That time 4chan Gamed the Democratic Primary

16 03 19

I’ve spent much of this week fascinated by the sudden emergence of Andrew Yang, a tech entrepreneur running in the Democratic presidential primary. Yang made news this week for hitting the 65,000 individual contribution threshold that the Democratic National Committee had set for candidates to appear in the first primary debates. Yang’s campaign caught fire after appearances on Tucker Carlson’s Fox News show and Joe Rogan’s podcast last month, and his campaign has masterfully tapped into that momentum for their own fundraising efforts.

Who exactly are Yang’s supporters? Given his two biggest media hits it’s a question worth asking. As Sam Stein and Will Somer point out in the Daily Beast, in addition to an army of meme warriors, Yang’s campaign has attracted support from some of the worst corners of the Internet, the same online forums that were early supporters of Trump 4 years ago. Yang is not a white supremacist, his campaign has said they don’t want support from the chans, and much of the support from the 4chan crowd would probably fall into the trolls being ironic category but it’s important to remember that early support for Trump from these online communities looked and felt the same way initially.

Andrew Yang is a legitimate candidate running for President but there’s no doubt that his supporters have crossed the line from digital organizing to digital weaponization. You can see it in the #YangGang hashtag on Twitter, where there’s some evidence that bots and automation are being deployed to boost it. From March 6 to March 13 the hashtag was tweeted 33,483 times receiving 73,881,279 impressions. The top users of the hashtag are accounts that suggest inauthentic activity AKA bots/cyborgs. They’re tweeting and retweeting at a high volume and the branding of most of these accounts doesn’t even attempt to seem like they’re actual people. A few examples:

Did 4chan game the Democratic primary debates? It’s a question Democrats have to ask themselves.

Unfortunately, there’s no clear cut answer. Yang’s supporters donated real money to help him cross the threshold set by the DNC, and as far as I’m aware there’s no rule in place saying online antics from trolls could disqualify a campaign from the debates. Yang isn’t even the first example of inauthentic activity boosting a Democratic campaign this cycle. Just last month NBC News reported that the Kremlin was amplifying Tulsi Gabbard’s own campaign via inauthentic content as well. (Gabbard, interestingly enough, also appeared on both Carlson and Rogan’s shows and received similar interest from the chans after her appearances.)

One good thing about trolls supporting Yang is that it does offer potential for Frog Squad in-fighting. Allegedly, moderators at /r/The_Donald are permabanning pro-Yang messages from the notorious subreddit, and right-wing social network Gab is already exploiting this rift to market their own Internet comments product. Additionally, not all of 4chan is on board with Yang as their campaign learned the hard way this week when one of their staffers was doxxed. It remains to be seen whether there are enough disaffected pro-Trump trolls seeking an exit ramp to have an impact on the coalition overall but it’s worth keeping an eye on.

Cristina Lopez G. provided research for this piece.

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