A significant portion of online support for Hillary Clinton is manufactured by paid “astroturf” trolls: a large team of supporters who spend long hours responding to negative news on the internet about her. The Clinton SuperPAC Correct the Record, which is affiliated with her campaign, acknowledged in an April press release that it was spending $1 million on project “Breaking Barriers” to pay people to respond to negative information about Clinton on social media sites like Facebook, Reddit, Instagram and Twitter. That amount has since increased to over $6 million. The trolls create a false impression that Clinton has more support than she really does, because one supporter will frequently create multiple anonymous accounts.
Libby Watson of The Sunlight Foundation observed that the astroturf effort goes far beyond merely defending Clinton, to targeting and intimidating those who criticize her. She told The Daily Beast, “This seems to be going after essentially random individuals online.”
Brian Donahue, chief executive of the consulting firm Craft Media/Digital, explained the troll operation to The Los Angeles Times, “It is meant to appear to be coming organically from people and their social media networks in a groundswell of activism, when in fact it is highly paid and highly tactical.” He went on, “That is what the Clinton campaign has always been about. It runs the risk of being exactly what their opponents accuse them of being: a campaign that appears to be populist but is a smokescreen that is paid and brought to you by lifetime political operatives and high-level consultants.”
Hillary’s Anonymous Trolls First Targeted Bernie Sanders
The Daily Kos, which preferred Bernie Sanders over Clinton, observed some of these tactics during the Democratic primary. One author wrote, “[T]here have been a number of diaries claiming to ‘have switched from Bernie to Hillary’ lately, and some of them have been from recently created accounts with no record of pro-Sanders remarks or diaries.” The author further called the Clinton effort out, writing, “We are on to your presumptive corporate shilling.”
The moderators of the Sanders subreddit /r/SandersForPresident wrote that the “Bernie Bro” concept was created by fake accounts in order to “establish a narrative that Bernie’s supporters are all racist, sexist young males who harass people online.” David Fredrick, co-founder and moderator of the subreddit, toldThe Atlantic when Sanders was still in the race, “If anyone criticizes a Sanders supporter online now there’s doubt over whether it’s a genuine exchange or if it’s something that Correct the Record is behind.”
David Brock, a former right-wing activist who now works for Clinton and started the left-wing site Media Matters which ruthlessly targets conservatives, is credited with creating the online trolling project. After the actor Tim Robbins, a Sanders supporter, received a barrage of tweets attacking him for speculating about election fraud hurting Sanders, Robbins responded to 88 different accounts with this tweet, “Dear @CorrectRecord operatives, Thank you for following today’s talking points. Your check is in the mail. Signed, @davidbrockdc.”
Clinton Staffer Adam Parkhomenko Outed as Troll on Reddit
Five months ago, the Trump subreddit /r/The_Donald warned, “We are being brigaded by Clinton super PAC shills. Quick, post pics upsetting to Hillary.” Users posted messages like this, “I saw like 4 today, new account and 40 pro hillary comments. Said she was a mom in one post and an asian student in another. Deleted account after someone called her out.”
Savvy Reddit users outed one of the Clinton staffers, Adam Parkhomenko, her director of grassroots engagement, who was apparently posting anonymously on the site threatening Trump supporters. Under the username rcMI9HXF, he wrote, “Warning- participation in this slanderous witch hunt will result in legal action. Mrs. Clinton has been made aware of your childish attempt to slander her and her supporters. There will be consequences for your actions.” When Reddit users guessed he was being paid by Clinton, he responded, “I am just an average Joe fed up with the blatant lies you people are slinging towards HRC. I’m a Bush supporter and volunteer, actually.” But when they discovered his home address, he finally admitted his real identity, “You can call me Adam. My buddies call me A.park.”
Clinton Staffer Luke Montgomery Behind Trump Attack Site Made to Look Like it Came From Bernie Sanders
When the “Deport Racism” website popped up, showing Hispanic children using profanity in reference to Trump and beating a pinata image of him, it appeared to come from the Sanders campaign. There was a link from the site to Sanders’ campaign site, implying that Sanders was the preferable candidate on immigration. But buried in the source code were links that appeared to be left over from another site called “Bill for First Lady 2016,” which was created by Clinton staffer Luke Montgomery. Outed, Montgomery removed the link to Sanders’ website. Montgomery, who came to prominence for his AIDs activism in the 1990s going by the name “Luke Sissyfag,” also deceptively registered a PAC called Feel the Bern.
The Clinton Machine Has Used Anonymous Trolls at Least as Far Back as 2007
The anonymous fake accounts come are nothing new for Clinton. In 2007, paid campaign staffers and volunteers on her campaign were caught creating anonymous accounts to artificially inflate her support. The influential Blue Hampshire blog discovered the ruse, when several anonymous accounts were all created in succession on the site from the same Clinton campaign IP address, which then bolstered pro-Clinton diaries.
Clinton hired a campaign manager this election cycle known for his scorched earth tactics. Robby Mook started a listserv in 2009 known as “Mook’s Mafia” to share political information with associates. He says things like “smite Republicans mafia-style” and “F U Republicans. Mafia till I die.” He has also said, “First, the mafia never separates, it just continues to grow and expand and move into other states in order to destroy Republicans.” By choosing Mook, Clinton reveals the type of campaign she wants, Alinskyite tactics of do anything to win.
Perhaps all this fake trolling won’t prove to be worth it. Once outed, the trolls will have a record to follow them around on the internet forever. One of Parkhomenko’s close friends toldThe Washington Post that he’s been “underutilized” on the campaign and is “miserable.” At some point, making up fake identities has to become demoralizing to all but the most hardened of campaign operatives.