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Anatomy of a Political Twitter Strategy Gone Wrong

BY Nick Judd | Wednesday, July 27 2011

Call it squatting, or parody, or just being a watchdog, but occupying domain names or user names similar to ones used by your opponents has been in the online politics bag o' tricks for years.

On the Internet at large, there's not much anyone can do about it — unless you're the Department of Homeland Security or a big corporation with a copyright claim to take to the U.S. attorney general. On Twitter, private platform as it is, that may not be the case — something a Texan conservative group found out last week, when an anonymous complaint about their tactics kept them off the social media service for several days.

In early July, Daniel Greer, the executive director of conservative watchdog group Agendawise, got wind that an Open Sociey Foundations-backed NPR initiative to fund coverage of state politics was coming to Texas. NPR taking the OSF grant comes with baggage. The foundations were founded by the liberal financier and philanthropist George Soros, and nowhere on the StateImpact website is it disclosed that this journalism initiative is backed by one of the pillars of the American left, a man who has also backed MoveOn.org and devoted millions to an attempt to oust former President George W. Bush in the 2004 elections. For Agendawise, this was a prime target.

"What Daniel did was went to get some Twitter handles to basically follow and kind of comment on the things that they were doing because it's pretty much in our strike zone of what we do," Agendawise's lead writer, Weston Hicks, told me earlier this week. "So he started snatching up Twitter accounts that they might use."

The Texas Tribune — which will have two former reporters on the StateImpact team — reports that Greer acquired @StateImpactME, among others. which were handles that fit the convention StateImpact uses for handles specific to each state in which it operates. Greer was holding the handle StateImpact would have used for Maine, and several others.

In an email from Twitter at around this time, the social media service reprimanded Agendawise for a variety of violations of the "Twitter Rules." The email mentions "aggressive following" — following more than a certain number of users in a day — and mass-creating accounts.

Agendawise's accounts were reinstated, but not for long: Two weeks later, after receiving a complaint, Twitter shut Agendawise's Twitter accounts down again. This time it appears Twitter alleged that an account they controlled, StateImpactCA, was not clearly enough identified as one of theirs and not StateImpact's. Citing privacy policies, Twitter spokespeople refused to explain to reporters why this had happened. The conservative group says it didn't hear anything from Twitter for days.

"It was radio silence for three days," Hicks told me. "I mean, nobody knew what was going on, if we were going to get our handles back."

This time, though, the social media service appears to have closed all the accounts being accessed from Agendawise's IP address — which includes four members of the organization Empower Texans, a conservative policy research group where Greer used to work. Empower Texans' executive director, Andrew Kerr, told me last week that he shares office space and an Internet connection with Agendawise.

It's at about this time that the conservative blogosphere went nuts.

"I have long considered Empower Texans to be the most important and effective state level conservative grassroots organization in the country," RedState's Erick Erickson wrote in a post titled "Twitter Kills the Most Important State Level Conservative Group in the Country". "These people are not just respected in Texas; they are feared. It is an awesome thing to behold."

He went on to imply that this may be part of some sort of conspiracy and Empower Texans is its target: "If this was an orchestrated effort on the part of others to flag Empower Texans as a spam account such that Twitter’s computer system would automatically can it, Twitter has a serious security problem."

The Drudge Report then linked to an item about the dust-up, fanning the flames.

What really happened? Twitter spokespeople refuse to confirm details, but Empower Texans and all of its employees seem to have been caught in a net cast for Agendawise, which was apparently procuring and using Twitter accounts in bulk as part of its advocacy efforts.

One moment last week, Kerr was tweeting about ESPN and his craving for Chick-fil-A. The next, his account — and every other account associated with Empower Texans — was shut down.

At around the time the Drudge Report headline went up, access to the accounts were restored, Agendawise explains in a blog post. Along with restored service came a terse update from Twitter.

"All I heard from them was sorry for the inconvenience, here are your accounts back," Kerr says.

In the email reinstating the accounts a second time, Twitter asks Agendawise to clean up its act so that nobody will confuse an Agendawise account with one that belongs to another group — like StateImpact.

Hicks insists that Agendawise wasn't sitting on those Twitter handles just to keep StateImpact from using them, but his colleague Greer admits he's got a history of calling dibs on the online namespace of others. He told the Texas Tribune that he owns TheTexasTribune.org, which he has used to post missives attacking the online news organization — an entity that has also accepted funding from the Open Society Foundations in the past. And Agendawise promises to keep tabs on StateImpact, although it's not yet clear if they'll do that through a scad of Twitter profiles.

This kind of namespace-disruption is practiced by adherents to every ideology in American politics. Whitehouse.org, now blank, was once a satire project. Koch-Inc.com once claimed that Koch Industries, the massive corporation of the politically active conservative brothers Charles and David Koch, was supporting environmental causes. The same editor of an alt-weekly in upstate New York pretended to be David Koch in able to get an interview with Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker and created JaneCorwin.com, a site that lampooned the Republican congressional candidate Jane Corwin. And after left-leaning pranksters started using the GOP.am URL shortener to put the Republican seal over everything from pornography to the Communist Party USA's webpage, the guy who created it started finding those redirects and sending them other places entirely — like petitions to revoke the Obama health care reforms.

There's a larger conversation going on out there right now about the efforts of private corporations, who are increasingly becoming owners of online public spaces, to nudge people towards the expectation that on the Internet, all of their handles and aliases must be connected to a single identity: Their own. Matthew Ingram suggested recently that by taking that position for Google +, Google is depriving itself of conversation that can only be had by people who have taken steps to obscure their identity — whistleblowers, conscientious objectors, and other anonymous sources of the type that add a mix of honest context and spin to political discourse in newspapers and on cable TV.

Twitter doesn't take that tack, but does draw a bright line around impersonating others. A Sarah Palin-ish account is not cricket, but @FakeSarahPalin is just fine. An account pretending to be Mayor Rahm Emanuel wouldn't fly, but since Dan Sinker made @MayorEmanuel as an obvious work of fiction — there's a duck named Quaxelrod and talk of alternate dimensions, I mean, come on — Twitter allowed it. Does being so aggressive about spoofery deprive the medium of a merry pranksterism that is clearly ubiquitous on the Internet at large? Does it just make the place a safer one for discourse of all kinds? The answer probably depends on your outlook on anonymity and anarchy — and, let's be honest, also on who turns out to be the target this week.

This post has been updated.