CHICAGO — Daniel John Sobieski, 68, climbed the stairs in his modest brick home and settled into a worn leather chair for another busy day of tweeting. But he needn’t have bothered. As one of the nation’s most prolific conservative voices on Twitter, he already had posted hundreds of times this morning — as he ate breakfast, as he chatted with his wife, even as he slept — and would post hundreds of times more before night fell.
The key to this frenetic pace was technology allowing Twitter users to post automatically from queues of pre-written tweets that can be delivered at a nearly constant, round-the-clock pace that no human alone could match. In this way, Sobieski — a balding retiree with eyes so weak that he uses a magnifying glass to see his two computer screens — has dramatically amplified his online reach despite lacking the celebrity or the institutional affiliations that long have helped elevate some voices over the crowd.
“To me,” Sobieski said, “it’s kind of like a high-tech version of the old-fashioned soapbox.”
Today’s digital soapboxes are little like the old-fashioned kind. Researchers have documented the power of automation technology to magnify some points of view while drowning out others.
Much of that research has focused on “bots,” accounts programmed to follow instructions, such as automatically replying to tweets from other accounts. But Sobieski exemplifies the growing popularity of a variation, called “cyborgs,” that mix human creativity and initiative with a computer’s relentless speed, allowing their views to gain audience while sidestepping the traditional gatekeepers of news and commentary.
Sobieski’s two accounts, for example, tweet more than 1,000 times a day using “schedulers” that work through stacks of his own pre-written posts in repetitive loops. With retweets and other forms of sharing, these posts reach the feeds of millions of other accounts, including those of such conservative luminaries as Fox News’s Sean Hannity, GOP strategist Karl Rove and Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.), according to researcher Jonathan Albright.
“It’s like a giant megaphone,” said Albright, an assistant professor of media analytics at Elon University, in North Carolina, whose research singled out Sobieski’s accounts as having unusual reach.
When Albright studied the most prolific Twitter accounts during the final two weeks of the election, he found that all of the top 20 appeared to support the eventual winner, Donald Trump. Among accounts using major pro-Trump hashtags such as “#MAGA,” for “Make America Great Again,” two of the top three belonged to Sobieski.
While there is no way to know how often Sobieski’s tweets are read as they flit through busy feeds — nor is it clear how they are influencing political debates — researchers have found that automation allows users to exert an oversize influence on conversations on Twitter and beyond.
One research team found that “highly automated accounts” supporting President Trump — a category that includes both bots and cyborgs — out-tweeted those supporting Democrat Hillary Clinton by a ratio of 5 to 1 in the final days before the vote.
This Twitter advantage had 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, said Samuel Woolley, research director for the Computational Propaganda project at Oxford University and co-author of the study on the effectiveness of pro-Trump bots.
“The goal here is not to hack computational systems but to hack free speech and to hack public opinion,” Woolley said.
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.”
In the time it takes to compose this tweet, his schedulers have sent out several others. Some planes, meanwhile, have taken off from Chicago Midway Airport a few blocks away, sending muted roars through the house he shares with his wife, a Lebanese immigrant and fellow Catholic to whom Sobieski has been married for 39 years. He will stay in front of the computer for another two, maybe three hours before quitting for the day, but his Twitter accounts never stop working.
“Life isn’t fair,” Sobieski said with a smile. “Twitter in a way is like a meritocracy. You rise to the level of your ability. . . . People who succeed are just the people who work hard.”
Twitter, which declined multiple requests for comment, is more easily manipulated than some other social media platforms, researchers say, because it allows anonymous users and tolerates some degree of automation of its accounts. Bots can be bought or sold online, and some are so sophisticated — with profile pictures, plausible names and a capacity for chatter fueled by artificial intelligence — that they are difficult to detect, even for experts.
The company has policies to limit automation and the use of multiple accounts, and it has published guidelines and “best practices.” Twitter sometimes shuts down violators when they are discovered, but it acknowledged in a 2014 securities filing that “up to approximately 8.5% of all active users” may have used third-party apps for automation. Independent researchers say the percentage could be twice as high, putting the numbers of automated accounts in the tens of millions.
Some of the most prolific political tweeters complain that the company doesn’t have clear enough rules of the road. Lewis Shupe, a conservative Las Vegas-based retiree who runs @USFreedomArmy, a 61,000-follower account, said that he had received warnings from Twitter for posting too often. He now limits his scheduler to 150 tweets per hour, a number he thinks allows him to fly under the company’s radar.
“If Twitter would publish rules, we would follow them,” Shupe said.
Political activists have used automated Twitter accounts, including bots, in at least 17 nations, including Iran, Mexico, Russia and the United Kingdom. In the run-up to the June Brexit vote, “highly-automated accounts” favoring departure from the European Union were more prolific, by a ratio of 3 to 1, than automated accounts on the other side of the debate, according to research by Oxford Internet Institute professor Philip N. Howard and a colleague.
“It makes public conversation a synthetic conversation,” said Howard. “It makes it very difficult to know what consensus looks like.”
In the United States, automation tools generally have been deployed more aggressively by conservatives, researchers say. Pro-Clinton hashtags, in some cases, got “colonized” by pro-Trump tweets during the election season, according to the paper by Howard and Woolley. And for the third presidential debate, Trump’s supporters — and in some cases, likely bots — began tweeting the “#TrumpWon” hashtag a half-hour before the event began.
“Liberals are pretty far behind,” Woolley said.
The impact on political debate is heavy but not widely understood. In the U.S. presidential election, 19 percent of all tweets related to the campaign during one five-week stretch probably came from bots, according to University of Southern California researchers Alessandro Bessi and Emilio Ferrara.
Those who use automation to magnify their voices express little sympathy for those who don’t.
“Anybody can be a Twitter rock star if you learn how to do it,” said Florida-based conservative activist Mark Prasek, whose Twitter account describes him as a “Christian Technologist.” The Patriot Journalist Network he founded in 2012 allows members to send off dozens of pre-written tweets on a range of a conservative issues with just a few clicks of a mouse.
“It’s a level playing field,” he said. “We’re using tools. Is it fair that I can get downtown faster using a car than if you are using a bike?”
Before Sobieski discovered Twitter, he was a prolific writer of letters to the editor, penning thousands to Chicago-area newspapers while also crafting occasional on-air replies to liberal editorial positions of local television stations.
That probably would have been the peak of Sobieski’s influence — as a right-wing gadfly in an increasingly left-wing city — had he not become a regular freelancer in 2004 for the editorial page of Investor’s Business Daily, a Los Angeles-based publication with a national reach. He started tweeting out Web links to his editorials in 2009, christening his account @gerfingerpoken.
(During Sobieski’s decades writing letters to the editor, one of his day jobs was working as a programmer for a company that, in its computer room, featured a satiric German sign that translated as, roughly, “Warning: Don’t touch the machine with the blinking lights!” Sobieski named his account for one of the words in that sign, “gefingerpoken,” accidentally misspelling it with an extra “r,” as “gerfingerpoken.”)
Sobieski acknowledges that he may have been too aggressive in his hunt to add followers during his early years. Twitter, he said, temporarily shut down @gerfingerpoken several times for violating terms of service designed to limit unwanted contact between users. He started @gerfingerpoken2 in 2012 as a hedge against the possibility that Twitter might block the original account permanently.
But Sobieski eventually developed a finely honed ability to dodge what he called “the Twitter police” while steadily building his reach online.
“My accounts will be tweeting long after I’m gone,” Sobieski joked. “Maybe in my last will and testament, I should say, ‘Load up my recurring queue.’ ”
Elizabeth Dwoskin contributed to this report.