Donald Trump's meme army doesn't need a lot of bots, but it does need sheep.
As France's presidential debate was about to get started Tuesday, some of Trump's most ardent supporters started flooding Twitter with memes supporting far right candidate Marine Le Pen. It was a powerful show of support. But it took almost no effort from anyone in the mob.
Instead, these Twitter flashmobs are highly organized affairs brokered between international leaders in the far right shitposting community. They leverage several popular online Trump hangouts to amplify nationalist messages in hopes of hijacking a trending Twitter hashtag or getting a specifically nationalist one trending. But there's no magic or secret sauce. The memes are premade, prepackaged, and prevetted. The raids are boring, routine, done all the time.
About 20 minutes before Tuesday's flood started, it was announced on the CentipedeCentral Discord channel, a chat app designed for gamers but popular with the alt-right:
To participate, loyal centipedes downloaded an 80mb zip file containing 159 memes—Pepes with a French flair, antisemitic and Islamophobic nationalist memes, and run-of-the-mill #MAGA fare.
"It's a little turnkey in the sense that you can take the things that are already created and help push it out there," .based, the CentipedeCentral admin who served as the American liaison for the French action, told me in a Discord voice chat. "But that's one of the methods we use for exposure."
For this particular raid, CentipedeCentral was simply providing support for La Taverne des Patriotes, a French Discord server that is "ideologically allied" with the Trump movement. .based describes the action as an enthusiastic but nonetheless diplomatic agreement.
In this case, a person named "Supreme Leader" organized with CentipedeCentral and several other nationalist Discord servers, IRC chats, and Twitter groups.
"I asked [SupremeLeader] for a sneak preview of the content they wanted out there, so i got access to the meme dump folder a day in advance so i could go through and make sure they're legit, that the quality is good enough," .based told me in a Discord voice chat. "We coordinate times and hashtags and drop content in a calculated kind of way. It's a strategy to get that content out there. Catapult it into the mainstream, get it trending and see how much traction we can get with that."
CentipedeCentral is supportive of the LePen movement, but their cooperation is still a transactional one between different sects of an international group of shitposters operating in the larger sphere of meme geopolitics.
During the raid, I worked my way into the La Taverne des Patriotes Discord server using some rudimentary French. Over there, meme organizers in the "Foreign Legion" English language channel were discussing which communities they thought they could get to help out on Twitter and which hashtags would most upset the "normies."
"It has to be worth doing and if it's worth doing it'll have the numbers behind it," .based said. "If we go to them now and help promote their hashtags we have one credit in our bank account—we did a favor for you, we'd like a favor from you."
All of this is to say that there's no magic behind Twitter harassment campaigns, flashmobs, or attempts to make hashtags trend. As BuzzFeed reported earlier Wednesday, you don't need advanced botnets or "Russian trolls" to take over the narrative on Twitter; these are top-down affairs that are run by organized people—often American—with no particular specialized technological prowess or programs. It's groups of people who know each other well, have been shitposting for years, and who have decided to turn their attention toward the political sphere.
"It's pretty ridiculous [to think they're bots]," .based said. "I'll see a tweet i like and i'll see a bunch of people i know who like the tweet and they're all humans. They're shitposters. they do this out of passion they do it out of love. They do it on 4chan, they do it on Reddit, they do it on Discord. It's fun for them."