Kevin Collins, 65, is an independent music teacher. Trained in classical guitar, he started teaching in 1969, and has worked with musicians in Colorado, Texas, and New York, among other places. Collins owns a music studio in Amherst, Massachusetts, with rooms he rents to fellow music instructors who don’t have a place to teach. He is a member of the Town Meeting, Amherst’s legislative body. He speaks with a calm voice and laughs frequently.
He also recently became—unbeknownst to him—a bit of a social media personality, though not for his music. During the week after the presidential inauguration, Collins issued 2,184 replies to Donald Trump’s Facebook posts. According to an analysis by NY City Lens of Facebook data, he became the top responder to the new president on the planet in the largest global social media platform. “I couldn’t go to the Women’s March, so I went online,” he jokes.
When NY City Lens informed him about his world-topping position, his response was: “Oooooh, ho, ho, ha, ha, ha! Yeeeeeeeeeh!”
“Forget increasing the minimum wage for four years, Merry Christmas USA!” (115 times)
“12 million Mexicans work here and pay taxes, when are you going to start paying taxes, sir? Ever?” (115 times)
“I pray your mother does not have a pre-existing condition.” (133 times)
Collins’ motivation came from an unexpected source: Forbes magazine. “I read the Forbes article about how Jared Kushner won the election for Trump by using Facebook. That upset me. I wanted to do something to counteract that,” he said. “And I thought that if Kushner can do it, so could I.”
According to that article, during the presidential campaign, Kushner built a data hub run by about 100 people. They turned Twitter and Facebook into key tools for not only spreading Trump’s message but also for “targeting potential supporters, scraping massive amounts of constituent data, and sensing shifts in sentiment in real time.” Since Collins did not have the kind of resources available to a millionaire son-in-law of a billionaire presidential candidate, he resorted to ingenuity.
Collin’s cyber-protest is just the latest manifestation of his concerns about public affairs. Besides being a member of Amherst’s Town Meeting, he is also a vigorous participant in social activism –some of which has invited controversy.
“They have families, what about their children? Are they going to jail, too? Or will you just water board them?” – (189 times)
“Mexican Americans buy 25% of all the new Corollas, maybe they should shop someplace else, is that what you think? Send those hardworking people away?” (190 times)
“More Americans are killed by toddlers with guns than “terrorists.” Waiting to hear how you are going to protect us from toddlers with guns.” – (19 times)
In 2015, the front page of the Daily Hampshire Gazette reported on one of his political adventures. A local public radio station managed by the University of Massachusetts decided to halt a show—in midstream—in which other members of the Town Meeting had been talking. The reason?—an official-looking “Cease and Desist” letter that Collins delivered to the station. Though it had no legal weight, it looked the part. “I worked as a word processor for ten years; I typed documents for hundreds of all sorts of companies, so I was familiar with all type of letters,” Collins explains.
On the broadcast, according to his letter, one of the Town Meeting members taking part in the show could benefit from the discussion because of her stance on a zoning change under discussion—one that could reduce the value of her home. The letter said, “I do hereby demand that you cease and desist from this illegal broadcast of Members of Amherst Town Meeting who have a Conflict of Interest under the laws of the Commonwealth who plan to use state property for personal gain.” He copied the state attorney general. The students and their managers running the public station didn’t know what to do, and shut down the program.
Some people were not happy with his political prank at that time. And other people, Trump fans, have not been happy with his recent Facebook work, either. The reactions were not limited to angry comments. “I started getting friend requests from ‘porn bot’ accounts, probably trying to slow me down,” he said.
Bots—short for “robots”—are basically social media accounts that don’t have an actual person behind them; instead, they are run by programs that perform certain functions autonomously, such as posting replies. There are bots that have a legitimate function—like those of media outlets that periodically post news—and there are those bots that have pernicious objectives—like flooding a person’s account with posts, effectively shutting it down.
The Facebook friend requests from these “porn bots”—a term Collins uses to refer to messages “sent” by non-existent women whose photos “show just the right amount of cleavage to avoid being shut down by Facebook”—were more a nuisance than a setback, so Collins initially ignored them. But he eventually decided to report them, although he wasn’t hopeful the social network giant would take any measures. But it did. “It turned out Facebook got really good at shutting down fake accounts, so I started reporting them and I even recruited other people to help out.”
Ironically, Collins would soon know what it was like to be the hunted rather than the hunter.
For practical purposes, Collins had transformed his Facebook account into a part-time bot. He knew there was a limit to the number of posts one can send over a certain period, but he was not certain what that limit was. To try to avoid being classified as a malicious bot—like the ones he was reporting—he set the frequency of his replies randomly between 30 and 45 seconds, which seemed to work, as there were no reprisals. But in the end, he was shut down, through what he admits was his own doing. “It was my fault,” he said. “Some of Trump’s posts pissed me off, so and cranked up the frequency to 22 seconds, then to 12 seconds. It wasn’t long before Facebook shut me down.”
The shutdown was short lived. “I wrote to apologize. I told them I was a word processor from New York who got excited and overdid it. I said from New York because I did live there and people take you more seriously when you come from there,” he said. “I let them know I am a good Facebook citizen, who issues a lot of ‘likes’ and behaves civilly, but made a slip. They let me back in less than 24 hours.”
Asked whether there is any difference between his part-time bot and the malicious bots, such as the “porn bots” he says cascade to his account each time he goes up against Trump, Collins has a reply: “Those bots are anonymous. They have no friends, no history. I write my own messages and I send them out from my own account. I take responsibility for what I write.”
Collins has not kept up the Facebook pace that earned him a sort of virtual gold medal as the top Trump responder on Facebook. Trump, in his view, “doesn’t care what people think, so he says anything he wants and he’s moving so fast, it’s hard to keep up,” he says.
But Collins doesn’t necessarily consider this a misfortune. He believes Trump’s strategy of loudness has been counterproductive to his objectives, producing an effect that the new president did not expect. “He singlehandedly saved newspapers!” Collins said, referring to rising subscriptions at respected outlets. “Thank you, Donald Trump!”
“Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, the wretched refuse of your teeming shore. Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me, I lift my lamp beside the golden door!” (103 times)
“Perhaps you would consider donating your $3.84 BILLION net worth to build the wall, sir. It would be a small sacrifice, to show the American people that they should sacrifice, too. Sacrifice their rights and their freedom. How about it? Or maybe if you just paid taxes, for once in your life. A billionaire who doesn’t pay taxes, yeesh!!!” – (48 times)