If your Twitter feed gets flooded this week with messages urging the confirmation of Supreme Court nominee Neil Gorsuch, don't be surprised. A conservative group that has pioneered new ways of shaping online political debate is taking on the cause.
"We've got a gun, and we're waging digital warfare," said Mark Prasek, a self-described "Christian technologist" from Florida who founded the online group the Patriot Journalist Network in 2012.
His group uses a high level of automation and coordination to pump out thousands of tweets a day, allowing its messages to potentially overwhelm those from opponents. The Patriot Journalist Network, for example, on some days has accounted for two-thirds of all of the tweets related to the Common Core, a nationwide educational initiative disliked by Prasek and some other conservatives, according to a study released Wednesday by the University of Pennsylvania.
The Patriot Journalist Network claims more than 230 members who work together to push issues in line with Prasek's conservative Christian politics, using such hashtags as "#UnbornLivesMatter," "#TeaParty" and "#IStandWithIsrael."
With a combined 2.2 million followers, members of the group can post hundreds of pre-written tweets by clicking a series of on-screen buttons. They can build their own tweets from a "Meme Library" of pre-selected images. Or activists can cross-post to their individual Facebook pages to create what Prasek calls "a 360-degree viral ecosystem." (The group once claimed more than 4,000 members but a recent hack wiped out the membership list, Prasek said.)
The grass-roots group also helps members to automate their accounts so that they can post on a regular schedule, often several times an hour throughout the day and night. And Prasek schedules what he calls "hashtag rallies" to coordinate the posting tweets on particular subjects on select days.
Independent researchers have documented the power of such tactics to amplify the political messages from particular groups or individuals, while noting that conservatives appear to be more aggressive than liberals in using this technology. The most active users of automation technology can tweet hundreds of times a day, while potentially reaching hundreds of thousands of accounts through retweets or other forms of sharing.
The University of Pennsylvania researchers stumbled upon the Patriot Journalist Network during research into the online political conversation on the Common Core. By tracking tweets that mention related hashtags from September 2013 through April 2016, the researchers found the group grew from a minor player to a dominant one on the subject, especially on the days of its "hashtag rallies."
"I think it has huge influence," said Jonathan A. Supovitz, the study's lead researcher and professor at the university's Graduate School of Education. "It's a harbinger, right? This is the future."
In late 2015, the Patriot Journalist Network hashtag rallies produced more than 10,000 tweets on at least two days, amounting to 69 percent of the entire Twitter conversation about the Common Core, according to the new report. The university's research on the Common Core debate was funded in part by the Gates Foundation and the Milken Family Foundation, though the researchers declined to disclose the amounts of the grants.
The report calls the Patriot Journalist Network a Twitter "botnet," a term typically used to describe fully automated accounts linked together by a single leader. "On the surface a rally appears to be an organically inspired, independent democratic conversation; when in fact it is a highly coordinated promotional effort," the reports says. It concluded that Prasek and his group "accomplished what they set out to do" in dominating "the Common Core conversation on Twitter."
But Prasek said his group merely is using high-tech tools to conduct grass-roots organizing and to influence political debate. The Patriot Journalist Network, whose tweets are easy to identify because they carry the "#PJNET" hashtag, is not a political action committee. Rather it is part of a for-profit religious group based in Tallahassee
Prasek said the group, which takes payments from other political groups or individuals to support its work, is organized as a for-profit company to give it freedom to advocate its political views and earns little money beyond the costs of operation. As part a for-profit company, the Patriot Journalist Network sidesteps both political disclosure rules and Internal Revenue Service prohibitions on political activity by churches and charities.