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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.
What does an Assad apologist look like?— Caroline O. (@RVAwonk) August 17, 2018
It looks like someone who would say John McCain deserves to die for his role in promoting US wars... but that Assad is just a family man who definitely hasn't slaughtered civilians. pic.twitter.com/ZuNq90nve0
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.
Twitter has suspended Caitlin Johnstone, apparently over the McCain tweet below. She was told the offense was “abusive behavior,” which Twitter characterizes as an attempt to “harass, intimidate, or silence someone else’s voice.” pic.twitter.com/qy7No1KJVR— Matt Taibbi (@mtaibbi) August 17, 2018
Twitter has this whole "harassment" concept 100% backward. There should be the greatest latitude to say mean, critical things about those with the largest and most influential public platforms. Instead, that's who Twitter protects most, while allowing abuse for non-public people. https://t.co/ENJcuXADPU— Glenn Greenwald (@ggreenwald) August 17, 2018
Among those that rallied to Johnstone’s cause, despite her self-described left-leaning political stance, were those on the political right.
Yeah. McCain is allowed to celebrate mass deaths. Why can’t people be free to celebrate his if they wish? This is officially the ban I am most angry about. Caitlin is great. https://t.co/t0oiMpr3tp— Cassandra Fairbanks (@CassandraRules) August 17, 2018
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…”
RT TrickFreee: What a miserable, despicable person. You are the definition of deplorable. I may frequently disagree with SenJohnMcCain and MeghanMcCain with all due criticism, but they should sue you for libel. This is disgusting. https://t.co/Fox3Hd4z2s— Sarah Pratt (@SarahPratt0) August 16, 2018
RT TrickFreee: What a miserable, despicable person. You are the definition of deplorable. I may frequently disagree with SenJohnMcCain and MeghanMcCain with all due criticism, but they should sue you for libel. This is disgusting. https://t.co/t6IQZEPZ0j— Lilia Croft #TheResistance (@gol_lyubava) August 16, 2018
RT TrickFreee: What a miserable, despicable person. You are the definition of deplorable. I may frequently disagree with SenJohnMcCain and MeghanMcCain with all due criticism, but they should sue you for libel. This is disgusting. https://t.co/B8KZYteT25— Inessa #TheResistance (@InesPribytkova4) August 16, 2018
In response, Orr dismissed the accusations as nothing more than a conspiracy theory.
For all the conspiracy theorists out there: I'm flattered that you think I have such immense power that with a single tweet I can iinsta-ban someone from Twitter. FWIW, I would totally use it if I had that power, but alas... I don't.— Caroline O. (@RVAwonk) August 17, 2018
(But it's fun that you think I do.)
No, Caitlan, I didn't call in my deep-state Twitter squad to get you banned.— Caroline O. (@RVAwonk) August 17, 2018
But, um, are you really using your Facebook account to send your twitter followers after me? Also, stop lying. It looks ugly on you. pic.twitter.com/wWPwCX6P0k
And to be clear: I didn't report her or any of her tweets, nor did I ask anyone to. (And lol, I don't run a bot-farm either. Nor am I a secret CIA operative, as I read recently on one forum. Sorry to disappoint).— Caroline O. (@RVAwonk) August 17, 2018
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.
David Gilmour is a reporter who specializes in national politics, internet culture, and technology. He previously covered civil liberties, crime, and politics for Vice.