Much has been written about how Donald Trump was carried to victory in the arms of trolls, whose relentless #MAGA-ing and meme-ing were the dank incantations that finally conjured one Dark Shitlord to rule them all. But while you already knew most of those people were dead inside, perhaps you didn’t realize some of them were actual robots? Or in the case of the popular conservative accounts run by Daniel John Sobieski, the 68-year-old subject of this nightmarish profile in The Washington Post, a half-bot, half-human hybrid who’s one of Twitter’s growing numbers of “cyborgs.” Like RoboCop, Sobieski prowls a corporate-owned sci-fi dystopia, spouting a series of programmed prime directives (and, most likely, eating baby food he shits into a bag). But unlike RoboCop, there’s nothing fun about it.
Sobieski sounds a lot like any other cranky conservative retiree—“a prolific writer of letters to the editor” who also used to send complaints to the local TV stations in Chicago whenever they got too dang liberal. Technology only hastened and amplified that cycle of agitation. Sobieski got his start freelancing his outrage for conservative blogs, then he joined Twitter in 2009 under the name “gerfingerpoken” (a reference too dumb to aggregate here; go read it yourself if you want) so that he could share links to his writing.
Eventually, he figured out a way to splatter his viewpoints across social media without having to even feint toward thinking about them: He currently tweets more than 1,000 times per day by using an auto-scheduler, which pulls from a vast database of pre-written messages and sends them out, over and over again, in repetitive loops all day and night. As with Trump’s most vocal supporters, it doesn’t matter that some of these messages now seem woefully out of date; a meme about Hillary Clinton’s emails sent out today will still pick up retweets and replies from fellow human mimeographs. Collectively, the impressions Sobieski gets on his tweets number in the millions.
While it’s easy to say, whatever, it’s only Twitter, as the Post’s Craig Timberg explains, that also has “spillover effects, helping pro-Trump and anti-Clinton stories to trend online, making them more likely to find their way into Facebook feeds or Google’s list of popular news stories.” Timberg cites a study conducted by Oxford University researcher Samuel Woolley, who found that, among the top 20 most prolific Twitter accounts active during the waning weeks of the election, all of them supported Donald Trump. And among those busy accounts who also used hashtags like “#MAGA,” two of the top three belonged to Sobieski.
“The goal here is not to hack computational systems but to hack free speech and to hack public opinion,” Woolley says of this carpet-bombing approach. And Sobieski, an ordinary man with “eyes so weak that he uses a magnifying glass to see his two computer screens,” has that hacking of the American discourse down to a process he can literally sleep through.
Here’s how that process works for a single tweet, just one of the hundreds Sobieski broadcasts every single day:
For the first new tweet on this day, Sobieski wants to opine on the spiking murder rate in Chicago and the alleged failings of the city’s Democratic Mayor Rahm Emanuel (or, to Sobieski, “Rahmbo”). He navigates to a conservative online magazine for which he occasionally writes, American Thinker, and copies a link to one of his articles about crime.
To reach beyond his own 78,900 followers, Sobieski adds a few more adornments, typing #MAGA to surface the tweet to the president’s supporters online and “.@realDonaldTrump” in hopes of getting the attention of Trump or those who track messages to him. The last six characters are #PJNET, for the Patriot Journalist Network, a coalition of conservative tweeters who amplify their messages through coordination, automation and other online tactics.
Last, Sobieski adds what he calls “the coup de grace,” plucking an image from his ever-growing digital library of illustrations. For this tweet he chooses a photograph of bloodied Iraqi men carrying what appear to be clubs, along with the caption, “BAGHDAD IS SAFER THAN CHICAGO.”
Again, Sobieski’s “cyborg” parts do this for him hundreds of times, all day long. While I was writing this article, in fact, his account crapped out 40 new tweets in just under 30 minutes—all littered with similarly blurry photos of “BARACK HUSSEIN” and Hillary Clinton laughing WHILE OUR TROOPS DIED!!!, many of them railing against immigration and the Middle East (which makes you wonder what Sobieski’s “Lebanese immigrant” wife thinks), and all of them being spun out into Twitter’s vast conservative network, then into the toxic ether of the perpetually angry, forever and ever. As Sobieski laughs, “My accounts will be tweeting long after I’m gone. Maybe in my last will and testament, I should say, ‘Load up my recurring queue.’”
Ha ha! Maybe! Anyway, it’s a fascinating/horrifying look at how our cold, unfeeling cyborg future really begins—not with unstoppable automatons spraying lead in the streets, but with senior citizens regurgitating Benghazi memes. Even Paul Verhoeven couldn’t have imagined that kind of morbid black comedy.