Georgia special election tweets traced to one source

With Georgia’s special House election going down to the wire, it’s no shock that Twitter is saturated with Democrat Jon Ossoff and Republican Karen Handel. But what is surprising is just how much of the traffic traces to a single, identifiable source.

Accounts related to one entrepreneurial Trump supporter, Robert Shelton, a.k.a. @RobertsRooms, have flooded hashtags about the GA-06 election with anti-Ossoff and pro-Handel messaging.

“DON’T VOTE FOR #NEVEROSSOFF,” one wrote early Friday morning. “HIS BIG MONEY DONORS OWN HIM.”

“Inexperienced? Immature? That’s #Ossoff. Vote 4 #KarenHandel,” tweeted another on Thursday evening.

“Who would Alexandria shooter James Hodgkinson vote for in Georgia 6th District?” asked a third in text superimposed on the alleged gunman’s mugshot. “#Ossoff of course! #GA06 do you really want to vote 4 more Democrat insanity?”

Oddly, each account also tagged tweets with a seemingly unrelated hashtag: #RobertsRooms. These accounts used #RobertsRooms at least 20 times since Thursday in posts about the Ossoff-Handel race.

This hashtag is peppered throughout Twitter chatter about the special election, and especially screeds against Ossoff. Twitter’s search algorithm even correlates #RobertsRooms with campaign hashtags.

At a time when more and more political campaigning is shifting to social media — and voters may be likelier to respond to an authentic-seeming tweet than a slick TV ad — such a distinct calling card offers a rare opportunity to trace the impact of a single player in the online influence game.

Like many social media operatives, Shelton doesn’t broadcast his offline identity. But the bio for @RobertsRooms indicates that the account’s owner is CEO of PlanetStuff, Inc. Records filed with the Georgia state government show a business by that name registered to Robert Shelton, with an address in the wooded suburbs northeast of Atlanta.

A now-defunct Twitter account under the name “Robert Shelton,” which posted as recently as February, now redirects to @RobertsRooms.

Shelton, via Twitter, confirmed his network is working to promote Handel, but said it is a strictly personal project. He did not respond to questions about whether, or how much, he paid Twitter users to put out his messages.

“The only affiliation we or I have with Karen’s campaign is that I live in District 06 and prefer her to Jon,” Shelton wrote. The Handel campaign emphasized they have no ties.

“We have not contracted with Robert and he has no affiliation with this campaign," said Kate Constantini, campaign spokeswoman for Handel.

Shelton said he has worked for other campaigns after the 2016 presidential election, including the New York City mayoral campaign of Michel Faulkner, who pivoted to run for NYC Comptroller in late May.

Shelton pitches his social media marketing to “America 1st” political candidates. In one promo, he boasts of having “Social Media WARRIORS In EVERY TOWN Across EVERY STATE” with a network to 5 million Twitter followers, and lists “in-house meme creation” among his services. One post indicates that he pays “retweeters.”

Tamara Leigh, another player in social media management for Trump-leaning political candidates who said she worked with Shelton on the Faulkner campaign, said there are no bots — that is, mechanically generated traffic — in this line of social media promotion. Rather, she explained, hired social media guns of both parties pay “like-minded” Twitter users to get campaign messages trending. They’re still working out how to use Twitter to maximize benefits for their clients.

“I think it’s exciting — you’re going to see more of this in 2018,” said Leigh.

In a tweet last Friday peddling services to three aspiring Republican politicians in different states, Shelton wrote, “Let us do for you what we did for @POTUS.”

It’s unclear how much credit Shelton can claim for President Trump’s leap from Twitter to the White House. But his network of “social media warriors” are doing plenty to discredit Ossoff and boost Handel’s social media game.

In a sample of 31,000 tweets about the Georgia special election from late last week, POLITICO found that slightly over 1 percent bore the #RobertsRooms tag. This alone is a considerable share. It doesn’t match the performance of the primary campaign tags like #VoteYourOssoff or #KarenHandel, which were in 17 percent and 9 percent of tweets, respectively, but it beats many of the second-tier tags.

But the #RobertsRooms tag is just a useful marker for Shelton’s network of affiliated accounts. Together, accounts that used this tag punched far above their combined weight. Although only around 3 percent of individuals ever used it, this group accounted for 5 percent of all tweets about the special election in our sample.

Their output is even more stark when you look at posts that praise Handel. More than a third of positive tweets that mention Handel by name came from this small cluster of accounts, according to our analysis, and 11 percent of all tweets that tagged Handel or used her primary hashtag.

In another sample of 4,500 tweets that bothered to namecheck Handel’s pretty anemic official campaign account, more than 70 percent came from those in Shelton’s network. And close to 75 percent of those using solidarity tags like #HoldThe6th — an answer to #FlipThe6th from the Ossoff camp — came from this same group.

Virtually all tweets from the network come with slapdash memes of some sort. There’s "Ossoff is owned by George Soros," one of Shelton’s favorite themes, “Make sure your church votes for Karen on June 20,” and “Ossoff supports Sharia law,” among others. It’s not clear how many of these originated with Shelton, but many only took off once amplified by the #RobertsRooms network.

Shelton is a recent convert. Like many Trump surrogates, he supported Handel’s GOP rival Bob Gray in the primary and attacked Handel as unelectable.

“Why would you vote for someone that doesn’t win?” he tweeted in late March, alongside an unflattering photo of Handel that highlighted her failed bids for Senate and governor seats.

“Lose, Lose, Lose – Karen Handel’s DNA,” he blared in another tweet that featured a fraught Handel pondering, “Why can’t I ever get LAID?!?"

But Shelton quickly flipped after Gray lost out to Handel.

He pronounced in late April that Handel offers “serious, experienced representation” for Georgians. A month later, in tweets tagged with #Blacks4Handel, #Latinos4Handel, and #Asians4Handel, he blasted out memes framing Handel as “confident, caring and courageous” and an “experienced public servant.”

Asked about Shelton’s newfound support for Handel, one of his affiliates said he is “just a big Trump/Karen supporter.”

Shelton and similar consultants aren’t just working on the Georgia special election. They’re looking to the midterms and state races nationwide. In between cheering on Handel, the #RobertsRooms network is promoting Angel Rivera, an Orlando-based entrepreneur, for the 2018 gubernatorial race in Florida.

Rivera said that he is not yet under any contract with Shelton, but that they are in talks. He said the preliminary promotion he’s gotten so far has been effective.

“I will say that they are amazing and really are taking my social media to another level,” Rivera said.

Shelton also worked for Chris Chamberlin’s gubernatorial campaign in Minnesota, he said. Nondisclosure agreements bar him from discussing work he’s doing for other candidates.

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