After the full repeal of Obamacare stalled in the Senate last month, one of the sharpest and most-shared online rebukes of the Republican turncoats came from one unassuming woman who loves dogs, Texas and Donald Trump.
“THESE 3 GOP Senators Just KILLED #RepealFirst Replace Later," wrote @ChristieC733, tagging the senators who stalled the push as well as the official accounts of the Republican National Committee and the Senate Republicans. Her tweet was shared hundreds of times within an hour, eclipsing many of the more famous pundits inside the Beltway.
Given her 238,000 followers—100,000 more than Dan Scavino, Trump’s social media director, and more than three times as many as famed white nationalist Richard Spencer—you might guess Christie is a prominent activist. But besides listing her membership in the National Rifle Association and ownership of a small business, Christie’s profile offers little information about her offline life or any explanation for her impressive following.
Christie’s clout comes from her presence in some of the leading pro-Trump “rooms,” private spaces on conservative Twitter that allow followers to coordinate messages and then retweet each other—dramatically multiplying their impact. One of her fellow “Twitter patriots,” as they call themselves, tweeted and retweeted more than 4,100 times over a recent four-day period.
The pro-Trump rooms are an outgrowth of Twitter’s group direct message function, which was introduced with little fanfare in January 2015, just as the presidential campaign was getting underway. At that time, Twitter was considered a decidedly liberal bastion. But the platform—as well as its group direct message function—proved to be especially useful for the type of populist outsider movement spurred by Trump, whose denunciations of elitist figures and institutions were easily conveyed in no more than 140 characters.
In the months surrounding Trump’s surprise victory, mystery and conjecture shrouded his fiercely loyal social media network, a force that continues to lend a president who is highly unpopular by conventional polling metrics a unique kind of clout. Other political leaders fear his ability to shape the news cycle and flog his critics before millions of voters who may not receive news from any other source.
Many dismissed their staggering output as inflated by automated “bot” accounts run by expert computer programmers, whether foreign agents or domestic trolls. But that may be an exaggerated theory: So many months after the election, tens of thousands of tweets per day continue to emanate from a very human, grass-roots organization.
“My hypothesis was always that these accounts were organizing somewhere,” said Gilad Lotan, a data scientist who monitored political activity on Twitter during the election and wrote about indications that pro-Trump users were working in coordination. He long suspected that bots alone could not account for Trump’s social media dominance, but never identified a key mechanism unearthed in interviews with the Twitter patriots.
“They were clearly organizing in some private space. It makes so much sense that it’s within Twitter,” Lotan said.
By design, the precise size and organization of the pro-Trump online network is difficult to discern. But POLITICO traced this corner of hard-right Twitter through interviews with Trump’s most fervent online boosters—a group that includes anonymous mothers in the Midwest, otherwise unremarkable Florida businessmen who amass thousands of followers through nonstop #MakeAmericaGreatAgain, and a younger cadre of meme provocateurs. As Trump’s presidency barrels forward, this network continues to evolve and even splinter. But its infrastructure, largely invisible, remains a powerful tool for the administration and its supporters to broadcast their messages and help dictate media coverage.
“Great to meet like-minded people,” said Julie King Jackson, a Manhattan-based Trump supporter, when asked about the rooms.
The invite-only rooms have names like “Patriots United” and “Trump Train,” and many have accompanying hashtags to track members’ tweets as they propagate. Each room can accommodate as many as 50 people.
Their private nature makes it impossible to know how many rooms formed in the run-up to November 8, or when they first cropped up. One member said she’s contributed to rooms since winter 2015, and several others said they joined the fray before the state primaries began.
Most people in the rooms are not native internet users. Many joined Twitter or dusted off dormant accounts just to stump for Trump. These novices were coached by more experienced compatriots on tending their feeds and cultivating followers. Those who spoke with POLITICO were virtually all older than 35 and predominantly female.
Some might have joined rooms to discuss news and to vent about Hillary Clinton or the Democrats. But their primary purpose is to amplify and coordinate messaging.
“The whole idea is to share tweets and retweet people in the group’s tweets,” explained Brian Fraser, a central node in the network who manages one of the “Patriots United” rooms. Since last summer, Fraser’s following has increased dramatically, from 13,000 followers to nearly 170,000 today.
Another room manager told members that mutual retweeting is “the cardinal rule.”
A single room can quickly disseminate a given post to its members. But the real strength of the pro-Trump rooms is in their interconnectedness, since one user can be in multiple rooms simultaneously.
One woman said she was in as many as 20 rooms at a time. Another said she contributed to two rooms as of November 8, and joined three more since Election Day. Even allowing for duplicates, that’s hundreds of potential retweets with just a few clicks.
Many experts were unaware of these rooms.
Lotan has researched the role of social media in politics and propaganda for years. He noted last September that Trump’s followers were actively organizing to get particular hashtags trending.
“They clearly had a sense for hubs in the network, the mechanics of attention and how information can propagate,” said Lotan, who joined BuzzFeed as head of data science in December 2016.
Although Lotan had never heard of anything like the rooms, he regularly observed “highly organized networks of users who used the same term at the same time.”
Screenshots provided to POLITICO from inside one room illustrate how powerful a tool the pro-Trump rooms can be for this type of coordination and amplification.
In mid-May of this year, Debbie tweeted about Trump’s patriotism.
“When he Salutes you…He means it. I never seen a President as Patriotic as Donald J. Trump! We Love him! I stand with my President!” she wrote alongside a photo of Trump saluting the band at his inauguration. At the time, around 5,500 people were following her account, which was started in August 2016. That number has since swelled to nearly 11,000.
Even the power of the #MAGA hashtag alone can’t make every fawning Trump tweet get noticed. But after Debbie copied the tweet into the “Trumps WarRoom” [sic] thread, which she managed at the time, the post was shared nearly a thousand times.
Two other tweets that Debbie shared via “Trumps WarRoom” garnered more than 400 and 200 retweets, respectively.
Another user known as Eagle Wings posted to “Trumps WarRoom,” the shared screenshots show. Like many Twitter patriots, her profile is bare on biographical details, indicating only that she’s a retired Air Force veteran. Just before July 4, Eagle Wings tweeted about Trump’s love for America.
“With great respect Patriotism is being restored Celebrating 4th of July knowing we have a POTUS who loves America & fights for We The Ppl,” she wrote to her tens of thousands of followers. Her post included a meme of Trump’s face etched over the stars and stripes.
Lacking any Trump-specific hashtags, this tweet might have been doomed. But Eagle Wings is a heavy hitter in the rooms, according to other users, and she got results: This rather garbled post racked up more than 1,000 retweets by Independence Day.
Another member of the same room, @VoteTrumpPics, is explicit in using Twitter to coordinate Trump supporters’ online messaging, often to match the president’s own tweets. After Trump used the hashtag #FraudNewsCNN in early, @VoteTrumpPics tweeted an urgent order.
“We’re changing it folks!” the account wrote, directing that the network “is to be referred to as #FraudNewsCNN. Effective immediately!” The post was shared more than 2,500 times.
The rooms allow members to post, share and follow each other with machine-like efficiency and speed. On particularly prodigious days, it’s common for a single user to tweet and retweet hundreds of times.
“I get called a Russian bot 50 times a day, it’s so stupid,” complained one woman in her late 40’s.
Dr. Alan Rosenblatt, an expert in the history of online political campaigning, explained that the rooms are the latest iteration of people finding ways to leverage a small design feature like group messages for political advocacy.
“This is clearly tapping into a group of people that are zealous, have a lot of time on their hands, and are tenacious as can be,” said Rosenblatt, who is director for digital research at Lake Research Partners and senior vice president of digital strategy at Turner4D, both in Washington.
The room dwellers are true believers in the power of Twitter to promote politicians and their platforms. As one manager seeking to monetize his network of rooms sees it, he can offer candidates mass advertising and “name recognition beyond anything other mediums can offer.”
But there is a competing account of how the Twitter rooms benefit Trump.
Microchip, a Twitter user who uses several different accounts and is routinely banned from the site, told POLITICO the pro-Trump rooms help him spread racist and otherwise controversial material. His dual aims are to prod the left and entice the media into covering the latest online controversy he helped stoke.
Microchip said he started several rooms in November 2015. A handful of people in other rooms confirmed that he was an “early player.” But he has been blocked from many rooms because of his “wild claims,” one said, as well as anti-Semitic and inflammatory remarks.
In April, Microchip told BuzzFeed about his skill at gaming Twitter algorithms using a combination of automated bot accounts and “retweet groups” of like-minded users, most of them younger people with ties to 4chan and other platforms, he explained.
In subsequent interviews with POLITICO, Microchip detailed how this was just the first step. After “seeding” a given hashtag with bots and his internal network, he ports messages and memes over to other nodes within the broader pro-Trump network of rooms, which is primarily populated by boomers.
“Bots don’t really count toward hashtag boosting that well, raw tweets do,” he said. To accomplish his goals, then, Microchip needs individuals to consistently share the material he’s pushing.
But Microchip, who described himself as an “atheist liberal that just hates immigration” and transgender people, has open contempt for most of Trump’s base.
“Conservatives are generally morons,” he said. “It’s like herding cats.”
He’s just as frank about what he’s peddling to Trump supporters.
“You know how I know they’re spreading lies?” Microchip asked one die-hard this week. “Because I do the same thing, it’s fake news and spin.”
Chaos is Microchip’s metric of success, not voter turnout. His rooms put out a mix of outright vile and what he calls “boomer approved” messages without the gross-out element.
“Most of this is contrived to force outrage and trigger new MSM journos to cover shit because they buy the meme,” he said. “They should have already figured this out and stopped covering us.”
Microchip and his crew were giddy at hearing President Trump’s declaration that the military would no longer accept transgender soldiers. In between mulling ideas for inflammatory messaging, Microchip marveled that Trump “is going to force the Left to remain drenched in identity politics through 2018.”
“The Left still hasn’t learned to ignore this trigger game,” he added.
Like the “normies,” as he calls Trump supporters in the mainstream rooms, Microchip fears concentrated government power and shares frustration with leftward shifts he saw under Obama. But he sees the network of rooms as a vehicle to spread right-wing content that triggers “extreme” response from liberals, and Trump himself as but “a tool in this purpose.”
He hopes extreme actions from either end of the political spectrum will scare more people to the center.
Microchip said it would be impossible to corroborate many of his grandiose claims because of the extent to which he covers his tracks.
Lotan said Microchip’s claims explain the link between the boomer generation in the mainstream rooms and the younger meme producers on 4chan and reddit.
“The boomers are there, thirsty for ammunition. And 4chan is so good at generating ammunition,” Lotan said. “But the boomers will not go to 4chan.”
People in the mainstream pro-Trump rooms said Microchip had not been active there for many months. In turn, Microchip said he maintains pseudonymous accounts to hide his identity from “brain dead” Trump supporters.
Whether their aim is earnest advocacy or to foment backlash, the rooms are now an entrenched part of conservative Twitter. New offshoots continue to spawn, additional members join daily, and their overseers are weighing next steps.
Ever volatile, Microchip suggested last week that he might shift his attention away from using the rooms, although he was characteristically cryptic.
“I’m dumping most groups, turning inward,” he tweeted after decrying everything from globalism to the New Right in a missive comprised of hundreds of tweets.
The mainstream rooms, meanwhile, are scrambling to anoint sufficiently pro-Trump candidates nationwide while taking aim at the president’s detractors, particularly moderate Republicans. When Arizona Senator Jeff Flake, who is up for reelection in 2018, blasted Trump online last week, suggesting the GOP was in denial about the president’s flaws and shortcomings, heavy hitters made their intentions clear.
Tweeted one “Twitter patriot” about Flake: “He doesn’t know he now has ALL of #TrumpsArmy #TrumpTrain #TrumpNation who will work for opposing candidates!”