The best way to deal with jerks online is to ignore them. But when prominent Tea Partiers on Twitter started being harassed by a group of Internet trolls, they launched a twitter militia and concocted an elaborate conspiracy theory.
Twittergate is the hottest new conspiracy theory out of the conservative blogosphere. Yesterday, Glenn Beck's news site, The Blaze, posted an epic YouTube video which purports to expose a massive conspiracy by Democrats to take over Twitter: "DID DEMOCRATS HIRE A ‘TWITTER-THUG' TO SMEAR THE TEA PARTY?" The Blaze asks.
If you don't feel like watching 13 minutes of scrolling text and Twitter screenshots set, inexplicably, to a pounding soundtrack of Daft Punk and MGMT, the basic outline of Twittergate is this: Democrats have hired a cadre of menacing "E-thugs," led by a progressive social media consultant named Neal Rauhauser. The gang's mission: to identify prominent Tea party Twitter users and harass them, ideally goading them into tweeting offensive things which can then be used to smear the Tea Party.
"Democratic campaign funds are being used to front this," Twittergate's lead theorist, Greg W. Howard, told me over the phone. "Follow the evidence and let it lead you where it may. The links between these people are very clear." Howard is a Christian financial planner and conservative blogger from Alabama who says he's been to Tea Party events but considers himself a Libertarian. With over 14,000 followers on Twitter and 100,000 tweets, he's been described as the "Glenn Beck of Twitter."
Like a conspiracy spun out by Glenn Beck, Twittergate has sparked many sprawling blogposts outlining the conspiracy, and frenzied discussion on conservative message boards and Twitter. "Democrats PAY e-thugs to harass you," tweeted ResistTyranny. Democratic operatives exposed as the thuggish KGB to Obama's Kremlin!
But also like a Glenn Beck conspiracy theory, Twittergate is utter bullshit. Although the truth is almost as ridiculous. Here's what really happened:
The Beandogs versus The Wrecking Crew
It all starts with a Twitter gang known as the Beandogs, a loose-knit group of dozens of Twitter users from all over the world, united only by a love of dick jokes and harassing strangers on Twitter. (The Beandogs get their name from the bean-shaped Japanese cartoon character "Mameshiba," which they use as their Twitter avatars.) "Basically we're a group of likeminded people who think Twitter is a place to kick back and have fun," said Beandog Member Sam Birbeck, a 30-year-old from Adelaide, Australia. (Twitter handle: Methadonna.)
Much of the time Beandogs just tweet dumb jokes at each other. But sometimes they go trolling, i.e. they piss people off for fun. And the Beandogs have found Tea Partiers are excellent targets for harassment because they react with hysterical outrage to their prodding. They feed the trolls.
"We're a bunch of guys on Twitter trying to be funny and vulgar and offensive," said one Beandog member from Florida who goes by the Twitter username TheRealSomebody. "Through that, we came across a lot of conservative people on Twitter. It was very easy to race-bait them and get them to say horribly racist things."
Beandogs targeted Greg W. Howard, the Glenn Beck of Twitter, after Howard spearheaded the takedown of a highly-publicized anti-Glenn Beck account called @murderglennbeck. "The main reason he's been such a consistent target is because he's such a big mouth," said Birbeck.
So, the Beandogs started tweeting vulgar things about Howard's children and wife, spreading rumors about him and generally making his Twitter life miserable. Eventually one of the Beandogs dug up some embarrassing documents that revealed Howard's financial planning business was in shambles, and that he was behind on his child support payments. The Beandogs consider this all a harmless prank.
Howard has taken it much more seriously. "When you threaten to rape my wife and kill my children, that's no prank," he said. "That's criminal behavior." (Some of the more outrageous Beandog tweets could be interpreted as vaguely threatening.) He turned over evidence to the Alabama Bureau of Investigations whom Howard said are looking into the harassment. Howard and his associates then formed their own Twitter gang called the Wrecking Crew to fight back against Beandogs, tweeting stuff at them and exposing their real identities.
The Rahauser Connection
But how did the Beandogs go from anonymous trolls to the Democratic cyberthugs of Twittergate? While Howard lead the Wrecking Crew in battle against the Beandogs, he was simultaneously engaged in an intense ego clash with the left-wing blogger and social media consultant, Neal Rauhauser. It's unclear exactly what their beef is. When I spoke to them on the phone, each offered impassioned arguments for why the other is engaged in a vast left/right-wing conspiracy. And both accused the other of cyberstalking and of having a hand in Internet death threats against them.
What's clear is that at some point Rauhauser noticed that he and the Beandogs shared an enemy in Howard and started encouraging them on Twitter. The Beandogs in turn began pretending that Rauhauser was their leader, intimating that they were being paid by George Soros and generally playing on the Tea Party's paranoia. Both the Beandogs and Rauhauser deny there's any collusion, just mutual admiration between Tea Party tormentors.
But Howard and his Tea Party buddies became convinced they were the targets of a massive Democratic conspiracy to control Twitter. Howard wrote a long blog post outlining his "evidence," and Twittergate was born! The Beandogs, having pranked the Tea Party with spectacular success, aren't actually that thrilled about it. "Now it's not funny anymore that they think we're working for Rauhauser," said TheRealSomebody. "Now I'm not getting credit for being the scumbag on the Internet that I am. Rauhauser is."
As Twittergate shows, the same Tea Party exists on Twitter as in the real world, only magnified absurdly: Blowhards dominate the discourse, race-baiting reigns supreme, conspiracy theories bloom at every coincidence. But in the real world, it's usually the Tea Party doing the trolling.