I might be a little crazy. After all, arguing with Sock Puppets (dummy accounts masquerading as a real person) and Legitimate Trump supporters on Twitter sounds like a pointless mission. But I was doing it – and will continue to do it – to meet one of two goals, if not both:
- I want to find a better way to determine if someone is a real human based on 140-character-at-a-time tweets. The service is possibly shifting to 280 characters soon, but I’ll refrain from making jokes or criticisms about that move.
- I want to get a better understanding of the driving force behind a Trump supporter. I’ve made it abundantly clear about my feelings of the man in the Oval Office Trump. But it would be very ignorant of me to ignore the motives for others to believe he’s the right guy for the job.
So with those two goals in mind, I would occasionally start a debate with someone on Twitter. Sometimes those debates came to me in rebuke to some of my more opinionated posts (usually on Trump’s own tweets). Then this little project of mine evolved one day when I noticed that two accounts were berating me for different posts in completely different threads. Three or four passes of tweets between myself and these two accounts, I started to notice a pattern: Both had similar demeanor, similar word usage. They even had some of the exact same replies (every word, every bit of punctuation, exactly the same). So I asked one if they knew the other. And all replies went silent. I tracked both, both were active for several hours, yet neither was acknowledging me anymore. My theory is that both were sock puppet accounts. I don’t think they were both operated by the same person, but I do think they may have been working from the same set of scripts. I imagine it like following a bubble diagram: If subject says this, respond this way.
The feeling was eerie. I felt like the protagonist in an Orson Wells novel.
So I started actively seeking out more and more debates. Many had similar results. But on occasion, I got what I feel were legitimate Trump supporters. Or at least I had conversations where I feel that there might have been someone with real substance on the other end. They may not have been American, they may not have been truly a Trump Supporter. But they knew their stuff and they proffered what appeared to be legitimate – if somewhat irrational – concerns. After a few months of arguing with misguided individuals – sock puppets or otherwise – I learned a lot.
Identifying a Sock Puppet
I am by no means an expert Sock Puppet Hunter. But I have a pretty good idea:
Bots: These are the fully-automated dregs of the twitter environment (and other social media outlets). They are also pretty easy to spot. First of all, they don’t have real names associated with the account. Often, they have names like Immigrant-for-Trump, RedneckDeplorable, etc. Both of those accounts, were real, but were disabled after abusing Twitter Policy. I know of a third (I won’t mention) that was brought down because of stealing photos of a real person and his family. The bots tend to respond with the same phrases time and time again, often inserting a dozen hashtags. It’s usually pretty strong language. Often, they respond with just memes or images to make a point, even in their main profile. There is one so bad that they paste the same 11 photos, in the same order, in a response to literally every Trump tweet, ignoring all who respond. Check ratios as well: If they’ve only been around for a year yet they have tweet counts in the 6 digits, chances are it’s automated.
Sock Puppets: There is usually a real human behind these guys. Some are pretty poor and easy to spot, but others are actually pretty good. These are often foreigners, so pay attention to spelling errors and typos. That doesn’t mean definitively that they’re sock puppets, but consistent errors are worth keeping an eye on. That guy referring to himself as a “Tax paying Americun” might be suspect. Often, these guys are working from script. There are many times I check their “Replies and Tweets” page to find other threads where they might be berating other individuals in the same manner. If you see enough of their posts, you’ll start to notice patterns. But humans will follow patterns as well, so that isn’t enough. But sometimes the order is the same or they are literally typing the same exact things time and time again as if copy/pasted from some other document. I’ve seen a drop-off of this kind of Sock Puppet, though. They are still common, but many have been identified and shut down.
The good ones are really hard to spot. But there are still clues. Sometimes they try to change the subject if you ask a very specific question; dodging the question or trying to regain control. I tend to get erratic with my line of questioning sometimes to throw them for a loop (I call it a “Crazy Ivan”, borrowed from the Tom Clancy Book, The Hunt for Red October). Everyone will inevitably start to question my sanity. But I feel that the sock puppets tend to start throwing insults (if it isn’t part of their nomenclature for every tweet already). Which brings me to another point: I always try to maintain a cordial and respectful tone. I don’t use bully tactics. But I find most Sock Puppets are die-hard bullies in literally every tweet. Sometimes they don’t even answer the question, they just cast doubt and throw insults. For example, in response to a chart I posted about Trump’s ratings, I pointed out that I was quoting Rasmussen Polls, because Trump identified it as the only one he trusted (he doesn’t say that anymore). The line of responses I got was “Lies! Only libtards believe in polls.” In response to a chart I posted about the total individual credit over time and debt-to-income ratio over time, the same account responded “Stupid libtard! DOW is the only real metric of economy, fucking libtard.” And that continued for a very long time because I kept sharing my thoughts and kept the chain going for almost an hour. So the man was either a sock puppet, or he was inhumanly angry all-the-time. I believe the former. But here’s the bizarre thing…after about an hour, he blocked me. I guess if you can’t piss off the guy on the other end enough, chalk it up as a loss and block ’em.
Learning From Real Trump Supporters
So over the last few months, I’ve had many debates with people that I feel passed the bot and sock puppet test. Some have been very cordial and productive. And I admit that I follow a few of them because I do think they are trying to be respectful and honest, despite their opinions. I don’t mind a debate with opposing opinions, so long as it’s respectful and productive. But many debates have been very stubborn. They may not have been as disrespectful and abusive as the questionable-sock-puppet I mentioned above. But they had their moments. I tried to ignore those moments and let it pass; in part for the sake of learning, but also because people are allowed to get fired up from time to time. There was even one guy in the same chain as the abusive one who started with a few insults, but was able to transition into a somewhat productive discussion. I was pleasantly surprised. Anyhow, after many of these debates, here is what I learned about the views of Trump Supporters:
Emotional Traction Is Critical
Hillary’s calm demeanor and poise may have done her in with some voters. She wasn’t angry enough. One person told me that he felt she was too calm, too measured, and that he wouldn’t want to play poker with her. Think about that for a minute. In his guy, this man was associating Hillary with a poker player. Poker is a game about bluffing. He didn’t feel he could trust her due to her stoic stature and practiced facial control. Meanwhile, Trump was exhibiting anger. Trump supporters are angry, they wanted someone who was equally as angry. One tweeter even told me that they didn’t mind the gaffs, they knew he was going off-prompt and exhibiting his rage. That, to her, meant he was more human and more likely to share her emotions. But lets go back further. Sanders was getting the same response from the angry left. They also wanted emotional traction with their candidate. When he got chased out of the race, many voters voted against Hillary out of spite. They were angry, and Hillary wasn’t angry enough. That hurt her in the end. Trump, meanwhile, was the last emotional candidate. He won.
Perception of Statistics Ruined Forever
I must have heard it a dozen times already: Statistics said Hillary would win, but she didn’t. Polling is broken. Trump’s approval ratings are therefore not nearly as bad as we’re told.
In truth, the statistics very accurately predicted the popular vote. Hillary did win by about 3 million votes. But this country elects based on the electoral college. Most states award all of their EC votes to the majority win in the state. So that’s how Trump won: He won critical states and took the election, despite losing the popular vote. But the campaign of disinformation campaign Trump and his regime have been preaching since – not to mention that of the conservative media – has been obscuring this fact. Trump has many times raised the question as to whether these polls should be trusted if they were so wrong in the election. He’s twisting the facts, of course. But that doesn’t matter. The Electoral College is difficult to understand, so many had doubts about what the polls really meant. So to this day, I still get people challenging any approval ratings I post because Trump has “proven” that polls are skewed. Skewed by who? The Liberal Media, of course.
I predict that it will be a long time before many of these guys start to trust polls again.
The ACA Repeal Is About Choice, Not Rights
One of the people I spoke with feels that they are being forced to have healthcare. They are healthy and they feel they shouldn’t have to have healthcare. They’ve never had a critical issue, so they feel invincible. It hurts that our economy is one that finds more than 60% of all Americans saving less than $100 per month. So it’s no wonder why those people would rather have the money than worry about potential for critical emergencies. This is poor planning, of course. Under the old system, someone suddenly diagnosed with Cancer was no longer eligible to get insurance at an affordable rate. People die from such diseases due to lack of insurance. It’s very sad, and it’s a chance that many shouldn’t be making. But money is tight…so I guess I understand the risk taking.
Others feel like they have too few options. In many states, it’s true as many insurance companies backed out of the Heathcare.gov market. There are reasons for it, sometimes induced by those state governments, sometimes due to other reasons. But let’s chalk it up as the ACA is not perfect. It should be tweaked and the Federal Government should be working to close those holes. But the bad experience in many states has citizens looking for more and seeing little in return. Unfortunately, these items can’t be fixed while Congress is trying to simply rip out the ACA by the roots. I fear that any replacement plan will be met with the same problems down the line. The best solution really is to continue to tweak what we have.
Then there’s the question of Single Payer systems, not unlike Canada or hybrid-approaches like United Kingdom. Honestly, I think the hybrid option is the only chance for cultural acceptance in this country. But there’s a lot of bad information out there about these systems, and many are feeling that their only route to insurance would end up with a one-size-fits-all plan. That’s not the case in UK, but the fear is legitimate. After all, the US is almost like a collection of 52 different states and territories. Texans are generally different from Californians and their climates are vastly different. So some feel like a plan for Texas isn’t going to be the same as a plan for California, etc. Likewise, there is a legitimate fear that the Government would be controlling all insurance, which does not fit into the small government motto of the Fiscal Conservatives.
Finally, there is the concern about the insurance industry. It’s one of our biggest industries and there is a concern that any wholesale change to the ACA would destroy a major chunk of our economy. If it isn’t handled well, such a change could create another recession.
Healthcare is not easy. There are many opinions and it’s difficult to get it right the first time. That’s why I do believe small, incremental changes are important. Granted, I don’t see that happening with the divided politics of our nation right now. But it would be the right thing to do. Until things are less volatile, people are going to be focusing on costs, choices and whatever gets them the best short-term gain, even if that means ripping it all up and starting over.
Worst Case: Politicians Realize Their Place
The concept from the voter perspective was simple: Even if Trump doesn’t work out, we’ve sent a message to Washington. That was not how I was thinking at the time of the election, because I feel that a single President could be very destructive. But a number of Trump Voters didn’t see it that way. Perhaps they had a lot of faith in the checks-and-balances of our government. Maybe they felt we were already at the bottom and things couldn’t get worse. So Trump – who was not a politician – became a possibility. Drain the Swamp, they yelled. They wanted to chase the career politicians out of Washington, shake things up and put those who remained on notice that no-one was safe. Maybe it didn’t involve guns or battlefields, but this election was essentially a civil war. That message was heard loud and clear by many politicians. Those that didn’t hear it may be chased out in 2018. From my perspective right now…I still worry about our place in this world and the future of our economy. But I do believe that this election will eventually change politics for a long time to come.
As I went through debates on twitter, I felt that it was very easy to roll my eyes and chalk up these opinions to ignorance. I still believe that a lot of the hatred toward President Obama was unfounded. Some of the hatred was rooted in racism (I do believe that). But I feel most of the hate toward Obama was the impatient nature of our generation. People wanted the economy to come back tenfold in a year. The economy doesn’t work like that, but it doesn’t matter…Obama wasn’t giving them what they wanted, so he had to go. But what resulted is a very polarized playing field. With such differing opinions – on the House floor and in kitchens across America – stagnation prevented any accomplishment. And here we are: A dark horse wins the election. If I try to look back at it, I’m reminded of a speech in the movie The American President:
People want leadership. And in the absence of genuine leadership, they will listen to anyone who steps up to the microphone. They want leadership, Mr. President. They’re so thirsty for it, they’ll crawl through the desert toward a mirage, and when they discover there’s no water, they’ll drink the sand.
Trump was that guy who stepped up to the microphone. And sadly, there was no water.
I don’t have a perfect solution to the predicament that we’re in. I can only say this: Let those with different views spew their anger. But then let them calm down and talk. And when they talk, listen. You will still have different views in the end. But maybe there will be some concessions that both of you might be willing to make. And once that happens, the path to negotiation isn’t too much further down the line.