Conservative and Russian media outlets — amplified by sketchy Twitter accounts — are pushing a social media campaign intended to drive Democratic voters away from the party.
A surge of tweets with the hashtag #WalkAway began June 23 after White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders was asked to leave a Virginia restaurant the night before, and the campaign took off after Rep. Maxine Waters (D-CA) called for the public shaming of Trump administration officials, reported the blogger Caroline O. for Medium.
The remarkable similar tweets claimed to be from former Democrats who got fed up with the “hate” and “intolerance” of “the left,” and piggybacked off the “civility” debate going on at the time on opinion pages and cable news shows.
Brandon Straka officially started the “#WalkAway Campaign” in May to encourage Democrats to abandon their party, but the hashtag got an artificial boost into the public sphere by automated Twitter accounts identified as linked to Russian influence operations.
“Once upon a time, I was a liberal,” says Straka, a nearly broke New York hairstylist, in his first video.
The video was initially promoted by Fox News host Charles Payne, Trump superfan Bill Mitchell, Turning Point USA head Charlie Kirk and conservative activist Candace Owens, who helped introduce Kanye West to right-wing politics.
Then, after the civility debate kicked off, something weird happened.
The hashtag became one of the most popular topics among suspected Russian bots, which skewed algorithms to push the campaign into suggested search terms on Google products and other social media, and gained popularity among actual Twitter users.
The Russian media outlets Sputnik and RT featured segments and videos on the campaign starting last week, and Straka did an interview with RT this week.
Straka also appeared Tuesday on Laura Ingraham’s Fox News program, and the campaign got coverage on conservative websites such as Breitbart, The Patriot Post, Epoch Times and Legal Insurrection.
Hashtag clouds also revealed #WalkAway was frequently associated with the bizarre #QAnon conspiracy theory to push the narrative that the Democratic Party was “sick” and corrupt.
The campaign targeted racial division and so-called “identity politics,” and Trump himself amplified the movement’s claims that Democrats wanted to abolish ICE and open U.S. borders to criminals.
The Medium blogger said she’d seen similar overlap between Russian influence campaigns and conservative U.S. media, and she warned that more would be coming as November’s midterm elections approached.
“There is reason to believe that this psychological operation — and to be clear, that’s what this is — represents a trial run for future social media manipulation efforts,” Caroline O. wrote.
She suspects the #WalkAway movement could be intended to map out social networks, test messaging and conduct surveillance to study patterns of behavior.
“If you want to cause chaos or just generally stir up trouble, figuring out how to provoke other users — and determining which users are most receptive to provocation — would be extremely helpful,” she wrote. “This is a great reason to heed the advice, ‘Don’t engage the trolls.'”