On August 21 at 4:42 p.m. local time, Eleven Films, the movie studio that James and Tiffany Dugger run from the family room of their 1,400-square-foot house in Portland, Oregon, tweeted out its latest ad: “The #BlueWave2020 Trailer.” The two-minute-and-19-second spot features clips of Michelle Obama, Elizabeth Warren, and John Lewis; food lines; Black Lives Matter protests; Marines raising the flag over Iwo Jima; first responders raising the flag over Ground Zero; an astronaut jumping on the moon. It was not actually a trailer—“We just make them look like trailers,” James Dugger said. “We’re always asked, ‘When is the movie coming out?’ And we always say, ‘You’re living the movie.’” It was meant to inspire, to rally the troops in advance of the final stretch of a long and tortuous campaign.

Before making viral videos full-time, James was a kombucha rep and Tiffany was a massage therapist. They were also progressives, and, in 2013, they created Eleven Films. In the beginning they made movies about the Portland protests. Then two weeks before Election Day 2018, they released “The #BlueWave2018 Trailer.” It blew up, and suddenly the entire Democratic Party was watching. A few months later the Duggers quit their jobs and became full-time filmmakers. 

They expected the “#BlueWave2020 Trailer” to rack up 5 million views. Eleven Films had released a slew of videos in 2020 with millions of impressions, including “Midnight in Washington,” which trended number one on Twitter and has been seen more than 22 million times. Its Twitter account has amassed more than 100,000 followers, including influencers like Debra Messing, Mark Ruffalo, and George Takei. But this time around, something was up. 

The ad had been retweeted about 50,000 times, but the hashtag BlueWave2020 wasn’t trending, and the view count was off by a few million. “Then you start seeing the dreaded sensitivity label,” James Dugger said. Which was odd. The “#BlueWave2020 Trailer” isn’t violent or lewd. 

The Duggers soon discovered that Eleven Films wasn’t alone. Other filmmakers who had produced anti-Trump ads—including those from Really American, MeidasTouch, the Democratic Coalition, and the writer-activist Don Winslow—say they’ve also seen their clips slapped with sensitivity labels, leading to a 50% to 75% drop-off in eyeballs, social media strategists estimate. (Twitter users must change their settings to view sensitive content, and few bother to do so.) Brett Meiselas, one of the three Meiselas brothers behind MeidasTouch, said videos tagged “sensitive” generally top off at 1 million views, as opposed to the usual 3 million to 5 million. Grant Stern, a senior adviser at the Democratic Coalition, said movie impressions had dropped from 9 million to 4 million from August to September. 

The so-called suppressions, said Alan Rosenblatt, a social media strategist and partner at Unfiltered Media, are “huge.” He explained: “If this is the kind of content that is shaping the conversation, then it creates a more fertile environment for the campaign that they’re advocating on behalf of to gain an advantage. Right now we’re in the middle of it. Many states have already started voting, so it’s a big deal.” 

The likeliest explanation for the suppressions involves an army of online Trump supporters—a mix of humans and bots, said Tudor Mihailescu, the CEO of SpeechifAI Inc., in Amsterdam. (SpeechifAI, which uses A.I. to generate social media content, works for DemCast, a progressive media group that’s also in Portland.) 

“Someone (human) is monitoring the content that is being shared on Twitter and identifying content they want to target,” Rosenblatt said in an email. The moment one of the filmmakers—who have been targeted, Democrats believe, because they’re making viral content—publishes a video, these monitors are believed to spread the word through a network of Twitter direct-message, or DM, rooms. (The DM rooms are invite-only and limited to 50 members. Many Trump supporters belong to as many as 20 DM rooms.) Then hordes of Trump supporters report the video to Twitter, citing a violation of Twitter’s terms of use. And that, Rosenblatt said, is thought to trigger the sensitivity label. 

It’s nearly impossible to say who the monitors are, but many of Trump’s most fervent Twitter supporters, including those in the DM rooms, share certain similarities: They’re anonymous; their handles include hashtags like #MAGA, #KAG, and #BackTheBlue; they’re militantly pro-Trump; and they follow and are followed by roughly the same number of people. “It’s part of the little etiquette thing,” said Jim Spangler, a 49-year-old, Georgia-based Trump supporter who goes by indrid cold on Twitter, where he has just over 2,200 followers. (Spangler said he used to have another account with a following of close to 27,000, but he said it was suspended after he tweeted that the person who shot and killed a man affiliated with a right-wing group in Portland should be electrocuted.) “If somebody follows you, you follow them back, and if you don’t, they get pissed at you.”

Also, they’re mostly, if not entirely, human. “The bots following Trump are amplifiers, not identifiers,” Rosenblatt said. (Seventy percent of Trump’s 87 million followers, or 61 million, are bots, according to the market research tool SparkToro.) 

Reporting content en masse to limit its reach is thought to have been pioneered by Todd Kincannon, a former head of the South Carolina GOP. In 2011 or 2012, he formed the Twitter Gulag Defense Network and launched #TGDN, which liked to portray itself as defending conservatives from being suspended by Jack Dorsey’s progressive overlords. In fact, #TGDN often trolled progressive influencers until those influencers lashed out, violating Twitter’s terms of use. Then #TGDN followers would report the influencer to Twitter, triggering a suspension of the influencer’s account. It could take days for the account to be reinstated. (Kincannon has a checkered history. In 2015, he was charged with domestic violence and threatened to kill himself, his wife, and their family, according to a police report. In 2018, he was arrested for killing his parents’ dog, a beagle and cattle dog mix, with his own hands. He told police he was “the second coming of Christ.”)

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