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Searching for proof of Amy

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If social media networks like Twitter are the equivalent of roads on which hybrid warfare is conducted, then what is their responsibility? (Courtesy photo)
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There’s a powerhouse advocate of President Donald Trump on Twitter. She doesn’t hold back.

She has 144,000 Twitter followers and tweets about 26 times a day.

Her name is “Amy,” according to her Twitter bio, and she is solidly pro-Trump. She tweets a lot of negative comments about Muslims. And Democrats. She also tweets in support of the NRA and other politically conservative causes. And last year, The New York Times quoted “Amy” in a piece about Trump’s female supporters.

The only problem is, I’m not convinced Amy exists.

As a longtime political strategist, my bullshit detector is on high alert for “astroturfing” or fake grassroots support. I discovered Amy while looking into people with especially loud voices online, mostly on Twitter. I was trying to wrap my head around people like Amy: Are they real? What are their real stories? And why are they ceaselessly tweeting all of this shit?

Amy’s current Twitter bio says she’s a psychotherapist, a relationship counselor and fixer, and she fights for the wrongfully incarcerated — oh, and animals. She is also a vegan. It’s an ideological theme park map of sorts.

I’m sure some vegans like to shoot, but if I imagine a Venn diagram of NRA members and vegans, I feel like the intersection is maybe a sliver.

I searched online for Amy. I burned the midnight oil scouring for proof, but just about all I could find were tweets or links referring to her in Twitter. Roads leading back to tweets. Little else.

I uploaded her profile picture into a Google image search. Maybe it will match a therapist profile on some review site, I thought. You know, every professional has a public presence these days. I only found one match: a Pinterest profile photo that looked similarly blurry.

Then, I searched every state psychology licensing board, from Alabama to Wyoming, and no one with her name turned up. Maybe there’s an innocent explanation, maybe the databases aren’t perfect, maybe she uses her married name, perhaps I am missing something. But I don’t think so. Because I also ran her profile into an algorithm created by data scientists, and the program suspects “Amy” is a bot account, too.

In my recent columns, I’ve addressed the proliferation of fake news and trolling operations, including Russian state-sponsored “troll farms,” where people are paid to impersonate Americans, spread misinformation and sow dissent, both to advance Trump’s agenda and to chip away at the foundation of our democracy. There are people who manage multiple fake accounts, and some accounts programmed to tweet as if they are actual people. Many of them promote alt-right “news” and the latest propaganda aligned with whatever Trump is pushing on any given day (or hour). And they retweet and like each other’s posts so that as much as half of what is out there in the presidential political Twitterverse at any given time could actually be pretend people holding up mirrors to each other.

The results of a study detailed via First Monday in November 2016, USC researchers Alessandro Bessi and Emilio Ferrara concluded that software bots were responsible for 3.8 million tweets about the candidates between Sept. 16, 2016, and Oct. 21, 2016. It’s pretty clear that a lot of these “people” are not real. And it’s not like they all went away after the election.

So why does this matter? Astroturfing is a tactic groups use to create the impression of a groundswell of support. There are a lot of Twitter accounts spreading hate and sowing dissent. No doubt, many are real, but so many are fake. And the fake ones amplify each other’s voices, appearing to look bigger than they are. They cow people who might otherwise speak up against hatred into being bystanders by drowning them out and, sometimes, resorting to harassment and threats.

We don’t live in a land of civil, civic discourse — or even real discourse anymore. What are we going to do about it? If social media networks like Twitter are the equivalent of roads on which hybrid warfare is conducted, then what is their responsibility? How does it balance protecting the targets of this warfare with making a profit? And since Twitter is a business — not a government entity — it can make and enforce restrictions around what types of speech it will allow on their premises. Twitter needs to do more.

Amy, if you are out there, how about tweeting out a selfie with today’s newspaper? I’ll apologize for doubting your existence. I’m just trying to figure out what’s real, but I’m not holding my breath.

Maureen Erwin is a Bay Area political consultant. Most recently she led Sonoma County’s Measure M, which will create the largest GMO-free growing zone in the U.S.

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