From the governor's race to the bubbling battle for speaker of the Texas House, political campaigns and their staffs increasingly have to fend off social media attacks by unnamed tweeters who can’t be held accountable.
Noam Krig, a 29-year old graduate of Texas State University living in Austin, says he wants his @weRaustin Twitter account — 4,394 followers strong — to grow into “the Craigslist of Twitter in Austin.” Democratic blogger Phillip Martin describes it differently: as “Astroturf,” the slur that inside-baseballers use to describe phony grassroots campaigns generated by self-interested insiders.
Few knew Krig's identity until Sept. 27, when he gave himself up by tweeting from @weRaustin account: “I just gave Drops to Bill White on @SocialSmack!” — and linked to his own profile on the Austin-based business-ranking website socialsmack.com (where, to be clear, “drops” are bad and “props” are good). Though @weRaustin bills itself as a “nonprofit, free publicity & breaking news for the people of Austin Texas and fans,” its content often hocks GOP Gov. Rick Perry and mocks his Democratic opponent, Bill White. An example of Krig’s “breaking news”: “Heard about how not 1 but 2 of Bill White’s dogs were killed in #Houston by wild animals? Once is a sad accident. Twice is animal cruelty.”
In a less-than-surprising twist, Krig was a social media intern for the Perry campaign until August — and he acknowledges he still works the phones when he can. All of which prompts Martin’s dismissals of @weRAustin and similar accounts as canned campaign fodder. From the gubernatorial race to the emerging battle for speaker of the Texas House, political campaigns and their operatives increasingly — and annoyingly, some say — have to deal with social media attacks from anonymous users who can’t be held accountable. In other words, it’s a perfect tool for political operatives who want to push radioactive opinions that could backfire on them — or worse, their bosses. While some suspect much of the Twitter trash talk originates in the campaigns themselves, representatives for the gubernatorial candidates say they are as offended as anyone else.
Perry spokesman Mark Miner denies that the Perry campaign directs any of Krig’s tweeting, anonymous or otherwise. “There are people out there every day who are unscrupulous and will take advantage of the system,” he says. But he does not begrudge any Twitter user for vocally supporting the governor: “That’s the goal of social media: building support,” he says. If a former intern wants to promote the campaign he used to work for, Miner says, “you can’t stop that. It’s free speech.”
And what of another anonymous account, @THE_mark_miner, whose author gets his or her kicks by impersonating the Perry spokesman? Miner shrugs it off: “I’m more worried about what the real Mark Miner says.”
Michael Quinn Sullivan, Twitter enthusiast and president and CEO of the conservative political action committee Empower Texans, terms the anonymous tweeters “haters — or, they are hired guns who want to preserve the ability to work for the person they are attacking.” As the phenomenon has grown, Sullivan has developed a firm policy (if such a thing exists in the Twittersphere) against paying attention to such accounts. “If someone’s not willing to put their name on something, they are worthless, and their opinion is equally worthless,” he says.
Cycle of accusation, denial
Not every political tweeter has such scruples. And the truth of Tweets — much less whether they carry a real byline — seems to have little to do with how far and wide they travel. Just as both gubernatorial campaigns deny using social media to fake grassroots support, they both accuse the other of doing so to spread misinformation.
Katy Bacon, a spokeswoman for White — using Krig and @weRaustin as an example — says of the Perry campaign: “When you drill down, there’s nothing there. That’s true on border security, and it’s true on social media.”
Miner’s example of Democratic bloviating is the Burnt Orange Report blog, which boasts Martin as one of its writers and Matt Glazer, the “G” in Austin-based public relations company GNI Strategies, as its editor. “That’s a good example of abuse of the system,” Miner says. “They are tweeting as a Texas blog and are being paid by Bill White’s campaign.”
Glazer calls the charge “ridiculous,” noting that he does not get paid for his work on Burnt Orange Report and that, while GNI works for a large stable of Democratic candidates and organizations, including the Perry-attacking Back to Basics PAC, it has not received money from the White campaign since he became the nominee. According to the White campaign’s ethics filings, it has paid GNI $3,500 for website support in 2010, but Glazer says his firm merely acted as an intermediary between the campaign and subcontractors that ultimately received that cash.
None of Glazer's work is anonymous, he says. “I sign my name to everything I do,” Glazer says. “It’s pretty well known where I stand, what I’m doing and what I’m supporting.” He says his rare blogs about a client — those incidents of his professional and personal political endeavors colliding — come with a disclaimer. Indeed, at the bottom of a Glazer-authored post about the performance of GNI client and Democratic candidate for lieutenant governor Linda Chavez-Thompson at a conference of liberal bloggers, the relationship is acknowledged: “Linda Chavez-Thompson nor the campaign saw, edited, or had any direct input in this Netroots Nation retrospective.”
While its liberal leanings are strong, Glazer says, Burnt Orange is open to other voices. “If Rick Perry or [Lt. Gov.] David Dewhurst want to come on the Burnt Orange Report and write,” he says, “we’d probably front-page it, because it’s interesting.”
One thing Glazer and Marin are doing is closely monitoring social media use by both campaigns. One conclusion they’ve drawn: when it comes to campaigning, Twitter doesn’t make much of a difference, especially compared with Facebook, which Glazer calls “the hub for all social networking and social media online.” Glazer calls Facebook more of an “honest broker,” because in order to create an anonymous Facebook profile, one “essentially has to violate their terms of service.”
Ultimately, the audience for Twitter, open or anonymous may just be too small. A study released in January found that, in December, only about 17 percent of Twitter accounts were actually used. “Twitter is good for inside baseball; it is not good for moving votes,” Martin says. If someone wants to join that insider discussion, it only takes a few minutes to set up a fake account — all it takes is a working e-mail address. But, ultimately, Martin says, those forces are just “fun fodder for the chattering class.”
Tweeter of the House
While a tool used by an insular group of plugged-in operators may not swing work-a-day voters, insiders are precisely the electorate in the crosshairs in the race to be the next speaker.
Already, before the battle has even begun, anonymous accounts have been created to go after current Speaker Joe Straus, R-San Antonio, as well as state Rep. Warren Chisum, R-Pampa, who has expressed interest in mounting a challenge — they’re called @RINO_Joe and @Chisum4Taxes, respectively. The latter appears affiliated with another anonymous account, @SidelineBomber; they both promote an anonymous blog, sidelinebombthrower.com, which defends the speaker while lashing out at Democrats and Republicans on the far right, referring to the latter as “jihadists.” (Straus, though conservative, won the speaker’s chair on a coalition composed mostly of Democrats, which irritated some on the right.)
Neither office will cop to taking part in a cyber-battle. “The speaker is focused on what matters for Texas,” says Straus spokeswoman Tracy Young, “not games.” Meanwhile, Chisum is one of the many Texans whom Twitter simply does not reach. Neither he nor his office operates a Twitter account, he says.
Krig, for his part, says it’s misguided to compare his @weRaustin account — or its affiliated accounts for Houston, Dallas, San Antonio or El Paso — to such anonymous attack-tweeters. “It was not a big secret,” he says. “When people asked, I said, ‘It’s me.’” The reason Krig didn’t restrict his political views to his personal account, @noamkrig, is a simple one: @weRaustin has approximately 3,000 more followers. “I had that channel that not a lot of people have,” he says. “I could use it. I don’t see anything unusual in what I was doing."
Krig acknowledges that, for some, part of Twitter’s appeal might be its anonymity, though that doesn’t strike him as a new phenomenon. He cites the Federalist Papers, which were authored under the pseudonym “Publius.”
“What can you do?” Krig says. “It’s been done in the old days and will be done in modern times as well. People don’t always want to identify themselves. But that was not the case for me.”
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