- Twitter suspended what appeared to be a network of pro-Trump activists using an app called Power10 to boost their messaging.
- Using this app, these users were able to effectively turn their accounts into bots — automated amplifiers of posts — some of which Twitter has banned for attempting to distort political conversations online.
- The app exposes a flaw in Twitter’s ability to enforce its anti-disinformation and spamming policies, experts have said.
- The tool boosted messages by President Donald Trump and his allies, as well as members of the QAnon conspiracy theory movement.
- The tool was built by GOP operative Jason Sullivan, a protege of Roger Stone, who promoted it on social media.
- Visit Business Insider’s homepage for more stories.
A loophole in Twitter’s anti-spamming safeguards allowed users to covertly flood the platform with disinformation and conspiracy theories for years, a Business Insider investigation has found.
In an operation apparently masterminded by Jason Sullivan — an associate of Donald Trump’s former adviser Roger Stone — supporters of the president were encouraged to deploy an app called Power10.
It enabled them to automatically retweet hundreds of messages from Trump and his allies. In effect, it transformed their accounts into automated feeds that were able to behave with a coordination similar to the networks of fake accounts, or “bots,” Russia deployed in a bid to subvert the 2016 presidential election.
But because they were real accounts it made it difficult for Twitter to detect the operation and establish that it broke its rules against spamming, former CIA analyst and disinformation expert Cindy Otis told Business Insider.
The operation was able to continue for three years until Twitter suspended a number of accounts for violating its rules. Power10 is no longer available.
Otis said that automatic retweet software, such as Hootsuite, is widely used to share political messages. But Power10 is the first case she knows of it being used by supporters of a US political campaign to spread disinformation.
Apps such as Power10 use real accounts, which can “make it challenging for platforms to decide what’s okay automation and what’s bad automation,” said Otis.
“Ultimately, Twitter decided Power10 didn’t follow their policies.”
The Trump campaign did not respond to a request for comment on the use of Power10 by activists backing the president, neither did the Republican National Committee.
After being contacted by Business Insider, Sullivan strenuously denied seeking to subvert Twitter’s rules with Power10.
Business Insider reached Sullivan via Twitter direct message to ask him to discuss the app. He initially agreed to speak, but ultimately only gave a single-line response to a list of questions.
Business Insider asked Sullivan what he sought to achieve with the app, whether he intended to subvert Twitter’s policies, and whether he condoned the spread of disinformation by the app.
Seeming to respond only to a question about whether the app was a “deliberate attempt” to get round Twitter’s rules, Sullivan wrote: “It was a deliberate attempt to make sure Americans could actually get their word out. Censorship is REAL. THAT should be your story.”
His response may refer to claims from Trump and some allies that social media platforms and search engines systematically suppress their voices online, which has been repeatedly debunked.
Twitter declined to comment on the record for this story.
Jess Hernandez, a post-graduate researcher in online disinformation at Arizona State University, and Cody Webb, founder of AI analytics start-up web.ai, gathered information on how Power10 was able to spread messages, and the kind of messages it spread, by tracking the app while it was still live.
They were not able to identify how everybody account which used the app, or to calculate its total reach. However, they found that a cluster of 73 accounts were able to generate 106,000 retweets in a single month.
All identified users of the app were sharing pro-Trump propaganda.
According to Hernandez and Webb, those who signed up provided consent for their accounts to automatically retweet messages from selected accounts, with the apparent intention of spreading pro-Trump messaging in coordinated clusters.
They were able to measure the effects of the service thanks to a program they designed to detect the tweet’s source — in this case Power10. They were then able to break down the information and analyse it into themes.
This image shows the sign-up page for granting the app access to a Twitter user’s account. The app requested broad control over real accounts — choosing what they shared, how they interacted, and who they followed or unfollowed.
Sign-up information was shared quietly within online pro-Trump groups — with strict instructions not to share the information with their political opponents.
“Kindly share this program with #Maga Twitter users via PRIVATE message or EMAIL only,” read one message to users. #Maga is short for “Make America Great Again,” a Trump election slogan.
“We don’t want our little ‘secret weapon’ that we call OPERATION SWARM getting out to the Dems.”
Under the influence of Power10, the accounts effectively became bots — accounts that automatically share messages according to a broader plan.
But, since the accounts were also run by real people, and had substantial histories of independent content, it was difficult for Twitter to notice the artificial activity and take action against it, according to Otis, the ex-CIA analyst.
Otis said the accounts involved “can mostly escape de-platforming [being banned] because they’re real human accounts with a long history, real followers and therefore some level of credibility.”
Lisa Kaplan, CEO of the Alathea Group, a consultancy that helps clients protect themselves from disinformation, in an interview with Business Insider said that she views the operation as highly unethical.
“Where I come down is, you don’t use the same techniques and tactics as our Russian adversaries used against us on the people you’ve sworn to protect for your reelection campaign,” she said
“To me, it should be that obvious. But there’s not a whole lot of regulation in this. So it’s technically not illegal — I would say it’s highly unethical.”
Messages boosted by Power10 included posts from Trump himself and his high-profile supporters in the media and Congress.
It also amplified posts by members of the QAnon movement, a network of pro-Trump conspiracists. In FBI documents obtained by Yahoo News last year, the agency labelled the movement a domestic terror threat.
Rep. Ilhan Omar of Minnesota and Rashida Tlaib of Michigan — the first two Muslim women to be elected to the House of Representatives — were singled out for attack in messages boosted by the app, according to data shared with Business Insider by Hernandez and Webb.
Some Power10 user accounts were suspended by Twitter in September 2019 for violating rules on the platform against spamming. On its website, Twitter defines spamming as behaviour “intended to artificially amplify or suppress information or engage in behavior that manipulates or disrupts people’s experience on Twitter.”
Domestic political operators mimic Russian tactics
Concern about apps such as Power10 follows a study from the Stern Center for Business and Human Rights at New York University last year. It found that, increasingly, it is domestic political actors, not just foreign, who are flooding social media with political disinformation.
Political operators are exploiting digital marketing techniques and loopholes to spread disinformation, and social media platforms have been slow to react, often out of concern about violating the First Amendment rights of users.
In the wake of Russian interference in the the 2016 election, both Democratic and Republican campaigns have been accused of using Russia-style disinformation tactics to subvert elections.
In 2017, Democratic operatives ran a network of fake Facebook accounts where they spread attacks about the Republican rival of Democratic Senate candidate Doug Jones. President Trump’ election campaign has spread doctored videos and promoted conspiracies designed to erode support for his opponents.
In December The New York Times reported that former Fox News executive Ken LaCorte was hiring people in Macedonia to churn out fake news to inflame both liberals and conservatives — like the Russians did with “troll factories” in 2016. LaCorte told the Times that he started the sites to drive traffic to a news startup he founded aimed at “restoring faith in the media.”
Championed by the king of political ‘dirty tricks’
Sullivan is a former media adviser to the veteran dirty trickster Roger Stone, who was jailed for three years on February 20 for lying to Congress and witness tampering.
As far back as November 2016 Stone was calling on Trump supporters to join “operation swarm,” and sharing with supporters how to enable Power10, according to the website Hill Reporter.
Sullivan was subpoenaed in June 2018 by Robert Mueller as part of the then-special counsel’s probe into Russian interference in the 2016 election about his work for Stone, according to Reuters.
According to the report, Sullivan told Stone about a system he devised for creating Twitter “swarms” — “an army of sophisticated, hyper-targeted direct tweet automation systems.”
Sullivan is currently the chairman of the American Pro-Israel PAC. On its website he claims to have “worked behind the scenes in support of the Donald J. Trump for President 2016 campaign” and to be a “technologist who has developed several apps and holds several U.S. patents.”
The Trump campaign did not respond to a request for comment on whether Sullivan worked for it back in 2016.
Stone’s attorney, Bruce Rogow, did not respond to several requests for comment on his client’s alleged promotion of Power10.
QAnon, and a hate campaign against ‘The Squad’
According to data shared with Business Insider by researchers Hernandez and Webb, one of the largest clusters of messages boosted by Power10 were attacks on Reps. Omar and Tlaib.
They are members of the group of progressive congresswomen of color nicknamed The Squad, which Trump targeted with racist attacks last summer.
Attacks on the two were pushed across the Twitter network by a core of 73 accounts, which generated most of Power10’s shares and messages.
Among the 73 accounts were Trump campaign allies, including Marco Gutierrez, chairman of the Latinos for Trump campaign, and pro-Trump activist Ann Vandersteel.
Vandersteel did not respond to multiple requests for comment from Business Insider.
Gutierrez told Business Insider that after meeting with Sullivan in 2016 “somehow we ended up putting many of our accounts under this app and that resulted in them being suspended — but I didn’t know it went against community standards.”
He said he detached his account from the app after the suspensions.
According to Gutierrez, Sullivan told him the app would enable them “to drive the conversation on Twitter. That we were going to be able to establish presence and get our narrative to move forward.”
In total, 1,030 messages attacking the lawmakers were pushed by the app over a three-month period, according to the data.
Here is a tweet from the Trump campaign promoted by the app, spreading the unsupported claim that Rep. Omar married her own brother so he could secure a visa to the US. Omar has said the claim is absurd and untrue.
—Trump War Room — Text FIGHT to 88022 (@TrumpWarRoom) July 22, 2019
Other messages shared by the app claimed that Omar is engaged in an Islamist stealth plot to subvert democracy and install sharia law.
In a statement to Business Insider, Rep. Omar described disinformation networks such as that promoted by Power10 as a threat to US democracy.
She said: “We can’t keep ignoring what is in front of our eyes: Trump and his convicted criminal allies do not believe in democracy. They are profiting off misinformation and conspiracy theories in an effort to fuel neo-fascist politics and making marginalized communities around the world more vulnerable.”
“All of these people — from the technology companies who fan the flames of hate to the lawmakers who fail to hold him accountable — bear responsibility for this crisis. All of them need to tackle these growing threats to our democracy.”
The app also boosted messages from accounts promoting the QAnon conspiracist movement. Its followers believe, on the basis of cryptic online messages and no supporting evidence, that Democrats and Hollywood stars covertly run a child abuse ring, which Trump is in the process of dismantling.
In this tweet promoted by the app, a promoter of the theory references “The Storm”, which an event in which QAnon believers say Trump will go public with his mission to extinguish the child abuse ring.
The tweet groundlessly links it to the death that month of convicted pedophile Jeffrey Epstein.
—Joe M (@StormIsUponUs) August 26, 2019
Among those whose tweets were promoted is Ben Garrison, who has spread tweets and memes denounced by the Anti-Defamation League NGO as anti-Semitic, and who also promotes QAnon messages.
In one cartoon distributed through Power10, Garrison references a Trump rally in North Carolina in July in which the president praised a baby wearing a onesie emblazoned with a letter Q. Supporters said the president was covertly displaying his support for the movement.
—GrrrGraphics Cartoons (@GrrrGraphics) July 22, 2019
In this cartoon, he depicts Sullivan as a key player in Trump’s social media strategy (Sullivan is depicted on the right, pulling a curtain back to reveal Trump pulling the levers of Twitter.)
—Trade Alerts, Trade Ideas and Crypto 📈 (@AlertTrade) May 24, 2018
In a statement to Business Insider, Garrison denied that his work is anti-Semitic, but did not respond to requests for comment on his alleged use of Power10.
“As a cartoonist, I stand for freedom of speech for everyone—including those with whom I disagree. I am against racism, violence, anti-Semitism, censorship, and de-platforming. I have never penned an anti-Semitic cartoon. In fact, I have drawn cartoons that speak out against anti-Semitism,” he said.
A ‘failure to act’ by social media platforms leaves path open for peddlers of disinformation
Kaplan, the disinformation expert, said that the government and social media companies had been slow to halt the flow of disinformation polluting political conversations.
As such, she said, it is likely that domestic operators will continue to use tools such as Power10.
“There has been a failure to act and have consequences. Right now the only consequence is that these accounts are removed. So I think that we will likely continue to see actors engage in ways to continue to manipulate social media algorithms for their benefit.”