Trollbots and Facebook phonies
Fake accounts on social media stir the pot on controversial issues
By Ted Cox
Sometimes, to understand the big picture, it helps to look at something in miniature.
At One Illinois, we saw the way President Trump divides people most clearly when he visited the small town of Granite City. And as a small, upstart news outlet, we've seen the divisive effects of internet trollbots and phony social-media accounts just by looking at our own Facebook page.
Phony Facebook accounts have been in the news recently. They've been mentioned in special counsel Robert Mueller's indictment of suspected Russian agents who sewed division during the 2016 presidential campaign on behalf of Donald Trump, and Facebook recently announced it had suspended 32 suspect accounts.
That may seem a drop in the bucket, but consider that Facebook said those accounts reached 290,000 people who had followed at least one of them.
Understand, these phony accounts don't necessarily favor one side of a political debate over another. That would be too easy to detect. Rather, they prey on natural divisions to stir things up, to play both sides against the middle and polarize the electorate.
It's not news to us at One Illinois. Just in the four months since we launched at the end of April, we've noticed incendiary comments from people like Bobby Chubb from "f---ing Austria" with his self-depracatingly Ironic "No Ragrets" chest tattoo. His Facebook account is no longer active after we reported it this summer. In fact, his profile photo was taken from the Jennifer Aniston-Jason Sudeikis movie "We're the Millers."
So we took a microscope to a recent Facebook post of ours featuring one of our series of interview snippets between U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin and One Illinois founder Ameya Pawar, the Chicago alderman and former gubernatorial candidate. Perhaps because Durbin is a national Democratic figure, perhaps because the subject was ironically enough about the political divide, it seemed to attract more than its fair share of suspicious comments, and in this case at least they were almost unanimously negative.
Ann Lush responded, in all caps, "DICKIE COULD NOT TELL THE TRUTH IF HE HAD TO," and went on from there. Yet Lush's profile has no activity since 2010, no friends to speak of, and her likes are an amalgamation of predictable material like "Fox and Friends," Sean Hannity, and a group favoring Illinois Term Limits.
"Tricky Dicky," commented David Popp, of Rock Island, and while there apparently is a David Popp in the Quad Cities, this David Popp's Facebook account belongs to a woman who has friended Robert Popp, who has no timeline and no friends and whose profile picture — according to a Google Images reverse search — is David Tennant as Barty Crouch Jr. in the "Harry Potter" movies.
"Jerk," added Rick Koyer, who has no friends, no place that he lives, and whose Facebook photos are dogs and firefighters.
"Obama's boy," commented Candg Hamann, of Grant Park, Ill., but there's no confirmation of a Candg or a Candy or even a "Meg" Hamann, the nickname given on the Facebook profile, found on Google.
This is just a handful of the 126 commentators that we flagged. Keep in mind, there were more than a dozen others with very little activity on their Facebook accounts, yet they were taking the time to post on the Durbin video — sometimes again and again.
More recently, a Lamar Davis commented on our story on Democrat Day at the State Fair last month, writing, "Lemmings, lemmings, everywhere." He was immediately accused of being a troll and a bot, with one commentator charging, "He has been coming on all Democrats' pages" and leaving incendiary comments. "I'm a bot," Davis responded. "You got me." But with no friends and only a single post to be seen on his account, which repurposes an Auburn University poster reading, "Prepare for war," as its profile photo, it would appear he may truly be what he says he is.
Kristy Kitzmiller and Tessa Sanders researched this story.