A Southern Poverty Law Center analysis over the past three months has found that a small number of extremist Twitter users are responsible for a disproportionate amount of conspiratorial political messaging pushed by Donald Trump’s campaign.
An investigation of the hashtags #hillaryshealth, #buildthewall, and #draintheswamp, all of which have trended among a small community of extremist users on Twitter, has revealed that more than 70% of tweets related to the campaigns were retweets, or unoriginal content.
The SPLC compiled social media data related to more than 1,800 extremist Twitter accounts (some of which have since been suspended following Twitter instituting more rigorous restrictions for abuse) and content related to extremism across multiple social media platforms. Posts were collected and analyzed from a manually defined community of extremists and a carefully constructed set of keywords.
An analysis of these hashtags related to the 2016 presidential election on Twitter from July 26 to October 25 revealed several telling trends in these data:
- #hillaryshealth was the most used hashtag of those analyzed, appearing in 57,912 total tweets. Of those tweets, 44,051 (76%) were retweets – demonstrating that the hashtag’s popularity was generated from a remarkably small amount of original content.
- #hillaryshealth peaked around two events: photos in early August of Hillary being helped up stairs and her collapse at a 9/11 memorial service in New York City later attributed to pneumonia. The hashtag was the top trend among identified extremist accounts and content on September 11, 2016, and trended continuously from August 29 until October 3.
- Only one of the top ten hashtags associated with #hillaryshealth was directly related to right wing extremism (#altright).
- The top ten users of #hillaryshealth made up 4% of the total conversation around the hashtag, suggesting a more diverse group of users than other related hashtags.Those user accounts range from openly displaying racist and anti-Semitic themes, like @John_T_Gaskill whose profile reads, “Sick to death of PC bullshit, social marxism, white genocide orchestrated by the satanic Zionists and the whole LBGTPQRXYZ nonsense. XX=Females, XY=Male, period,” and @shad0wsquad which features an avatar wearing a Bane (the villain from Batman: the Dark Knight Rises) mask, a well known Alt-Right trope, to @UTHornsRawk, which features more Trump-centric content despite maligning “PC” culture.
The intermingling of accounts that are more Trump-centric, yet still peddling extremist ideas, and accounts that outwardly focus on themes such as “white genocide” is unsurprising given the Trump campaign’s tacit embrace and unwillingness to disavow extremist ideas. For example, the Trump campaign has repeatedly retweeted content from @whitegenocideTM, an account since suspended by Twitter.
- The top four most mentioned accounts for #hillaryshealth include the since suspended @Ricky_vaughn99, one of the most prolific Alt-Right Twitter accounts this election cycle, @ramzpual, the account of Paul Ray Ramsey a longtime white nationalist leader, @cernovich, the account of Mike Cernovich, an influential Alt-Right personality who was key in spreading #hillaryshealth, and @prisonplanet, the account for conspiracy theorist and Info Wars editor Joseph Paul Watson.
Cernovich was credited by Alt-Right leader Richard Spencer for his role in promoting #hillaryshealth last month while discussing “meme magic” on Spencer’s Radix podcast. Meme magic is the idea, held by many on the Alt-Right, that internet memes can manifest in reality,.
“I do respect Mike Cernovich, but when I was seeing him post these things about, you know, her tongue. Like, he speculated that she’s wearing a catheter. He was talking about how she was spazzing out, about her brain was malfunctioning, like a computer is crashing. I just didn’t believe it,” Spencer told his guest, Charles Lyons (@reactionarytree, a popular Alt-Right Twitter personality). “It’s almost like so many people in the Alt-Right believed it and we made it so through magic. … We just focused our mental energy on her and she collapsed. I know this sounds mystical or stupid, but I don’t have a rational explanation.”
This is the first in a series of posts Hatewatch will publish this week looking at the proliferation of hate speech and extremist ideas around the 2016 election on Twitter.