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ShareBlue editor brands Twitter bot swarm accusation a conspiracy theory

The allegation surfaced after journalist Caitlin Johnstone's account was suspended.


David Gilmour


Posted on Aug 23, 2018   Updated on May 21, 2021, 8:09 am CDT

ShareBlue editor Caroline Orr has denied allegations that she commanded a Twitter bot army to mass-report Australian independent journalist Caitlin Johnstone, who was suspended from the social network over an old tweet about Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz).

Johnstone had posted on Aug. 13 that the Republican lawmaker, who is currently being treated for brain cancer, had “devoted his entire political career to slaughtering as many human beings as possible at every opportunity” and that “the world will be improved when he finally dies.”

Disgusted at the remarks, Orr retweeted them on Friday before compiling and posting several screenshots of Johnstone’s controversial stance on McCain.

It was following Orr’s tweet, Johnstone claims in a Medium post published Saturday, that she received a barrage of “vitrolic” tweets from “Clintonite Twitter accounts” and “a bunch of notifications” from apparent bot accounts.

Soon after, Johnstone was informed her account was suspended.

In its explanation email, Twitter said that it had interpreted the tweet as a violation of its “rules against abusive behavior” suspending Johnstone’s account for “an attempt to harass, intimidate, or silence someone else’s voice.”

It’s about as serious a punishment as the platform will implement. Johnstone’s was temporary, but they can sometimes permanent. In recent weeks the company has deployed suspension against a number of high profile media personalities, mainly from the far right. Twitter permanently banned the Proud Boys fraternity and its founder Gavin McInnes on Aug. 11, then suspended InfoWars’ Alex Jones for a week on Aug. 14.

As word spread of Johnstone’s ban, opposition to the suspension grew among her own followers.

Johnstone is an outspoken advocate and prominent support of Wikileaks’ founder Julian Assange, a key personality in the Unity4J solidarity movement. As such, the official Twitter account of Assange, currently managed by a team of supporters, quickly challenged Twitter’s decision.

High profile journalists, like Rolling Stone’s Matt Taibbi and the Intercept’s Glenn Greenwald, also spotlightted the action.

Among those that rallied to Johnstone’s cause, despite her self-described left-leaning political stance, were those on the political right.

The suspension was lifted after several hours, which Johnstone credits to the protest while contesting the idea that Twitter punished her for the content of her tweet.

Johnstone explained that this particular tweet was not the first time she had criticized the Republican senator in this way. Last year, similar comments by Johnstone caused such shock that mainstream media outlets like CNN and the Washington Post reported on them.

Twitter did not act back then, she argued. Which brings up the bots. 

Journalist Elizabeth Vos, Johnstone’s fellow activist from the Assange solidarity movement, covered the incident at Disobedient Media. Her article examined the role of the alleged “coordinated bot army” that began boosting Orr’s response to Johnstone’s offending tweet.

Vos examined the kind of accounts that were retweeting Orr’s post more closely, embedding screenshots into her article.

“The fact that the multitude of accounts attacking Caitlin lacked even ten followers while also using an identical, copy-pasted message is a textbook example of botnet activity,” Vos wrote. “These were not human beings used to mass-report and suspend Caitlin – it was a soulless digital faux-human army…”

In response, Orr dismissed the accusations as nothing more than a conspiracy theory.

However, speculation of a meddling Democratic botnet is not entirely baseless.

In February, an extensive evaluation conducted by left-wing independent researcher @likingonline identified a network of fake persona accounts that boosted Shareblue content and tweets by high profile pro-Clinton #Resistance users.

The researcher, a Bernie Sanders supporter, first discovered the network of accounts after engaging an argumentative exchange with Sally Albright—a Democratic Party communications consultant and vocal supporter of Hillary Clinton.

With the focus of special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation on malevolent Russian social media operations and subsequent indictments that same month, the research raised persistent questions about domestic operatives using of social media to influence discourse or censor opposition.

The Daily Dot has reached out to Twitter to find out more about the company’s decision to suspend Johnstone and evidence of bot activity.

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*First Published: Aug 23, 2018, 6:30 am CDT