A look at the follow-for-follow networks that are a staple in pro-Trump Twitter.
If you are somehow unfamiliar with Trump Trains on Twitter, they are tweets that contain nothing but a list of user names, some emojis and usually a meme or a gif. It’s a social media growth hack that’s been around for awhile (think #FF Follow Fridays) but has been enthusiastically adopted by pro-Trump Twitter users since the 2016 elections. They typically look something like this:
Each tweet is referred to as a “train car” and sometimes the train cars have numbers. Users included in each train car tweet are called “riders” and there are “conductors” that organize each train and dedicate a great deal of their time on Twitter to this activity.
To an outsider, these tweets probably seem spammy and strange but they are very popular on the right and I’ve been curious about how they work (and if they work) for awhile.
So I downloaded tweets for several of the trains in pro-Trump Twitter networks. I found a few fake accounts, but the TLDR for this post which I want to stress is important to understand these networks: there are real people running and riding on Trump trains. They are aware of fake accounts and marketers trying to hijack their communities and some are actively trying to vet the trains for fakery.
Train people are devoted activists who dedicate a lot of time and effort to community building on the right — and there is nothing like it on the left.
First some fakery: A group of 6 accounts was recently brought to my attention as suspicious. They’re using photos of beautiful women to promote pro-Trump content and all use the hashtag #SistersByTrump. They’re also actively participating in trains. Together the “sisters” have 358K followers.
2 of the accounts in this group of “sisters”, AngelOfMAGA_ and MarietMaga, are using profile photos that were stolen from the Instagram account of a Colombian Instagram influencer named Valeria Ortiz Acevedo (valevaleortiz).
Whoever is running these accounts regularly lifts photos from Valeria’s Instagram, adds some text with their respective screen names and #MAGA hashtags or “Always IFB (I follow back) All Patriots” and tweets them at other train people to thank them for including the sisters in their trains.
They retweet other trains, they retweet each others tweets and they seem to have integrated into the train networks despite the fact that 2 of the accounts are using photos of the exact same woman and her name is not Sophia or Marie.
I tried to contact Valeria for this blog but have not heard back yet. It’s really hard to get in touch with Instagram influencers! I’ll update here if she ever replies to me but I am fairly certain she has not given permission for anyone to use or modify her photos in politically motivated communities on Twitter.
I was curious how the #SistersByTrump hashtag was linked to other train networks. So I downloaded between 1,000 to 2,000 tweets for 7 different trains and made graphs to see what they look like.
Below is the user-to-user network for 7 trains and #SistersByTrump. It contains 3,694 accounts (nodes) and a whopping 70,364 edges. The high number of edges is caused by the typical format of train tweets which always include a list of user names in every tweet. The handles in the graph below are all “riders” plus a few “conductors” and there are 21 communities or clusters, although 6 clusters are most prominent. Because they are all different trains but they’re participating in the same activity, each of the trains is interwoven with other trains, which is probably normal in networks like this.
The graph above includes #GinaXpress, #BobsPatriotExpress, #PatriotExpress, #MAGAROLLERCOASTER, #TwilightExpress, #PatriotTrain, #VoterExpress and in the bottom right quadrant (light blue) are the #SistersByTrump.
The full network is dense and deeply inter-connected — again due to the format of train tweets which include a group of users and get retweeted and replied to by other train participants. But when I filtered out the noise, I found a clear difference between the “sisters” cluster and the others.
The other trains I looked at all have one central account (the conductor) but the “sisters” are participating in the trains as a cohesive unit. Due to the format of the sisters’ tweets, which often mention all 6 accounts, their cluster contains a pattern that is not present in the other train networks.
High volume retweet hubs
On the surface it’s difficult to makes sense of the topology of these networks due to the high level of activity but using gephi I can filter out the noise on the surface and look at the underlying layers. The below graph is filtered by degree 300 — nodes with 300 edges or less have been removed. The network that remains contains 65 accounts. Some of the remaining 65 accounts are conductors, some are accounts that are mentioned often in trains — regular riders (more on them in the next section). These are all nodes that would logically have a high degree given the way they are using Twitter, so it’s normal that their nodes will remain prominent in the filtered graph.
But something else emerges in the filtered graphs: high volume retweet accounts. The way these high volume accounts are behaving causes the formation of hubs. I talked about hubs in my #QAnon analysis, they are a naturally occurring phenomenon in scale-free networks. The nodes of the retweet hubs are not prominent and they are hidden beneath a large amount of activity but because they are highly connected to so many accounts they act as distribution hubs. The retweet hubs also connect the trains.
In the following graph, I removed the labels and highlighted the retweet hubs. These accounts are retweeting hundreds of times per day. They retweet a lot of train tweets and in the dataset I looked at, they are retweeting tweets from multiple trains.
Here’s a closeup view of the cluster of 4 retweet hubs in the center left of the above graph. Roller501 averages 213 tweets per day, Amplifier2Rf averages 220 tweets per day, wbbroome averages 266 tweets per day and bilubai2 averages 303 tweets per day.
Some of these high volume accounts also retweet trains from other countries, and other trains that are not even political in nature. bilubai2 retweeted a pro-Bolsonaro train from Brazil and VivekGhosal, who is averaging 572 tweets per day, retweets all kinds of trains like #TeamStallion or #TeamDollNature which appear to be general follow-back networks.
Here are a few of the high volume retweet hubs that are retweeting Trump trains. Some of these are exclusively MAGA accounts, but they may not be directly connected to the trains. The conductors and train riders may not even be aware these accounts are present in their networks and they have little control over which accounts are retweeting their train tweets.
Community building of human networks
As I said in the beginning of this blog, there are real people participating in trains. I talked with one man who actively participates in trains to find out more about how they work and what it’s like inside this universe. Dale (Dbargen) told me he’s in his 60’s and lives in eastern USA. He’s been on Twitter for 10 years and often tweets helpful tips for his followers, train riders and conductors. Dale told me he didn’t get actively involved immediately with Trump trains since his early experience with the #FF networks was not a positive one. “I rather expected the TrumpTrains to fare no better. But the conservative conductors did very well on vetting riders and it has blossomed.”
One of my main questions: Do trains work? Do they actually help grow your following? Dale told me, “Yes they definitely work. Growth has exploded for conservatives in past couple years.” That certainly seems to be the case, so many MAGA accounts have tens of thousands of followers — and many of them are also following tens of thousands of accounts.
He also thinks there are very few real bots involved and that conservatives are “so well organized and efficient that liberals like to call them bots since they themselves are not as efficient and organized.”
Dale told me, “the real bots are scammers and marketers that run many accounts on a profit basis. They have ‘feeds’ that are computer generated. Twitter and liberals are not so concerned about those.” (He’s not wrong.)
Dale also sends a ton of information to accounts that follow him. He provides a lot of support to people who are new to Twitter. He sent me a long list of tips for Trump train conductors and riders, I copy-pasted below some of the information in the next section of this blog.
Although he said not all conductors are the same, one thing that stood out is his suggestion to add new, smaller accounts to the top of each train tweet and put the “regular riders” towards the bottom, so that smaller accounts who need more followers will be easily noticed. There are some accounts that are included frequently on trains — they are “regular riders” but Dale recommends to only include a minority of regular riders on trains so there’s more room for riders who need more followers.
As you’ll see there are a lot of details and I got the sense that he spends a great deal of time and effort doing this and genuinely wants to support the MAGA community and help it grow. I also learned a lot about Trump trains. (Thank you Dale!)
🚂 SUGGESTIONS FOR TRUMPTRAIN CONDUCTORS — by @Dbargen
🔥 To increase visibility and RTs, send the train via DM to each rider. This circumvents the ‘tweet unavailable’ Twitter displays in notifications, preventing riders from seeing trains they’ve been added to. Use the SEND VIA DM function. Don’t paste the link repetitively or you’ll get snagged for spam and be restricted for hours.
When selecting folks for #TrumpTrain:
- Select real people
- Choose only those whose numbers indicate a tendency to reciprocate.
- Choose only pro Trump conservatives.
- Include a graphic, meme, GIF, etc, with each train.
- Include only people you have a mutual follow with.
- It would be wise to contact folks in advance to be sure they want to participate.
⭐️ Add your regular riders towards the bottom. Very likely most of your readers already follow those. Add the new, smaller accounts to the top of the train. They will be noticed there more easily and they need the follows!
➖Include a minority of regulars. Reserve the majority of your space for new folks.
🚂 When selecting folks for a #TrumpTrain 🚂
➖Blue check verified accounts
➖Accounts with few tweets
➖Accounts without recent tweets
➖Accounts without predominantly conservative political tweets
➖Accounts without profile text
➖Accounts whose numbers don’t indicate a tendency to follow back
➖Random types — Quotes, jokes, health tips, beautiful pictures, etc
It is possible to link cars together by creating a thread. That is not recommended! Twitter has tightened restrictions on trains and using that method could lead to suspension.
Start with selecting riders from your own followers. It’s dicey throwing folks on trains without warning. Send DMs asking, maybe as you are acknowledging their follow.
⚠️ NEVER hand type the @ names! The ONLY acceptable method is COPY PASTE.
✅ BEST Method: If you are able to send the account a DM — Direct message, click on the icon to create a DM, then click the @ symbol. Their @ name will appear as a choice. Copy paste that to an Apple Note or a text doc or to wherever you are building the train.
➡️To capture the @ name of any account in question, I suggest clicking the account @ name
➡️Click as though you are going to send ’em an open tweet to display their @ name
➡️SELECT ALL, CUT. Then go to destination and PASTE. That is more accurate and quicker than retyping the addy.
❇️ I would not include anyone not following you. You are promoting this person to whoever sees your trains.
Many conductors include requirements for a ride. Usually this means:
- RT the train
- Comment separately after RT — perhaps “Great train! Thanks for the ride!”
- Send DM — Direct message to Conductor requesting a ride
🛑 Never ‘steal’ another conductor’s train. If you want to utilize the riders, perhaps copy them into a spreadsheet along with many others and shuffle them by sorting them to intermingle with others.
🌀 While many conductors like linked train cars, I find them bothersome as the recipient.
#️⃣ I’ve observed that it’s useful to identify your trains. Some use a car number. It is helpful to use a unique hashtag on all your trains so you can easily find them as a collection. You may have to research finding a unique tag or it won’t work.
You can click on any tag and see tweets that include it. Many search that way to see what is being said on a particular topic.
Send the train via DM to each rider using the Share Via DM function. It sounds tedious but it’s not. RTs will increase dramatically!
Many trains are being labeled ‘tweet unavailable’ by Twitter in Notifications, especially if you are posting trains in a repetitive fashion. Mix up your actions to help alleviate the issue.
⭐️It helps significantly to DM the trains to the riders so they don’t have to rely on Notifications.
➖It helps to place names in a vertical column.
➖It helps to group the riders in groups of 5 for easy clicking
➖ALWAYS include a meme or a gif
➖You are limited by characters, so spaces, line breaks and emojis reduce space available for rider names
➡️ If out of space, just run another train car!
Suggestions for riders:
🚂🚃🚃 SUCCESS on #TrumpTrain:
➖Identify and follow the creator — referred to as the ‘conductor’
➖RT all the trains they send. Many are multiple cars, often connected in threads
➖Follow all the riders after vetting to be sure they are not ne’er do wells, trolls or marketers
➖Reciprocate and follow back the conservatives who follow you
➖Do NOT have a locked/protected account!
➖Do not have a silhouette avatar!
➖Include strong conservative hashtags or keywords in your profile text. #MAGA is by far the most powerful hashtag currently available to conservatives and I recommend all include it in their profile text.
➡️ Be sure to understand the Conductor’s intentions. Some conductors prefer you to only RT and respond to the train without modifications. Some encourage folks to add 10 more to their train. Others consider that to be theft of the train and will block you for any modification.
➡️ 💡 When replying to a train, simply RT & THEN comment via REPLY
➖If you ‘RT with comment’, only the conductor can see your comment!
➖It interrupts the flow of the train.
➖A simple REPLY promotes everyone more!
💡Trump Trains promote GROWTH! 📈
➡️ It is tedious to click every single name on a train. Easier: Look at the first reply (or your own reply) to the train thread. It will indicate “Reply to @ name and 15 other people.” That statement is clickable. When you click it, you can easily see the ones you aren’t already following, allowing you to focus your attention on those.
➡️ As you follow folks, keep a record of who you follow and pare off / unfollow those who don’t reciprocate after about a week.
➡️A common question:
WHY DONT TRAIN RIDERS FOLLOW BACK?
➖Many riders unfortunately don’t know train etiquette — Good conductors EDUCATE in advance
➖Some riders did not give advance permission to be on the train and consider trains spam
➖Good conductors COMMUNICATE in advance
➖Some folks on Twitter don’t pay much attention
➖Many are newbies and need assistance
Trains have been a common feature of pro-Trump Twitter for several years and the trains exist exclusively in #MAGA Twitter networks. There is nothing like them on the left, it’s an asymmetrical phenomenon. Trump trains are highly structured networks with guidelines and etiquette and real people driving — some of whom are trying to remove bots, marketers and fake accounts from their communities. I think just due to the nature of follow-for-follow networks, the trains naturally attract all sorts of fakery but there are dedicated human activists at the core of these networks.
One downside to trains, because of Twitter’s algorithms, they likely create very insulated communities. Dale’s solution is to make private lists of news and blogs, which is a good strategy because he can choose a list and see content that is not in his regular feed. I assume train people’s Twitter feeds are probably bombarded with train tweets, so if they want to use Twitter for news then they would have to seek it out. But making lists and regularly checking them are extra steps that not all Twitter users will take to increase the kinds of content they’re exposed to, and if users make lists of exclusively right wing content then that still creates a filter bubble effect (which at this point may be unavoidable for all of us anyway).
Next time you see a #MAGA account with tens of thousands of followers, now you know how they did it. 🚂
Notes: Gephi graphs in this blog were created using Force Atlas 2 layout algorithm and Tweets for Trump train hashtags were collected using Tweet Archivist.