This Christian botnet showed me how spam works on Twitter

A congregation of #Christian #Believers mobbed me with mugs and T-shirts.



This Christian botnet showed me how spam works on Twitter

A congregation of #Christian #Believers mobbed me with mugs and T-shirts.

First came Peter MacDonald, a self-described “#Christian” whose Twitter profile warned would-be followers to expect posts about “#Christianity” and “#JesusChrist.” Then came Ben Demoss, an “avid #Jesus follower,” and Diana Thorne, whose interests include “#Photography,” “#Trump2016” and “#JesusChrist.” Each one followed me on Twitter, then immediately “liked” a different old tweet from my timeline.

I periodically get followed by religious Twitter accounts, presumably because of my last name. But these ones were different: on review, all three appear to be members of a tightly-knit group of about 40 Twitter accounts that seemingly exist for the sole purpose of promoting a small business called McLaughlin Gifts, which they link to and retweet relentlessly.

Little information is available about McLaughlin Gifts except that it’s run by someone named Heather McLaughlin. Through its site, as well as through stores on Zazzle, Redbubble, and Threadless, it sells apparel, pillows, dishware, phone cases, fridge magnets and more, much of which is emblazoned with religious content — “You Can Count on Jesus,” “Prayer Warrior,” “Champions of the Cross.”

In keeping with McLaughlin Gifts’ religious theme, most of the bots who boost it are exceptionally pious. Aside from McLaughlin Gifts, most of them retweet almost nothing but the same two feeds: Bible Time, which tweets biblical verses, and Christianity Today, which posts religious meditations like “Which Came First, Christmas or Consumerism?” In my head, I started to call them the Jesus bots.

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A few of the Jesus bots occasionally post more diverse material. MacDonald, the first one to follow me, tweeted last week that he couldn’t wait for Christmas. He also mused about his eventual retirement. Astrid Somerset — “a huge fan of #SmallBusiness” — sprinkles in retweets of generic-sounding accounts like UK Startups and Marketing Mania alongside the Christian content. Some of the bots also hawk goods by Unwavering Faith, yet another web store that sells merchandise with even more overtly religious messages, as well as some of the same designs that appear on McLaughlin Gifts commodities.

A few of the Jesus bots seem to have strayed from the path: Affordable Compliance — “Offering affordable products and services to meet your #Healthcare #HIPAA #Compliance needs!” — skips the religious content and posts only McLaughlin Gifts links. Montague Cristo, whose profile picture is a cartoon monkey, is a character that appears on merchandise listed on the McLaughlin Gifts Zazzle store.

Overall, the Jesus bots come across as an out-of-touch person’s idea of what Twitter is like, or possibly what an atheist’s idea of a Christian: lots of hashtags and retweeting, but zero substance. And sadly, they often seem to be the only accounts interested in McLaughlin Gifts.

Every once in a while, though, McLaughlin Gifts posts are retweeted by two other accounts that might offer a clue as to the bots’ origins: a social media marketing company called Sootle and an internet marketer named Darren McLaughlin, both of which display the same phone number.

Neither McLaughlin Gifts, Darren McLaughlin, Zazzle, Redbubble or Threadless responded to requests for comment. Unwavering Faith didn’t respond either, but it did block me on Twitter, where its profile picture is a judgmental-looking image of Jesus.

Overall, the Jesus bots come across as an out-of-touch person’s idea of what Twitter is like.

Botnets in the news often focus on vast clouds of accounts that exist to boost follower counts for money, or to spread propaganda. In comparison to those uses, the Jesus bots’ promotional efforts are relatively harmless. Still, there’s there’s something bleak about them, and it’s not just the cynicism of attempting to channel religious fervor into a quick profit. The part of Twitter they inhabit — indeed, the digital space their timelines create — is not pleasant internet real estate.

And their behavior, as a group, is so lockstep and peculiar that it would seem easy for Twitter to flag. One of them, Whitney Comstock — “I’m a believer! Praise be” — tweeted nearly 1,500 times over the handful of days I had her profile open, which seems like easy automated behavior to identify. A Twitter spokesperson pointed us toward Twitter’s rules, which forbid using the platform to send spam, but did not provide further comment.

“Think of it from Twitter’s point of view: these bots are their perfect customers,” said Finn Brunton, an assistant professor at NYU and the author of Spam: A Shadow History of the Internet. “They’re relentless about using the platform, they’re constantly posting content.”

By the morning after I reached out to Twitter with a list of the Jesus bots, some of their profiles started to display a warning: “Caution: This account is temporarily restricted.”

But who knows. Perhaps on Easter they’ll rise again.

Jon Christian is a contributing writer at The Outline. He last wrote about how brands buy their way into articles on news sites.