A right-wing social media influencer known as “Catturd'' has openly coordinated platform manipulation by repeatedly calling for followers to make particular hashtags or topics trend on Twitter -- using these online campaigns to target a specific member of Congress, boost foreign disinformation about President Joe Biden, and undermine the credibility of public health officials like Dr. Anthony Fauci.
Media Matters found 57 calls from Catturd to trend at least 43 unique hashtags since 2019. The anonymous account was created in September 2018 and rose to prominence when then-President Donald Trump retweeted it multiple times after the 2020 presidential election. At first, the account’s hashtag campaigns were infrequent, but they sharply increased September 2020 onward. Catturd has recently been orchestrating multiple campaigns per week.
In a number of instances, hashtags or topics promoted by Catturd have subsequently trended on Twitter. The narratives have been picked up by right-wing media and may have influenced public opinion and legacy media reporting. Moreover, the way Catturd is boosting hashtags and coordinating activity may violate Twitter policies around platform manipulation, which prohibit attempts to “mislead others and/or disrupt their experience by engaging in bulk, aggressive, or deceptive activity.”
Catturd has a familiar pattern of behavior: trending hashtags
Media Matters found this account has taken credit at least 36 times for 17 unique hashtags after either specifically calling on Twitter users to “trend” a hashtag or tweeting without comment aside from the hashtag. This pattern of behavior clearly shows the user understands the effect they have on Twitter trends.
A hashtag trend that was driven by, and possibly originated with, Catturd was #EmptyShelvesJoe, which started on October 14. The hashtag refers to an inaccurate claim that Biden is responsible for the current supply chain shortages.
Many reports about these shortages were exaggerated and unfairly ascribed to Biden. Additionally, intermittent supply chain shortages have been a reality during the pandemic with temporary shortages dating back to March 2020. The National Federation of Independent Business surveyed small business owners in September 2020 showing that half of the respondents reported their businesses had suffered significantly because of supply chain shortages.
Notably, foreign state-controlled outlet Sputnik was one of the first outlets to publish a story and tweet about the hashtag. RT, another Russian state-controlled media outlet, also posted on Twitter with the hashtag. Conservative figures and media outlets also jumped on board. The reach of this hashtag campaign shows the impact of such misinformation narratives and the role that accounts like Catturd play in promoting them.
Hashtags: “FauciLiedDogsDied” and “ArrestFauci”
In late October, explosive claims about Fauci funding puppy torture circulated on social media, provoking a cycle of false headlines in right-wing media. Media Matters reported on the false claims:
Right-wing media, conspiracy theorists, and foreign state-affiliated outlets portrayed Dr. Anthony Fauci as a maniacal “puppy” killer due to a series of experiments conducted in Tunisia. In reality, the evidence suggests that the story likely came from activists who wrongly attributed a study listed as an NIH-funded study to the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, which Fauci leads. The National Institute of Health, of which NIAID is a part, also denied funding it, and the study authors later corrected their funding statement.
Francis Collins, director of the National Institutes of Health and Fauci’s boss, lamented that “we have decided that those figures who are highly visible, who are saying things we don’t like, have to be taken down.” Here, Collins effectively describes what Catturd's campaigns are doing -- intentionally or not -- as a tactic of modern authoritarianism attempting “to silence, obscure, or discredit criticisms," and to neutralize problematic truth-tellers in ways that avoid sanctions.
An analysis of Catturd’s tweets shows the account has grown increasingly fixated with Fauci and has played a role in getting false narratives about Fauci being a proponent of puppy torture trending. According to a Media Matters analysis, Catturd mentioned “Fauci” in 255 tweets starting in March 2020.
Catturd recently promoted two Fauci-related hashtags and claimed credit for getting them to trend. One of these hashtags was first tweeted by Jack Posobiec, a far-right influencer and "Pizzagate" conspiracy theorist. These hashtags promoted the same misinformation that led to Fauci’s office receiving 3,600 calls in 36 hours -- many of which contained violent threats.
About an hour later, Catturd2 tweeted:
By 9:31 a.m. EST, Catturd posted that “they” (likely referring to Twitter) had removed “the real trend which was #ArrestFauci and now it just reads ‘Fauci.’” Roughly three hours later, Catturd again asserted that the hashtag #ArrestFauci “was immediately removed and replaced with just - ‘Fauci.’” The account provided a screenshot as evidence #ArrestFauci reached number one on the platform’s list of trending topics.
Later that night, Catturd expressed displeasure with “Big Tech” for supposedly removing and downgrading the trend, writing, “Stop censoring us.”
A minute after his first tweet, Posobiec tweeted the hashtag again and asked his followers to “trend it.” Catturd responded by quote-tweeting Posobiec and saying, “Let’s do it.”
Hashtags: “AlexandriaOcasioSmollett” and “AOCLied”
In the wake of the January 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) shared her experience of being uncertain during the attack whether she would survive it. As Reuters reported, many social media users responded by making false claims regarding Ocasio-Cortez and the Capitol attack:
In an Instagram Live broadcast on February 1, Democratic congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, popularly known as AOC, described her experience during the storming of the U.S. Capitol on January 6. Some social media users pointed out that the congresswoman’s office is located in a building near the Capitol that was not breached during the insurrection and suggested she had lied about her whereabouts on January 6 or that she said rioters stormed her office.
These claims are false: in the video, Ocasio-Cortez said she was in her office near the Capitol and that she feared for her life prior to discovering it was a Capitol police officer who had banged on her office door.
Although Ocasio-Cortez feared for her life and shared accurate details, she faced a targeted harassment campaign that included trending hashtags that either implied she was lying or made false claims about her testimony. Some of the first hashtags that appear compared Ocasio-Cortez to Jussie Smollett, an actor currently facing a trial for falsely reporting he was a victim of a hate crime.
Between February 2 (the day after Ocasio-Cortez shared her experience) and February 6, Catturd tweeted about Ocasio-Cortez at least 15 times -- promoting a number of attacks and inaccurate narratives about her experience.
Almost two hours later, the account remarked that the hashtag it had created was the “#1” trending topic on the platform.
Catturd continued tweeting that evening, downplaying Ocasio-Cortez’s experience and writing, “AOC wasn’t even in the Capitol building on January 6th - yet she acts like she did three tours in Vietnam. What a phony.”
The following morning on February 4, Catturd resumed tweeting about her, writing, “Good morning to everyone - did AOC tell anymore massive lies while I was sleeping last night?”
That afternoon, the account accused Ocasio-Cortez of “furiously tweeting” to try to “cover up getting caught red-handed in a huge lie. It’s hysterical."
Catturd played a big role in getting hashtags attacking Ocasio-Cortez to trend, thereby promoting a larger harassment campaign against her. The Media Manipulation Casebook studied the development of these attacks on Ocasio-Cortez in a report titled “Networked Harassment: How a hashtag campaign targeted AOC in the wake of the January 6 Capitol riots.” According to this report, the incident now serves as a textbook example of how targeted harassment campaigns operate online.
Catturd is likely violating Twitter’s platform manipulation policy -- and Twitter should take action
Taken together, these hashtag campaigns are evidence that Catturd is attempting platform manipulation of Twitter's trending feature in order to advance false claims and right-wing misinformation. Platform manipulation may sound like a term discussing activities of automated accounts. But automation isn't an essential factor in determining whether inauthentic activity is taking place, and manipulation could take place without automation. Therefore, the question of an account violating Twitter’s rules about platform manipulation is tied to whether that user is engaging in coordinated activity that would manipulate the flow of information through behaviors like mass retweeting, replying, or reporting.
Twitter prohibits accounts from using the platform “to mislead others and/or disrupt their experience by engaging in bulk, aggressive, or deceptive activity” and claims violations of this sort are “not limited to … spam, malicious automation, and fake accounts.”
Twitter policies that Catturd's tactics appear to violate include the following:
- Twitter expressly prohibits users from “using a trending or popular hashtag with an intent to subvert or manipulate a conversation.”
- Twitter expressly prohibits platform manipulation: “You may not use Twitter’s services in a manner intended to artificially amplify or suppress information or engage in behavior that manipulates or disrupts people’s experience on Twitter.”
- On targeted harassment, Twitter states: “You may not engage in the targeted harassment of someone, or incite other people to do so. This includes wishing or hoping that someone experiences physical harm.” Twitter expands on what it considers abusive behavior: “We consider abusive behavior an attempt to harass, intimidate, or silence someone else’s voice.”
- The platform also claims: “We prohibit behavior that encourages others to harass or target specific individuals or groups with abusive behavior. This includes, but is not limited to; calls to target people with abuse or harassment online.”
Twitter’s policy is crafted to focus on the impact of user behavior and avoids common stumbling blocks like a preoccupation with whether the activity is automated. But Catturd has repeatedly utilized Twitter to spread misinformation and harassment. It is now time for Twitter to put its policy into action.