How an army of Twitter bots almost created a political pundit

This story was originally published by Reveal from The Center for Investigative Reporting, a nonprofit news organization based in the San Francisco Bay Area. Learn more at revealnews.org and subscribe to the Reveal podcast, produced with PRX, at revealnews.org/podcast.

Tweets from 60 Minutes correspondent Scott Pelley’s account normally get only a few dozen retweets—at least until Pelley enlisted the services of Jim Vidmar in late March for an episode about how fake news spreads. Vidmar, a social media consultant, bought access to a network of 5,000 Twitter bots from a Russian website and turned them loose on this tweet:

And voila: 4,000 retweets within minutes.

It’s not surprising that Pelley went to Vidmar, who spent years mastering the art of deploying fake social media accounts, to get the true story behind the bot army accused of bolstering Donald Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign. Except for one thing Pelley failed to mention: Vidmar’s name is as fake as the Twitter bots he helped Pelley purchase.

Vidmar’s real last name is Denlinger. He often goes by his wife’s maiden name when talking to the media about practices that run afoul of the rules of the social media platforms on which he long has made his livelihood.

Amid the scrum of last year’s presidential campaign, Denlinger attempted to use his own network of Twitter bots to reinvent himself as an influential political pundit.

In January 2016, Denlinger began tweeting from an account with the handle @PoliticsJim. While that account was suspended by Twitter a few months later, its tweets now lost down the social network’s memory hole, Denlinger briefly was able to dominate the Twitter conversation surrounding a handful of presidential primary debates.

An analysis by the social media analytics firm Spredfast found that on hashtags relating to the Democratic primary debate Feb. 11 between Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton, @PoliticsJim had six of the top 10 retweeted messages. During a Democratic town hall the following week, @PoliticsJim scored the biggest tweet win of the night. For a GOP debate a few days later, @PoliticsJim produced seven of the 10 most viral tweets.

Denlinger’s tweets typically contained simple image macro memes, priming them to be shareable on their own. However, the bots he created popped his message to the top of a trending hashtag, a perk usually reserved for celebrities with large followings. Top tweets about major political events usually come from politicians such as Clinton herself or high-profile comedians such as Patton Oswalt. But Denlinger had figured out how to game the system, and he was riding the bot wave to the top of the feeds of anyone scrolling through debate hashtags.

Denlinger’s bots had their origin in a program he developed to help gamblers cheat at online poker in the early 2000s. The program, which he hacked together in about a week, scanned what was happening on a video poker app and automatically counted cards, giving players an edge in deciding when to hold ’em and when to fold ’em.

What he needed was a publicity plan. “If I don’t learn marketing … to get this in front of the right people, it’s not going to go anywhere,” he said during a phone interview last spring. “A lot of people in the tech industry don’t understand that concept. They think if they create something great and … click submit to the internet, boom, they’ll be found.”

Denlinger’s insight about his card-counting software contained the seeds of everything he’s done since—exploiting technical flaws in computer systems to draw attention to whatever he wants to sell. He claims he’s developed nearly 200 pieces of software that have sold over 1 million copies and taken on a host of clients ranging from musicians to businesses.

For example, he discovered Twitter’s official Android app didn’t limit the number of accounts you could actively follow per day. Thinking back to his poker program, Denlinger loaded a cellphone emulator on his PC and wrote a script that followed a huge number of accounts at lightning speed – 50,000 accounts a day, about one-quarter of which immediately would follow him back. With corporate clients looking to pad their accounts with real followers, Denlinger had discovered a money-making machine.

“I made so much money that year, it was unbelievable,” he said.

When the Wall Street Journal profiled Denlinger in 2013—calling him Jim Vidmar—it mentioned the ruse, and Twitter quickly closed the loophole.

In 2015, after selling a pair of startups, a gaming company called BadgeHelp and online task marketplace MyCheapJobs, Denlinger had time on his hands. A longtime political junkie, he turned his attention to following in the footsteps of one of his heroes: political analyst Mark Halperin, best known for insider campaign tell-alls such as “Game Change” and “Double Down.”

“That’s the kind of journalism that I respect, the kind where you can’t tell who they’re going to vote for,” Denlinger said. “I just want the facts. That’s what I’m trying to do with this.”

“I’ve heard so many pundits and so many of these people at CNN and MSNBC and Bloomberg and all these other sources I get information from,” he continued. “I sit here and listen to the people they drag on that they consider to be experts and I’m like, ‘Oh my god. Maybe if I got some attention, I could go on some of these shows.’”

While Halperin spent a decade climbing the media food chain, starting as a desk assistant for ABC News in the late 1980s, Denlinger saw the current media landscape as eminently hackable. He employed a mass of bots, retweeting everything @PoliticsJim posted. These bots spread the tweets to their followers, but more importantly, they boosted Denlinger’s tweets to the top of whatever hashtag he wanted to invade.

On social media, nothing draws attention like a crowd, and soon Denlinger was in the mix with political pros.

Using another tool he created, Denlinger identified and followed between 400 and 700 influential human-operated Twitter accounts each day, hoping they would follow him back. Even so, bots dominated the ranks of @PoliticsJim’s followers. TwitterAudit found that nearly two-thirds of his followers were made of code, not flesh and blood.

Denlinger woke up one morning last spring to find his account had been suspended.

Twitter did not respond to a request for comment, but Denlinger notes that the company rarely detects this type of bot use on its own—especially when the bots aren’t obviously shilling a specific product. He suspects a user noticed what he was doing and tipped off Twitter.

He considered starting anew with another account but scrapped the idea.

“If I wanted another @PoliticsJim, I could have had one within 20 minutes,” he said. “I have 50,000 accounts that are over five years old. I could have brought one up, slapped a few thousand followers on it, and there we go, off to the races again.”

But the experience had been less than fulfilling. Denlinger had shoved himself into the Twitter conversation, generating hundreds, if not thousands, of interactions on each tweet, but he never broke through the cacophony: He never made it onto political talk shows.

“I felt like I had done this big thing online, but nobody recognized it,” he said. “No one cared. No one understood it. Nothing.”

So he went back to selling. Instead of focusing on himself, Denlinger has returned to helping others go viral. Bots can take a piece of content only so far. Pelley’s tweet, for example, has amassed over 4,500 retweets so far, but only about 300 likes. The content didn’t strongly resonate with actual human beings.

That resonance, Denlinger said, is crucial. Trump may have over 6 million fake Twitter followers, according to TwitterAudit, but Denlinger says those bots aren’t why he became president. And they are not what made people pay attention to the at least 325 people, places and things the former reality TV star has insulted on Twitter since announcing his presidential campaign nearly two years ago.

When the TV bookers came from 60 Minutes, they weren’t seeking Denlinger’s political acumen, asking him to be the next Halperin. They wanted to tap into his social media savvy, his ability to find holes in a system used by millions around the world.

Now Denlinger is playing that to his advantage: On his website, he is offering a “60 Minute Show Special,” a one-hour social media consulting session for $60.

Aaron Sankin can be reached at [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter: @ASankin.

Aaron Sankin

Aaron Sankin

Aaron Sankin is a former Senior Staff Writer at the Daily Dot who covered the intersection of politics, technology, online privacy, Twitter bots, and the role of dank memes in popular culture. He lives in Seattle, Washington. He joined the Center for Investigative Reporting in 2016.