How bots and dead accounts helped drive one Ma’Khia Bryant narrative
Christopher Bouzy of Bot Sentinel traced more than 60 inauthentic accounts that helped fuel a negative conversation on Twitter in the days after Columbus police shot and killed the Black teenager
The day after Columbus police released limited body camera footage of officer Nicholas Reardon shooting and killing 16-year-old Ma’Khia Bryant, a Twitter account created in December 2015 under the name of Philip Rines (@RinesPhilip) reactivated, posting to the social media platform for the first time since August 2017.
In the initial message, made in reply to the ACLU, which posted a tweet mourning Bryant’s death, the reborn account wrote, “You don’t even mention that she was about to stab someone.”
Over the next two days, @RinesPhilip would tweet more than 20 negative messages about Bryant, replying to a post from NBA star and Ohio native LeBron James and commenting in multiple threads to defend use of force by police, to share a still frame taken from the body cam footage in which Bryant can be seen wielding a knife, and to repeatedly label the Black teenager an “attempted murderer.”
The account was one of at least 60 inauthentic accounts, a number that could include perhaps dozens more, identified by Christopher Bouzy of Bot Sentinel, a nonpartisan application launched in 2018 to track and catalog harmful Twitter accounts, including bots, toxic trolls and those controlled by organized groups actively working to shape and manipulate the public discourse.
“Twitter is very segmented, so if you’re into something, you kind of stay in that [realm], whether it’s sports, politics, whatever,” said Bouzy, who posted several examples of these inauthentic accounts that circled the Bryant case via his own Twitter account in the days following the teenager's death. “So, depending on the segment, it could take only a few accounts to really manipulate a conversation.”
While there are myriad variables in play, including the number of accounts posting about a given subject at a particular time, Bouzy said that anywhere from a few dozen to several hundred accounts could have an outsized impact on how people on the platform perceive a particular event. In the case of Bryant, for example, Bouzy noticed multiple accounts spamming the image of the teenager holding a knife.
“And that image was shared hundreds of times, where someone would reply [to a tweet] and say, ‘Well, you know, she was a young girl. She was protecting herself.’ ‘Oh, was she really?’ And then that person would tweet the image, and then tweet it over and over and over again,” Bouzy said.
Whitney Phillips, assistant professor of communication and rhetorical studies at Syracuse University and co-author of You Are Here: A Field Guide for Navigating Polluted Information, said that while this phenomenon is not restricted solely to Twitter, it can be more pronounced on the platform, describing the information ecosystem in general as one “driven by the attention economy.”
“And the attention economy is turbocharged by recommendation algorithms. Rather than creating a fully inclusive media landscape where all voices carry equally, these dynamics favor certain kinds of voices, and make manipulation extremely easy for those looking to hijack public discourse,” Phillips said. “If you can piggyback on a tragedy, or something that's likely to generate a strong response, network dynamics do what they were specifically designed to do. They push that information ‘up the chain,’ so that more and more people see it, react to it and spread the messages even further. It's not a sophisticated system, and is very easy to hack. That has been an absolute boon for racists and opportunists who don't need to have broad influence themselves to end up exerting significant influence on public discourse.”
There are real-world implications to these digital conversations, too, with Phillips saying that “false and harmful online conversations are like pollution in the natural environment.”
“Once it's there, you can't easily filter it out, and it can end up having all kinds of downstream consequences by refocusing people's attention and generally muddying the waters of a debate,” she continued. “It can take a story about this and turn it into a story about that.”
Bouzy said the tactic can further impact the public discourse by softening the soil for regular users, who might feel more comfortable expressing negative opinions when supported or egged on by these inauthentic accounts. In analyzing more than 10,000 tweets posted about Bryant, which Bouzy identified using keywords, he said he discovered that more than 90 percent of the messages related to the teenager were negative.
“The number of negative beats just overwhelmed the positive,” said Bouzy, who described “positive” messages as ones in which a user would describe Bryant as a loving person or someone who liked to share beauty tips, or even users who simply noted that she didn’t have to die. “I think what happened is that when [police killed Bryant] these accounts came to life and they dominated, and when someone would say something positive you would have three, four, five accounts respond back: ‘What are you looking at? Did you watch the video?’ So the positive voices are overwhelmed, which is something we see all of the time.”
Bouzy said he couldn’t trace the specific origins of these negative actors, or pin it to a particular campaign, though he believed that the police killing of Bryant likely received extra attention within the social media realm because it occurred almost simultaneously with the guilty verdict levied against Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin in the murder of George Floyd, giving those angry about the verdict another place to direct their frustrations.
Phillips echoed some of these points, noting that the issue of police violence was already being hotly debated on social media amid the Chauvin trial, in addition to the Daunte Wright case and countless others.
“This meant, very basically, that more people were actively looking to social media for information,” Phillips said. “For many, the fact that this apparent moment of justice — ‘see, the system worked’ — corresponded with Ma'Khia Bryant's death became a kind of counterpoint, or at least counterbalance, emphasizing that, no, the system hasn't changed; we didn't solve any of the underlying problems. But others shared and reacted for different reasons entirely, including efforts to further strip Bryant's humanity away from her, or otherwise deflect from what her case tells us about policing in the U.S., which is that the system is itself a source of violence and injustice.”
While Phillips said that she generally avoids making blanket statements about people’s motivations online, which can take all kinds of forms and aren’t always verifiable, she said that in the case of Bryant, where manipulators and racists appeared to be more clearly weaponizing a child’s death, that “there's only one goal, and that's to spread their version of the story as widely as possible; to hijack the conversation so that people aren't talking about structural injustice, but some other deflection that further dehumanizes the victim.”
Dr. Marya T. Mtshali, Lecturer in Studies of Women, Gender and Sexuality at Harvard University and postdoctoral research fellow at Harvard Kennedy School, said that the devaluation of Black girls and women on display in the case of Bryant can be traced in part to the intersection of racism and sexism, as well as to the ways Black female life has been devalued in America, even within movements such as Black lives matter, which has galvanized around the deaths of Black men such as George Floyd and Ahmaud Arbery in a way that it hasn’t around Black women such as Keyarika Diggles and Mya Hall.
Mtshali also traced this fracture to a society in which Black children are portrayed as adults far earlier in life than white children. Witness the message posted to Twitter by Mayor Andrew Ginther in the aftermath of the Bryant shooting in which he opted to describe the teenage girl as “a young woman.”
“Black girls and women are constructed in our society as violent, aggressive and more masculine than girls and women of other races. Additionally, research shows that Black children are viewed as adults earlier in life than white children, and this is reflected in a belief that they should be held accountable and responsible in the same way that adults are,” Mtshali said. “We have seen this reflected not only in Mayor Ginther’s comment, but also in school punishments and court sentencing for Black children where they are treated more harshly than white children. … Bryant’s actions are being viewed by some as not of a young girl who is scared and potentially making poor decisions as a result, but as a violent adult who was being held accountable by police for her actions.”
Mtshali contrasted this treatment, in which Bryant’s death has been framed as inevitable or justified, with the way law enforcement and government officials have engaged in humanizing discourse related to white men who have committed violent acts, including Robert Aaron Long and Kyle Rittenhouse. “Even when white men are intentionally committing violent crimes, they are still more likely to be given the benefit of the doubt,” she said.
Over the last week-plus, this reality has played out on social media platforms such as Twitter, the conversation buoyed and occasionally encouraged by inauthentic accounts, its direction steered in ways that even many of those participating might not have been aware.
“[Bryant’s] death allowed all kinds of people to weigh in,” Phillips said, “and unfortunately that has meant that her death, and her life, have also become weaponized.”