standard bearer. And he has about a 50 percent chance of dying during his second term, according to actuaries. But the only person who is actually challenging him is someone who not only isn’t going to beat him but isn’t even a marginal political threat? I’d say that’s a wild show of strength in these circumstances. 

The fact that California Gov. Gavin Newsom—who probably sings “Hail to the Chief” to himself to fall asleep every night—doesn’t think he can successfully challenge Biden is all you need to know. This isn’t because Newsom just really likes the guy or wants to wait his turn. I assure you the only reason Newsom won’t take his shot is because he doesn’t see any path to victory. (I understand all the reasons why Democrats see Newsom as a long shot even in an open primary—but I’m more bullish on his chances in a primary with the right field. Less so in a general election, but you never know what can happen when you’re down to two candidates. Cough cough, 2016.)

The poll numbers about Biden may say one thing, but reality on the ground is something quite different. And by those measures, the president is riding high. 

Entree

Say you’re traveling with a politician who is interested in running for office and he’s just finished speaking to a local Republican club with about 500 people in attendance. He gets a standing ovation and a bunch of people line up for selfies. Even with 20 minutes budgeted for selfies, he probably gets through only about 15-20 people in line. More than half of them tell him—unsolicited—that they hope he runs for president. When you get back in the car, your guy hops on a radio interview and talks about the “tremendous feedback” he’s getting, and you roll your eyes. 

But this is the problem with being a politician: 500 people liked his speech and 75 percent (of the people he talked to) think he should run for president. For 20 minutes straight, that’s basically all the feedback he got. RUN! But that wasn’t your experience. You watched the other 480 people leave the hall without saying anything. The 20 that waited in line were always going to be the most diehard fans and the most likely to tell him what they think he wants to hear. And you noticed that “hope you run” isn’t the same as “I will vote for you.” 

Same at the airport afterward. You may walk by 250 people in the course of getting to your gate. But when five of them come up to your guy one after another and delay your forward progress, it can feel like a groundswell. The problem is that the people who come up aren’t representative of the other 245. In fact, they are almost by definition not representative because they stopped to say something. Most people don’t stop someone to tell them they shouldn’t run for president. Because that’s awkward. (Though I will tell you that occasionally this does happen. At one airport, someone walking in the opposite direction of Carly Fiorina and me said something loudly so that she could hear it but, of course, didn’t actually stop or give her the opportunity to respond to the insult. Very brave, sir. You really spoke truth to power.)

I say all of this for two reasons—one literal and one metaphorical. Literally, I mention it because it feels so obvious, but it really does feel different when you’re the person living it. And it’s always important to remember that politicians are people too. And people aren’t always logical. And those logical failures can translate into real life consequences … like running for president when you have no business doing so.

But metaphorically, I was reminded of it when I saw this from the Associated Press:

Over the past 11 months, someone created thousands of fake, automated Twitter accounts — perhaps hundreds of thousands of them — to offer a stream of praise for Donald Trump. Besides posting adoring words about the former president, the fake accounts ridiculed Trump’s critics from both parties and attacked Nikki Haley, the former South Carolina governor and U.N. ambassador who is challenging her onetime boss for the 2024 Republican presidential nomination. When it came to Ron DeSantis, the bots aggressively suggested that the Florida governor couldn’t beat Trump, but would be a great running mate.

The researchers believe “hundreds of thousands of accounts could be involved” and likely originated in the U.S. this time (unlike in 2016 when Russia used bots on websites like Twitter to great effect). They found that “Nearly three-fourths of the negative posts about Haley, for example, were traced back to fake accounts.” Wow.  

Bots are the same as the 15 people at the speech. They distort your sense of reality when you scroll through Twitter. Even when you know that Twitter isn’t real life and is wildly unrepresentative of American voters generally, it can be hard not to buy into the water you’re swimming in: “Boy, the conservatives here really don’t think Nikki Haley has a shot.” Except “they” aren’t “conservatives” because “they” aren’t actually “people.” 

And for those of you thinking, “Yeah, but I’m not on Twitter.” I assure you this isn’t limited to one social media space. And there are enough GOP primary voters in these spaces being influenced by this stuff to ensure that it could have real life consequences. And the people behind it know that, which is why it’s worth a lot of time and money to them. (Though shockingly not that much of either—it’s pretty cheap and not at all time consuming once it’s set up.) 

CPAC is also a fish bowl that used to have real consequences. In 2015, I think every potential candidate showed up to bat. Sure, the straw poll wasn’t very predictive. (In fact, since 2004, the only person to win the straw poll and the GOP nomination was Mitt Romney in 2012, when he was already the presumptive nominee.) So perhaps it’s cold comfort to Donald Trump that he’s won the straw poll for the last three years—interestingly, Ron DeSantis has come in second in all of those years. 

But this is unquestionably Trump’s home field. And yet, the universal takeaway was that something was missing. First, the candidates were missing. Only Nikki Haley, Mike Pompeo, and Donald Trump showed up, meaning Ron DeSantis came in second without bothering to speak to the crowd. But the energy was missing, too. McKay Coppins at The Atlantic reported that “In my decade of covering the event, I’d never seen it more dead.” His colleague, John Hendrickson, “wondered if 2023 would be remembered as ‘the last gasp of CPAC.’” If Trump can’t recapture his 2015-2016 magic for this crowd, will other GOP primary voters feel the same way? Or to put it another way: Is CPAC the bubble or is the decline of CPAC a sign that the polls are a lagging indicator—like looking at Betelgeuse in the night sky, knowing that the light we see is 500 years old and wondering whether the star even still exists today? 

So here we are. Politicians are easily lulled into thinking everyone is behind them. And we are being easily lulled into thinking everyone hates them. And now I’m wondering out loud if we should be paying more attention to CPAC. What a world. 

Dessert

And the truth shall set you free. 

Sarah Isgur is a senior editor at The Dispatch and is based in northern Virginia. Prior to joining the company in 2019, she had worked in every branch of the federal government and on three presidential campaigns. When Sarah is not hosting podcasts or writing newsletters, she’s probably sending uplifting stories about spiders to Jonah, who only pretends to love all animals.