I spent two weeks following Trump’s Twitter comments, and Russia’s ongoing efforts are readily apparent (surprise! they’re focusing on race)

I didn’t intend to start this project. It happened gradually over the past year as I read more about the tactics of the Russian-based internet Research Agency (IRA), which was a major part of the early indictments issued by the Justice Department in cooperation with Special Prosecutor, Robert Mueller III. While Trump supporters crow, in person and on social media, that “no Russians were in the voting booth,” the presence of QAnon at rallies (seriously; when are we going to have serious campaign reform that bans presidential “rallies” such as these?) is evidence enough that the disinformation campaigns spearheaded by Russian hackers have been internalized as fact by an overwhelming majority of the self-described deplorables. There is nothing quite like the arrogance of false certainty.

I’ve been dealing with some health issues and I am incapable of not working on multiple things at once, so I began spending more time on Twitter. This was made possible largely by the staggeringly tumultuous past two weeks. Trump has had multiple tweet storms that descended into tantrums. I began to notice patterns in the more outrageous comments. Soon, I was discovering entire conversations with bots or highly-moderated accounts. This has heated up exponentially since a contingent of pro-Trump Black pastors visited the White House. African-American leaders from around the country have taken to Twitter and Facebook to decry not only the behavior of particular pastor but also the Administration’s woeful record on important issues around race. This “intraracial” conversation is the perfect opportunity for Russian bots to fulfill their mission to further divides and spread disinformation. Surprise, surprise. Today, Trump tweeted a Rasmussen poll citing a rising level of support among Blacks. As expected, the bots are most active.

**

What kind of numbers are we talking about?

Mine was in no way a scientific study. I am finishing a doctorate and I know what is required for a quantitative study. This ain’t it. However, I hope this is useful for the average person who wants to be able to use Twitter to connect with real people who are interested in more than shitpot stirring.

Had I thought through this before I did it, I would have taken screenshots of the conversations. I wasn’t intending on writing this but I was just curious about how many I would find in a day, which grew into a weekend, which grew into a week, which grew into two weeks. Each time I would find a confirmed bot, I would report and then block. What you can see below are screenshots of about 95% of the accounts I identified.

I am going to place the confirmed number of bots at 110. I absolutely could have found three times that amount if I wanted to dedicate myself to the task 40 hours/week. I absolutely didn’t and don’t want to do that, but I conservatively say that I dedicated about 30 hours over the course of two weeks.

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Okay, 110 out of how many?

I definitely got better with this over time (see below), so there were a number of false checks early on that I didn’t even bother with after a week of steady investigation. I estimate that I checked around 300-350 accounts. So, we’re talking about 1/3. Again, this is not scientific and I am not saying that a full 1/3 of accounts commenting on Trump’s post are bots; I actually think it is higher, but I leave it to those much more qualified than am I to do proper studies.

**

Why does this even matter? 

I think the saddest thing for me was the 200 or so accounts I checked that were not bots but rather belonged to real people parroting the rhetoric of the fake accounts. #walkaway is a perfect example. This is a manufactured “movement,” replete with stock photographs of Black people superimposed with fake quotes about how they are leaving the Democratic party. Almost every instance of a legitimate person using #walkaway, that person was White and they followed the fake accounts of supposedly Black, Republican Americans. It is like the Twitter version of “I can’t be racist because I have Black friends.

Even more insane are the conversations between highly moderated accounts pretending to be Black. One, between @sugarthegirl and @spoilrottenpup, was about how they can no longer talk to their families because they support Trump. Again, I acknowledge I should have captured the conversation itself, but I have gotten so used to automatically reporting and blocking that I went too quickly. Alas, you can see the profile pages.

Sugar the Girl did, it should be mentioned, send me a snapshot of a handwritten note with the date and a message telling me to suck it. I would have been more impressed with a photo of a real person. It does show, however, that there are humans behind these accounts, but it is highly doubtful that they are who they claim to be.

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How to identify Bots

Some of what I learned might be well-known to others who are more informed in the field. I’m just a dude with a blog who noticed some stuff. The first thing you need is botcheck.me . To save yourself time, here are a few things that can help zero in on suspicious accounts.

  1. A string of numbers by the name. If you see a name like DanEboy12800473, that’s a good candidate. This does not always hold, as it appears some people purposefully have such usernames so they can goad others into accusing them of being bots, only to respond with something like, “Typical libtard. Everyone who doesn’t agree with you is either a Russian or a bot #walkaway”
  2. They are relatively new to Twitter. Again, this is in no way a guarantee, but it has been evident in enough cases that it is worth a mention.
  3. If they mention having been “shadow banned” or have a “new account” because they’re being persecuted as conservatives.

  4. Their self-description is just a little too filled with accomplishments that are not backed up with any professional tweets, the page has links to nothing other than pro-Trump propaganda, and they use lots of hashtags associated with Russian meddling.

  5.  Identities that seem incongruous, like “Muslims for the travel ban” or “Mexicans for the wall.” Sadly, this also isn’t a guarantee. In all cases, use botcheck.me.
  6. If they swoop in, post something provocative, and then move on. This is a tactic I saw a lot. It stirs the pot, and if enough real people get involved, the bot doesn’t comment much because someone else has taken on the role of provocateur.

**

What to do? 

I don’t recommend spending as much time as I have on chasing down bots. It has certainly impacted my mental health and I find that even though I know the accounts are “fake,” the impact is not. What the intelligence agencies have been saying about Russia’s ongoing efforts is playing out right in front of our eyes. Each time OfVald has another rally and we see the rabid, ignorant, hate-filled supporters screaming propaganda while, without any trace of irony, declaring their superiority to the dumb “libs,” I feel both sad and angry. But this is part of the effort. It is meant to wear us down. It is meant to make us fear that Trump’s actual supporters outnumber us.

Twitter can be great, but it takes diligence if you want to have any sort of meaningful conversations or exchanges of ideas. As for me, I am going to take a break from reading the comment threads and focus on thoughtful pieces longer than 280 characters.

The Weight: No matter how much I lose, I’ll always be fat

I remember the first time I became conscious of my weight. It was sometime in the early 1980s. I was at my Grandma Hilda’s house in Southfield, Michigan. I was no more than 7 years old. Stripped to the waist, as I was near all the time—G’ma Hilda’s house included a pool, apple trees, a massive garden, plenty of room to run, and her cairn terrier, Poco. I was sitting just a couple feet away from a 19″ television, eating lunch from the garden and pulling from an ice-cold A&W in a glass bottle.

Then it came on. An advertising line for Special-K that people of a certain age might remember: “Can’t pinch an inch on me!”

I had been a chubby baby, but I was a slender child. I wasn’t particularly fleet of foot, but I rode bikes, played soccer and baseball, and I was an incredibly strong swimmer. I cannot remember ever thinking a critical thought about my own body’s appearance until that moment when I looked down and pincered the flesh covering my obliques, trying to discern if I needed to start eating Special-K.

By junior high, I was a fleshy kid. I tended to eat my emotions, so you do the math. Classmates started to comment about how I needed to go on a diet. There were unkind comments from family members. I became a vegetarian because I associated that with losing weight. But all I ate were carbohydrates. As I grew chubbier, the self-hatred became all-consuming. By the time the Solo-Flex Man came on the scene, I had a full-blown eating disorder and overwhelming body dysmorphia.

I used to stand in front of the mirror, my fleshy middle hot-red from me angrily grabbing the offending fat and pulling, as though through the sheer desire to be thin I could rip it away like cotton candy. But I was hoarhound and all that resulted was a bone-deep hatred of my own body.

I started lifting weights at the age of thirteen; the gym rule was fourteen, but my father, who had absolutely transformed his body inside of a year (acromegaly played some role, but Dad was ripped) said that we were using the ancient Chinese custom of counting age from the time of conception. My exercise anorexia kicked into high gear. I was cycling a good 40 miles a week during the summer, along with hitting the gym four days a week. By the time I was fifteen, I had virtually no body fat but the damage had already been done. All I saw when I looked in the mirror were flaws. Weakness. Failure.  In reality, I was buff enough to be cast as Lewis in Pippin. In my head, though, there were inches all over my body that I wanted to violently pinch off.

I used to do 1,000 sit-ups/abdominal exercises a day. People always cast doubt on that number but it is true. Of course, there were days when I did not reach the full 1,000 but there were exactly zero days in which no exercises happened. I would take 10-mile bike rides twice a day on my “off days.” I confessed fully my body image issues to my first serious girlfriend. We bonded over impatience with our bodies.

I just want to pause and say that having someone who understood how I felt was remarkable. This was the early ’90s. Manorexia was not yet a thing, at least in terms of public conversation. She never shamed me, told me to “man up,” or accuse me of just wanting attention; I cannot overemphasize how vital this was for me in terms of not giving over completely to the dysphoria and shame.

Probably the most destructive period of my exercise anorexia was when I had a good job waiting table and bartending, which provided me with lots of cash. I started to powerlift and buy supplements. I was on a steady diet of creatine, protein, and alcohol. I started going to bed at 9 pm (at the age of 22) and getting up at 4 a. I would head to the gym, work out for three hours, go home, eat, go to work, and come home. Lather, rinse, repeat. My body grew as I added more and more weight to my bench press, deadlift, and squat totals. Yet, the bodybuilders in the gym called me fat because according to their standards, I was. I started seriously considering steroids.

Then I threw out my back deadlifting and things changed drastically. I was months away from the gym. I drank too much, ate too much, and I started to look like a high school linebacker gone to seed. I’d get back in the groove for 2-3 months, lose some weight, and then fall back into the same pattern. After two years, I had a body that mortified me. Then my brother died, and my dark night of the soul began.

I threw myself headlong into a bottle of Bushmills for the over a decade, and my weight yo-yoed drastically. Twice I lost over 40 lbs, only to gain it all back. I was in denial about how much I was eating and how often. When I got sober, I definitely turned to food for comfort. Add to that, medications such as Lithium and Paxil and inside of three years, I had gained 50 lbs. During this time, I was constantly running myself down about how fat I was and how awful I looked; I engaged in regular self-deprecation as a defense mechanism because I was sure that everyone was like, “Oh-my-God-have-you-seen-Aaron-he’s-a-fucking-whale?”

Yeah. It sucks.

**

The last time I stepped on a scale was about four-and-a-half months ago. I weighed 290 lbs. Seeing that number, feeling the copious amounts of flesh touching itself—which caused me to adjust how I moved, sat, slept, negotiated the world—and looking at the other numbers indicating that I was heading for a heart attack by the age of 50, I vowed that I was going to make a change, starting instantly.

I went on the keto diet. This was a BFD because I am a carbaholic. Like, Thanksgiving for me is really just multiple plates of mashed potatoes and dinner rolls stuffed with, well, stuffing and covered in gravy. Everything I had been eating was either carbohydrates or sugar. Often, both. And when I say I went on the keto diet, I mean that since the day of “The Weighing,” I have not eaten more than 25-30 carbs/day. There were tough moments, to be sure, but I have a history of quitting addictions cold turkey. Cigarettes, various and sundry intoxicants, alcohol. All stopped by mentally flipping a switch.

But sweet Jeebus, sometimes the journey to that switch is long and destructive.

Today, I went to the doctor for what has turned out to be a pretty serious case of cellulitis. I’m on antibiotics and if things have not improved significantly within 24 hours, I will be hospitalized.

However, that is not what is dominating my thoughts. I had to step on a scale, which I have assidulously avoided, because the numbers are like scarlet letters upon my skin, like the red welts that would rise from my tortured, past pinches. I promised myself that no matter what, I would feel positive about the undeniable, dramatic changes. You carry a lot of muscle mass, I reminded myself. I had a number in my head, the minimum amount lost that I would accept as a success. I stepped on the scale and then gasped.

I’ve lost 30 lbs. That was not the number I had in my mind. But, still. Pretty good, right?

Nope. All I saw was that I weigh 260 lbs. I said several times to the nurse, whom I had never seen before, I don’t know how I can weigh 260. I swim in most of my clothes. I have a waist. I’ve gone down four sizes. How can I weight 260?!?! She never offered an answer.

**

No matter what the number is, there will always be something. I remember being in my early 20s taking a bath with my soon-to-be first wife. I apologized for being so fat. She looked at me like I had lobsters crawling out of my ears. “Aaron, you are not fat. At all. In any way.” I grabbed my middle and pulled. “This. Ugh. I hate this,” I said, casting down my eyes. I looked up. “That’s skin, Aaron. Skin. Everyone has it,” she said, pointing to her own slender waist.

No matter how much weight I lose or how I continue to build muscle, I will never see myself as anything but fat. And that, dear friends, is why we need to talk about positive body image with all kids. Because I honestly would prefer to be overweight and comfortable with myself than skinny and locked in a cycle of self-hatred.

Tonight, I am going to eat real pizza and enjoy the experience. Tomorrow, back to keto. Sometimes, we’ve just got to take a load off…