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Wednesday, September 16, 2015


A pre-debate look at the GOP candidates on social media

By J.M. Berger 

Top 10 other hashtags used by users who tweeted a candidate's official tag (case-sensitive)

It’s easy sport to count hashtags as a measure of success, and by that basic measure, it’s pretty clear that Donald Trump is crushing his competition on Twitter. In part, this is due to his longstanding and unfiltered presence on the platform. @RealDonaldTrump is the kind of Twitter account that generates buzz, if not always affection.

But there are other ways to use hashtags to gain insights. One approach that I’ve found useful is to examine the other hashtags people used by people who use a hashtag of interest. In other words, what do users who tweet #Trump2016 talk about when they are not talking about Trump?

In advance of tonight’s CNN debate, I ran this analysis on the primary hashtags used by each of the top five candidates, as ranked by CNN’s poll of polls used to determine who would participate and how they would be placed on the stage. I plan to do the same analysis for the Democratic candidates as we get closer to their first debate.

The hashtags I used were based on the better-performing of the candidate’s official tag or their name combined with 2016, or both if they performed very similarly. The hashtags analyzed were #Trump2016, #Jeb2016, #AllInForJeb, #Walker16, #Carson2016, #CruzCrews and #Cruz2016.

I collected the last 200 tweets for each user who tweeted the tag, within Twitter’s search API limits (this is roughly all tweets from the past week, or about the most recent 3,000 tweets if the tag appears more than 3,000 per week). The hashtags were analyzed on a case-sensitive basis.

It comes as no surprise that Donald Trump is outpacing the competition by leaps and bounds. His success is partly organic, but it is also significantly driven by online activism, including a highly organized group of users who employ #tcot (Top Conservatives on Twitter) and #PJNET, the hashtag associated with the Patriot Journalist Network, a website and Twitter app used to organize social media campaigns with an extremely conservative bent. 

hashtag count
Trump2016 8226
tcot 6105
MakeAmericaGreatAgain 5179
WakeUpAmerica 3524
PJNET 2864

Third-ranked was #MakeAmericaGreatAgain, the campaign slogan. While this tag, measured separately, performed almost as strongly as #Trump2016, its performance closely tracked the latter tag, suggesting it has basically the same user base.

The fourth-most used hashtag, #WakeUpAmerica, is associated with anti-immigration rhetoric, much of it specifically anti-Muslim in nature, which may have been emphasized by the anniversary of September 11 falling within the sample period.

Below the top five, hashtags ranged over a number of fairly divisive issues, such as gay marriage, exactly whose "lives matter" and the Iran deal. Users also heavily tweeted the hashtags of other candidates, often in attack mode.

Perhaps the most interesting finding in the data is how poorly Jeb Bush is performing, which seems to be a a direct result of a lackluster social media strategy, despite his second-place standing in the polls. 

Bush supporters are using three competing hashtags to promote his campaign -- #Jeb2016 (the most-used by a thin margin), #Bush2016 and the tag being promoted prominently on his website, #AllInforJeb. The latter is a terrible hashtag, in part because it capitalizes each word, which means on Twitter’s sans serif typeface, the lowercase Ls in “All” visually merge with the capital I, producing the confusing appearance of #ALLLNFORJEB. 

No matter how you slice it, even if you combine all three tags, this is an embarrassingly small showing for a frontrunner, many times smaller than tweets in support of Trump.

Because tweets about Jeb were widely dispersed among the three different tags, Trump supporters were able to tap dance all over Bush supporters on #Jeb2016. Users who employed the #Jeb2016 hashtag tweeted #Trump2016 almost ten times as often. The top five hashtags used by those who tweeted #Jeb2016 were identical to the top five from the #Trump2016 users, although in slightly different proportions. 

hashtag count
tcot 2728
Trump2016 2205
WakeUpAmerica 1440
MakeAmericaGreatAgain 1342
PJNET 1302

The simplest explanation for this is borne out by an examination of the tweets collected: #Jeb2016 has been weaponized against Bush by Trump supporters, and very effectively too. The #WakeUpAmerica hashtag ranked even higher in the #Jeb2016 dataset, suggesting the immigration issue is driving a significant chunk of anti-Bush activity.

In light of this, I looked at the users who tweeted #AllInForJeb, expecting to find more genuine support. Here, Bush’s tag ranked first and performed better than #Trump2016, but only by about four to one, and on much lower volume. 

Other than this mixed tidbit, the news was not especially good. #tcot and #GOPDebate were second and third. The fourth most-tweeted tag was #sayfie, a Florida political website whose coverage is not especially friendly to Bush, and fifth was #WakeUpAmerica, the anti-immigration tag, representing another hostile constituency. #PJNET, trending mostly toward Trump, ranked eighth and a Ted Cruz hashtag, #CruzCrew, ranked 10th.

Below the top lines on the chart, hashtags used by the #AllInForJeb crowd very much suggest the output of a political machine rather than words from the hearts of ordinary humans, with top-ranked tags including #GOP, #nhpolitics, #FITN (another New Hampshire primary tag), #ncpol and #iacaucus -- none of which ranked particularly high among his competitors. The political class is turning out for Bush on social media, but fewer ordinary voters.

Would a stronger social media game would help Bush compete more effectively with Trump? Probably, but it's not a slam dunk. Based on the organized activist component observed in #Trump2016 tweets, The Donald's supporters are probably not tapped out on capacity, and they could respond strongly to a strong counteroffensive.

Scott Walker, ranked third in the CNN poll of polls, promoted his campaign with the official hashtag #Walker16, rather than #Walker2016. The good news for Walker is that his tag crushed all three of Bush’s hashtags for overall volume, but he in turn was similarly dominated by Trump. On the bright side, users who tweeted #Walker16 did so more than 10 times as often as they tweeted #Trump2016, in sharp contrast to Bush’s performance.

Beneath this relatively optimistic result, however, trouble lurks. An extraordinarily large number of tweets by people who used the #Walker15 hashtag also used tags that were hostile to the candidate. The number two tag, #wiunion, was devoted mainly to attacks from the left on Walker’s anti-labor record as governor of Wisconsin, although a significant number of supporters were using the tag for counterattacks.

The fourth most-tweeted hashtag was #UniteBlue, a liberal activism hashtag and social media app that roughly mirrors #PJNET, and the fifth was #p2, a hashtag used by progressives that roughly mirrors #tcot. It's very unusual to see these tags outperform their conservative counterparts, especially within a discussion of a conservative candidates. 

In short, a whole lot of people using the #Walker16 hashtag are organized adversaries of the candidate, but at least they aren’t his competitors. 

hashtag count
Walker16 4707
wiunion 2913
tcot 2713
UniteBlue 2506
p2 1722

The top hashtags were fairly light on issue-based keywords aside from a few current GOP staples reflected by all the candidates -- #IranDeal, #KimDavis, and variations on the Which Lives Matter theme.

Ben Carson had a tougher, weirder run of it. Like Bush, tweets were divided pretty widely between two hashtags, the official #BC2DC and the unofficial #Carson2016.

Among users who tweeted either hashtag, #tcot and #PJNET ranked first and second, with #WakeUpAmerica coming in third, all easily beating the candidate’s hashtag within the sample.

hashtag count
tcot 4953
PJNET 2701
WakeUpAmerica 2653
BC2DC16 2523
TCOT 1318

Among users who tweeted #Carson2016, almost twice as many tweeted #Trump2016, again pointing to the weaponization of an obvious hashtag. This may have been driven partly by a dustup between the two candidates last week. On the official hashtag, #BC2DC16 beat #Trump2016 by about five to one.

Top issues for Carson tweeters included Iran, Planned Parenthood and gun control, which appeared at somewhat higher ranks than they did in his competitors’ charts.

Just in case you had any doubt that it’s difficult to be a prominent African-American in the Republican Party, racially charged hashtags ranked noticeably higher among users who tweeted #Carson2016 than among any of the other candidates.

These included #WhiteGenocide (16th) -- favored by racist extremists -- and #cuckservative (23rd), which is a whole story unto itself. A notable number of users employing the #Carson2016 hashtag were neo-Nazis and various other flavors of white supremacist.  

The fifth-ranked Republican in the poll of polls was Ted Cruz, and his results may provide some measure of consolation to Bush, as his poll numbers remain fairly low despite a relatively strong social media game. 

The campaign’s clever hashtag, #cruzcrew, outperformed #Cruz2016 handily, and both showed signs that they were mainly being used by supporters. The success of the former was driven, at least in part, by the branding “Cruz Crew App,” a social campaign application with gamification elements, although as a percentage of all actual tweets, the app’s impact was difficult to gauge.

Users who employed either #CruzCrew or #Cruz2016 did not primarily tweet Cruz-related hashtags, with first, second and third place taken by #tcot, #PJNET and #WakeUpAmerica respectively in both sets. 

hashtag count
tcot 11790
PJNET 10079
WakeUpAmerica 8381
CruzCrew 6968
TCOT 4102

#CruzCrew users were slightly less focused than those tweeting #Cruz2016. Bitcoin made an unexpected appearance near the top of the issues list, which may be driven by the presence of non-Cruz spammers and apps in the set (people likely to install a Ted Cruz app are probably pretty digitally promiscuous). The usual suspects were present -- Iran, Planned Parenthood, gun control -- with a slightly heavier emphasis on anti-abortion issues than some of the other candidates.

Lessons Learned

There are a couple of useful findings in this preliminary look at how the primaries are playing out on social media.

First, if you’re running for president, you should make an effort to own #YourName2016, because if you don’t, other people will step up and appropriate it, and you can’t rely on them to be friendly, especially if you’re tangling with Donald Trump.

Second, mention your enemies, and encourage your supporters to do so. Trump’s social media game includes pervasive mentions of whichever candidate he is feuding with at the moment. When you search for information on a non-Trump candidate on Twitter, you’re likely to see a lot of negative comments. While few candidates would care to go toe-to-toe with Trump in the arena of negative campaigning, it might be better to put up a fight than to simply forfeit the battlefield.

Third, use your own hashtags. Jeb Bush tweeted #edreform, an issue based tag, almost seven times as often as he used #AllInForJeb, which he has only ever tweeted 12 times. He has never tweeted #Jeb2016. In contrast, Donald Trump has tweeted #Trump2016 154 times and #MakeAmericaGreatAgain 122 times since late April.

Fourth, use existing activist hashtags. While there may be nuanced arguments in favor of avoiding #tcot, Republican primaries are clearly about the base, and #tcot is widely used by the base. If an existing tag is not working for you, it might be working against you.

Fifth, volume, volume, volume. Ted Cruz is outperforming his poll numbers on social media in part thanks to higher levels of activity. Users tweeting #Cruz2016 averaged 99 tweets per day and #CruzCrews scored 84, compared to 70 for #Trump2016 and 38 for #AllInForJeb. Trump’s numbers here are not necessarily a sign of weakness; the overall performance of the hashtag suggests the tweets-per-day stat is dampened by the large amount of casual interest in his campaign, which is a plus, not a minus.

Sixth, clever counts, but only up to a point. #CruzCrew works, in part because it’s a good hashtag, but mostly because it’s being driven by the app. In contrast, #AllInForJeb is an awkward mouthful made moreso by the lowercase L, uppercase I problem. Which brings us back to the first point. #YourName2016 is what voters expect and what they will look for. If you’re going to be clever, follow the Cruz example and make an effort to promote your hipster hashtag concurrently with boring old standard model.




Jihad Joe by J.M. Berger Jihad Joe is the first comprehensive history of the American jihadist movement, tracking the phenomenon from the 1970s to the present. The book has been praised in reviews by the New York Times, Publisher's Weekly, the Washington Times,, Library Journal and more. It is available in hardcover eveywhere books are sold, as well as Kindle, Nook and Google ebook editions.


ISIS: The State of Terror, by Jessica Stern and J.M. BergerJessica Stern and J.M. Berger co-author the new book, "ISIS: The State of Terror," from Ecco, an imprint of HarperCollins. The book, on sale now, examines the rise of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, its potential fall, how it is transforming the nature of extremist movements, and how we should evaluate the threat it presents. Jessica Stern is a Harvard lecturer on terrorism and the author of the seminal text Terror in the Name of God: Why Religious Militants Kill. J.M. Berger is author of the definitive book on American jihadists, Jihad Joe: Americans Who Go to War in the Name of Islam, a frequent contributor to Foreign Policy and a non-resident fellow with the Brookings Institution, Project on U.S. Relations with the Islamic World.

Read an excerpt in The Atlantic | Listen to an audiobook excerpt

Buy now | Buy Kindle version


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For NPR's On the Media, J.M. Berger dissected problems with the coverage of Inspire Magazine.

J.M. Berger discussed the Boston Marathon bombing with BBC television and radio, and the Australian Broadcasting Corporation. Berger also wrote about the attack for Foreign Policy and spoke with reporters from The Toronto Star, The Globe and Mail, the Christian Science Monitor, Radio Australia, AFP and many others.

J.M. Berger discussed the State Department's counterterrorism initiatives on social media with the Associated Press.

The Associated Press spoke with J.M. Berger about the recent reward offered for the arrest of American jihadi Omar Hammami

Wired covered a story first broken on INTELWIRE about American Al Shabab member Omar Hammami denying he wrote the jihadist raps attributed to him. "The raps were pretty terrible," J.M. Berger told Wired. "If he's not responsible for even one, that's a black mark erased from his record."

J.M. Berger was quoted in a Buzzfeed story on the Christopher Dorner case.

Berger was quoted in several recent stories on terrorist use of the Internet, including the suspension of Al Shabab's Twitter account. Associated Press, LA Times, Al Jazeera, Washington Times, Toronto Star.

CNN's Starting Point (above) and Out Front with Erin Burnett invited J.M. Berger to reveal new details about Wisconsin white supremacist shooter Wade Page and his recent encounters with law enforcement sources investigating domestic terrorism.

Berger was quoted in stories on on Wade Page, the white supremacist who opened fire on a Sikh religious assembly in Oak Creek, Wisc., by the New York Times, the Washington Post, CNN and more.


New America Foundation panel, "Infiltration and Surveillance: Countering Homegrown Terrorism," with J.M. Berger and Pulitzer Prize-winning reporters Matt Apuzzo and Adam Goldman.


J.M. Berger was named one of Foreign Policy's Twitterati 100, "the 100 Twitter feeds you need to follow to make sense of" global turmoil and conflict.

In an exclusive report for Foreign Policy, J.M. Berger reveals the reason that Somalia's Al Shabab wants to kill American jihadist Omar Hammami.

J.M. Berger's investigative piece Patriot Games: How the FBI spent a decade hunting white supremacists and missed Timothy McVeigh was named a long-form journalism pick of the week from

INTELWIRE and J.M. Berger were quoted in a New York Times story on the latest Al Qaeda terror scare.


  • Homegrown violent extremism (HVE and CVE)
  • Terrorist and extremist use of the Internet
  • Lone wolf and loosely networked terrorism
  • American jihadists including Anwar Awlaki
  • History of jihadist terrorism in the U.S.
  • History of right-wing extremism in the U.S.
  • Al Qaeda infiltration and targeting of U.S. military
  • Early Al Qaeda history and structure
  • Terrorist tactics and financing
  • Jihadist activity during Bosnian civil war
  • Document research and FOIA


    New York Times: "a timely warning from an expert who has not lost his perspective"

    Washington Times: "How these American jihadists became radicalized, recruited and trained... constitute the core of Mr. Berger's important book."

    Zenpundit: "Berger neither condemns nor excuses: he sees, he asks, he researches, he reports. ... a book to read... a book to admire." "well-researched and incredibly accessibly presented history of American involvement in violent jihad."

    Publisher's Weekly: "lifts the veil on the phenomenon of American jihadists..."

    Library Journal: "an easy read... the better choice for those seeking ... objective [journalism]."

    Buy "Jihad Joe" now!