How to persuade a President

In the past seventy-two hours a new story has circulated, a flashy conspiracy theory based on some poorly evidenced youtube videos. If you are here for a debunking of such videos that really isn’t my job, also I won’t mention what this is about. You can figure that out pretty easily. Signal-boosting is always a mistake in debunking. The story has since been delisted by Twitter in the trending section either because it is misinformation or as I will argue in this short essay, is a coordinated attack against an individual. My point is not the story, but the attack profile that made the story possible. It is also important to note that this is a Twitter specific argument.

This particular story is now in a surge phase, as you can see from this handy graph of Twitter activity about it…

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Each box is a day, the count is by the hour…

The overall network structure of this event looks like this…

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83,056 addressed tweets in the sample period.

The pink block is a computer detected modularity for a retweet storm toward YouTube, accusing the platform of taking part in a conspiracy for removing videos. The blue material is related to an account run by a conspiracy theory toting website. Black is the conspiracy founder. Orange and green are the President of the United States. For the purposes of my work, I am generally not interested in unaddressed tweets.

Other folks in this research area noticed the pattern at play, as Renee DiResta was working on the same issue as I began my scrape. The cadence pattern of the prior days clearly broke on 5 May when the nightly surge was more pronounced than before. We can zoom in on this region of the graph.

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Pink is youtube, Green is Trump, Blue/Black are Qanon

The graph is much more focused around a few specific hubs, YouTube and Trump, and Qanon bridges. YouTube would be at the center as tweets toward it, and toward the President would be important. After all, the substance of the argument for the President is the censorship of a controversial clip, it would stand to reason that a large crowd would be furious at such censorship. The late portion of the evening of May 5 would show this even more directly…

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Pink is obviously YouTube, Green is Trump.

Extracting the zero Eigenvector centrality tweeters from the Trump modularity. Of that group one quarter were likely not robots (less than 40% probability as per Kearney’s bot or not). The distribution around YouTube was similar. It is also possible that there are people in this distribution who behave like robots during media events as I describe in my chapter in this lovely book from MIT press. For what it is worth, these cascades are more human than those in the very early phases of the pandemic which were almost universally bots. Given that the human bridges here are Qanon accounts, we are dealing with a strategic action. I am ending the timeline at this point as the cascade takes off the next day, meaning that this last burst could easily be the inflection point for the cascade on 6 May.

What is the strategy here?

There are clear resonances between the group behind this particular conspiracy theory and anti-vaccine groups. But why this extreme concentration? As the Guardian reported on the bleach injection story, the President didn’t arrive at his conclusion alone, a group committed to the idea of therapeutic bleaching had been trying to reach him. Keep in mind this is not new, as Aaron Rupar documented: the President is lead by the media, especially Fox News.

If you are the President, you would find a wave of Tweets directed toward you, and a wave four times that size attacking one of those awful Silicon Valley firms. All of this is aligned with his wishful thinking about the virus.

How do you persuade the President? Start with a “false start.” Gin up a swarm around a conspiracy theory. Then swarm the President directly asking him to deal not with the content of the video, but the controversy about the suppressed video. Claims too wild to believe viewed through warped lenses of insincerity and irony. It is also important to note that the core claim is not the conspiracy theory itself, but the controversy of the conspiracy theory.

This is how you persuade the President.

Associate Professor of Social Media. Oregon State University. Read my book: Selling Social Media (Bloomsbury Academic), 2018.

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