Although we are almost exclusively concerned with Louisiana news, politics, history, and culture, I have always had one foot still planted in Texas. My immediate family lives in Dallas (the city’s founder, John Neely Bryan, is actually my fifth great grand uncle); I spent my undergraduate years at Rice University in Houston and attended law school at SMU in Dallas. In fact, I’ve lived just as many years of my adult life in Texas as I have in Louisiana.
But what is occurring right now in Texas- the insurgent campaign of Democratic candidate Beto O’Rourke against Ted Cruz- is, arguably, the most consequential election for Louisianians this cycle, assuming, of course, that all of our incumbents in Congress are re-elected as anticipated (though FiveThirtyEight currently projects that Rep. Clay Higgins is likely to face fellow Republican Josh Guillory in a runoff for Louisiana’s Third Congressional District, contradicting the findings of a poll from earlier this week showing Higgins with a much more commanding lead).
And there’s nothing new with Louisiana having a vested interest in our neighbor’s politics. Next week, Beto’s campaign will hold three days of phone banking in New Orleans, and four years ago, The Houston Chronicle endorsed Mary Landrieu’s re-election to the U.S. Senate.
As I’ve said before, countless times, of course Louisiana cares about Texas politics; half of our economy is headquartered there.
This year, the entire country is watching the race between Beto O’Rourke, the dynamic young Congressman from El Paso who shares a name- Robert Frances- and more than a passing resemblance to another U.S. Senator, a man largely known by his initials, RFK.
In the early hours of Thursday, while searching for news about the Texas Senate race on Twitter, I noticed a troubling pattern, and I mentioned it:
As of this writing, my tweet has received 3.6 million impressions and more than 500,000 engagements from people all across the country and the world, making it- easily- the most viral tweet I’ve ever published. (For the first and likely the only time in my life, one of my tweets received more engagement than any of Donald Trump’s tweets that day).
The implication is clear: It defies logic and commonsense that hundreds, perhaps even thousands, of Texas voters decided to share the same exact tweet in the middle of the night.
Many, understandably, came to the same conclusion: 2AM CST is 10AM in Moscow, and considering the outsized role that Russian social media interference played in the 2016 election, it’s worth wondering whether this was a legitimate effort by the Cruz campaign or if they had been compromised.
Only a few hours after I shared this information, the far-right website Twitchy, which was founded by conservative provocateur Michelle Malkin, attempted to preemptively debunk any speculation in its tracks,, labeling me as a conspiracy theorist.
This isn’t the first time I’ve found myself in Twitchy’s cross-eyed crosshairs. Four years ago, in another statewide Texas campaign, the site accused me of being nothing more than an exploited campaign prop for gubernatorial candidate Wendy Davis, following remarks I wrote and delivered at a press conference about her opponent Greg Abbott’s hypocrisy on disability rights. It was an ugly and patronizing attack, bordering on dehumanizing. (For those not familiar, I was born with cerebral palsy, and am imminently qualified to speak on the subject).
The team at Twitchy apparently does not possess any institutional memory, because their article yesterday neglected to mention that they’d actually written about me before. But that’s okay. They had another point to make: Nothing to see here.
So, what, in their opinion, explains the proliferation of identical messages from seemingly random accounts at the same time in the early morning hours?
Well, according to Twitchy, each and every one of those users were simply clicking the same button at the same time on an account set up by the Cruz campaign. Contrary to what others have speculated, this was not a Thunderclap, nor were these tweets pre-scheduled for publication at a certain time.
Here’s the tweet:
And here’s what happens when you click on the “Tweet #IStand” button:
Mystery solved right? No, not at all.
Josh Perry, a thirty year old from New York, was hired by the Cruz campaign to manage their social media, and he attempted to explain what happened:
“There’s really nothing supicious about using the same messaging in the tweets. It’s Twitter’s own conversational cards feature,” he told me. “It’s what they’re designed to do. Each of those tweets, if you’ll click to expand them, has a button to tweet a hashtag with suggested text.”
Sure, there may be nothing suspicious in the messaging of those tweets, and Perry was able to prove, in real-time, that he had the ability to edit that specific tweet.
Perry, aka “the campaign,” asserts that these tweets were all the result of hundreds of Texans, at two in the morning, all deciding to simultaneously hit the same share button at the same time, which, to repeat, defies logic and commonsense.
“As for the timing. If an account with a large number of followers tweets or retweets a tweet with a conversational card in it, it’s really not uncommon to see multiple tweets in quick succession come as a result of it,” he attempted to explain. “Happens throughout all hours of the day.”
Oh yes, the “series of tubes” argument.
Unfortunately for the Perry and the Cruz campaign, it didn’t take much to discover that, in fact, this was not an organic response.
Christopher Bouzy, the creator of Bot Sentinel, a software system designed to “correctly identify propaganda bot/troll accounts with an accuracy of 98%,” conducted an independent forensic analysis of the tweets at issue.
“At first I thought it was a bunch of people just clicking the button like you suggested, until I realized many of the accounts are being tracked (by Bot Sentinel),” he explained to a skeptic.
“Unlike other machine learning tools designed to detect bots, we are not sacrificing accuracy for speed,” Bouzy explains. “We analyze hundreds of Tweets per each Twitter account to determine if an account exhibit irregular tweet activity or engaging in harassment.”
And Bouzy was not the only data expert to verify that a significant number of the accounts that had blasted out Team Cruz’s message were, in fact, not real people.
The long-running joke about Ted Cruz is that he is not a real person, hence the satirical website TedCruzforHumanPresident.com. During the past few months, as he has attempted to catch up with his opponent’s momentum, Cruz has only reinforced that perception: Comparing Beto O’Rourke to “a triple meat Whataburger liberal,” which is a riddle no one has yet to solve; after Kevin Bacon shared a viral video of O’Rourke talking about NFL players who kneel during the National Anthem, he claimed on Twitter that now all Texans could play the Kevin Bacon game, which isn’t how the game works but whatever.
He aired an entire commercial of Beto O’Rourke traveling across the state and dropping a few f-bombs along the way. The ad ends with the line, “Beto shows the f*** up,” which is an undeniable compliment.
My family has several Republican conservative friends in the Dallas area, loyal conservatives, and they are usually reflexively opposed to any Democratic candidate. But they all loved that ad. “I like a man who curses like I do. That’s how we talk in Texas.” Cruz, apparently, was targeting elderly Sunday school teachers.
The point is: Cruz’s social ineptitude is his greatest weakness, yet he has spent much of his campaign unwittingly reminding voters of O’Rourke’s authenticity, as if it’s a vulnerability.
My friend and colleague Nath Pizzolatto sums it up well:
To those who have followed his career, it’s unsurprising that bots are now a part of his key constituency: They speak the same language, after all.