In the wake of a white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia earlier this month, a petition urging the Trump administration to label anti-fascist protesters, or “antifa,” a terror group emerged online. The petition claimed that the movement had earned the title by committing acts of violence across the country.
The petition also claimed antifa had helped influence the killings of multiple police officers. “It is time for the Pentagon to be consistent in its actions,” it read. “Just as they rightfully declared ISIS a terror group, they must declare antifa a terror group.” Conservative media outlets, including Fox News and Breitbart, picked up the story, and as of August 17, the petition had over 300,000 signatures – 200,000 more than needed to get a response from the White House.
However, it was recently discovered that the petition was originally created by an infamous internet troll, who has been kicked off Twitter multiple times and had previously described conservatives as “generally morons”.
“Microchip” had previously submitted another petition which called for Black Lives Matter to be designated a terrorist group. He described that submission as a “test” to see if social media campaigns could deflect attention away from criticism of right-wing actions.
“You could call it an extreme form of ‘whataboutism’” he told Politico, referencing the Soviet propaganda technique of creating false moral equivalences between events in the West and problems within the USSR.
“Most of this is contrived to force outrage and trigger new MSM journos to cover shit because they buy the meme,” he said in another interview. “They should have figured this out and stopped covering us.”
Microchip, who is believed to be a software developer based in Utah, has been described by Republican political strategist Patrick Ruffini as a “Trumpbot overlord” who has the power to choose if a story goes viral.
In an interview with Buzzfeed News, Microchip described how he could use a combination of Twitter “bot” accounts and large, pro-Trump “rooms” — some of which are automated — to help get certain stories trending.
As the stories increase in popularity, pro-Trump media outlets like Drudge Report and subreddits like r/The_Donald pick them up. A quick search of r/The_Donald reveals dozens of links to the “We the People” antifa petition.
Microchip claimed that bots couldn’t sign his latest submission because of the verification measures in place. Instead he needed “real engagement” – the overall aim of which was to rally conservatives against a common enemy in the wake of the Charlottesville attack. This means he was likely more reliant on the Twitter “rooms,” which allow Pro-Trump followers to retweet each other and amplify their voice in a coordinated manner.
It’s there that Microchip lays the foundation for stories or content with automation, before sending them out to a broader network of pro-Trump rooms populated by real accounts. “It was to bring our broken right side together,” Microchip told BuzzFeed. “The narrative changed from ‘I hate myself because we have neo-Nazis on our side’ to ‘I really hate Antifa, let’s get along and tackle the terrorists.’”
This isn’t the first time right-wing outlets and pundits have been duped by dubious online sources. In February, Sean Hannity shared a Gateway Pundit article purporting to show that John McCain had requested campaign donations from Russia. The article, which cited “Reddit users” as sources, had actually been debunked eight years earlier. Hannity later tweeted an apology.
In July, researchers at the University of Southern California discovered that there was a subset of Twitter users dedicated to spreading false documents dubbed the Macron Leaks during the French election. The study also found that about one in five of the bots used to spread disinformation about the French election were also active in the U.S. presidential election.