Teenagers have been paid to flood social media with pro-Trump material in a strategy compared to a Russian trolling campaign, it has emerged.
The Twitter and Facebook campaign is funded by Turning Point Action, a sibling of conservative youth group Turning Point USA, according to a Washington Post report which says that thousands of social media posts have emanated from the group.
Some of the posts have echoed Trump’s claims about fraudulent mail-in voting or criticized America’s top virologist Dr Anthony Fauci, while others describe Joe Biden as a puppet for ‘dangerous’ hard-left socialists.
Turning Point did not deny the claims but said the youngsters were engaged in ‘sincere political activism’ and rejected comparisons to a Russian ‘troll farm’.
Donald Trump (pictured at the White House on Tuesday) is having his re-election bid backed by an army of teenagers paid to flood social media with pro-Trump material
Twitter has already taken down 20 accounts since the Post gathered evidence of the online blitz, while Facebook has also deactivated some accounts.
According to some of the people involved, the messages were scheduled and directed by Turning Point activists in a highly co-ordinated campaign.
The youngsters posted from their own accounts, with some of them identifying themselves as Trump supporters and others giving no such details.
Teenagers were told to reply to posts by Democratic politicians with messages that promoted Trump and the Republican point of view.
Some posts played down the dangers of coronavirus despite the death of Turning Point USA’s co-founder Bill Montgomery from complications linked to Covid-19 in July.
People familiar with the campaign described a shared online document of language which could be used in pro-Trump posts on Twitter and Facebook.
However, they were told to alter the language slightly and limit their number of posts to avoid some of Twitter and Facebook’s detection measures to crack down on bots and trolls.
The teenagers are paid an hourly rate and can earn more money if their posts do particularly well, it is claimed.
‘It sounds like the Russians, but instead coming from Americans,’ said Google software engineer and researcher Jacob Ratkiewicz.
A company working with Turning Point confirmed that there were ‘independent contractors’ paid to work online, but did not give further details.
Austin Smith, a Turning Point field director, told the Post that the group had ‘transitioned’ to online activism after the 2020 campaign was disrupted by the pandemic.
‘This is sincere political activism conducted by real people who passionately hold the beliefs they describe online, not an anonymous troll farm in Russia,’ Smith said.
He added that young people were ‘excited’ to share their views on social media over the summer, although some have since gone back to school.
Some of the online posts attacked Democratic nominee Joe Biden (pictured campaigning in Florida last night), describing him as the puppet of hard-left socialists
The father of two girls involved in the campaign said the content was no worse than that posted online by Democrats and their supporters.
Another expert, University of Pennsylvania communications professor Kathleen Hall Jamieson, said the campaign would familiarize youngsters with online activism.
Many of the activists are based in Phoenix, Arizona, in a state seen as one of the key battlegrounds of the 2020 election.
Trump won the state narrowly against Hillary Clinton four years ago, but recent polls have shown Biden narrowly ahead there.
Turning Point USA, founded by Charlie Kirk in 2012, describes itself as a non-profit organization with a ‘mission to identify, educate, train, and organize students to promote the principles of freedom, free markets, and limited government’.
The group talks openly of its aim to ‘saturate social and traditional media markets’ with its conservative views.
Social media ‘influencers’ sympathetic to Turning Point have a combined following of more than 20million people, according to the group’s website.
President Trump has previously spoken at Turning Point USA events, including at a rally hosted by the group in Phoenix in June this year.
Earlier this month, Facebook announced a series of new measures to ‘secure the integrity of the US elections’ – after previously admitting that accounts linked to Russia had spent up to $100,000 trying to influence the 2016 race.
The site announced during the Democratic primary campaign that it had blocked Russian and Iranian accounts trying to boost Bernie Sanders at Biden’s expense.
A report said the accounts reused messages from the Internet Research Agency which targeted US audiences in 2016. Russia has always denied interference.
Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg (pictured) announced a series of new measures to ‘protect the US election’ earlier this month
Facebook’s new measures include the removal of posts which exploit the fear of catching Covid-19 to discourage people from voting.
Posts about the legitimacy of mail-in voting will also come with an ‘informational label’, Facebook chief Mark Zuckerberg said.
‘We’ve invested heavily in our security systems and now have some of the most sophisticated teams and systems in the world to prevent these attacks,’ he said.
‘We’ve removed more than 100 networks worldwide engaging in coordinated inauthentic behavior over the past couple of years, including ahead of major democratic elections.
‘However, we’re increasingly seeing attempts to undermine the legitimacy of our elections from within our own borders.’
Twitter says it has introduced a tool allowing users to report misleading information about voting methods.
Both Facebook and Twitter have posted disclaimers on controversial posts by Trump in recent months, including about mail-in votes.
Postal voting has come under far greater scrutiny this year because of the pandemic and resulting social distancing rules.
Trump has frequently raged at ‘fraudulent’ mail-in ballots, in what critics say is an effort to delegitimize the results of an election that he appears on course to lose.
However, Trump has also been accused of playing down the Russian threat to the election.
In 2018, Trump caused an outcry after accepting Vladimir Putin’s denials at a summit in Helsinki, before later backtracking.
Special counsel Robert Mueller warned after publishing his report on the 2016 election last year that Russia was already meddling in the current campaign.