A woman who tweeted her support for President Donald Trump on Saturday was rewarded when Trump shared her compliment and replied, "Thank you Nicole!"
A Twitter account that tweeted support for President Donald Trump on Saturday was rewarded when Trump shared the compliment and replied, "Thank you Nicole!"
But observers quickly noticed something odd about "Nicole": She didn't seem to be real. And by Sunday night, the account was suspended.
The account, which joined Twitter in January with the purported name Nicole Mincey, branded Mincey as a "black pro-Trump conservative" who began a pro-Trump retail empire after becoming disillusioned by former President Barack Obama.
An ad published in the Daily Caller under the byline "PROTRUMP45," the name of the merchandise store Nicole claimed to run, described Mincey as an "African American female from Camden, NJ" who "grew up in poverty" and is "a heartwarming reminder of how big the minority Republican movement really is."
Mincey's profile photo on Twitter, however — which was later republished by Heavy.com — appeared to be a cropped image of a T-shirt model.
The profile photo for one of Mincey's biggest promoters — an account under the name Kendra Manning, who claimed to blog for protrump45.com — appeared to be an altered picture of a T-shirt model, too.
Bellingcat founder Eliot Higgins noted that "Kendra," whose account was also suspended on Sunday, was not alone.
It is not clear who runs Protrump45.com, which claims to only accept advertising from companies that are "Pro-Trump, Pro-Police, Pro-Second Amendment, Pro-Life, Patriotic (Pro-America), Pro-Veteran, Pro-Republican, Anti-democrat, and Anti-liberal." The phone number listed on the site appears to have been disconnected.
But that the Twitter users associated with the "protrump45" blog were suspended indicates they were "spammy" or "just plain fake," according to Twitter's terms of service.
"All signs point to Trump thanking an advertising campaign using fake Trump supporter accounts to sell #ProTrump45 brand clothes," Higgins said.
Experts in disinformation say Trump's promotion of these kinds of automated accounts, even if he doesn't realize they're fake, is a slippery slope that encourages the spread of misinformation.
Bots were hugely influential in driving social-media trends and topics during the 2016 election. Oxford University's computational propaganda project found that "more than a third of pro-Trump tweets and nearly a fifth of pro-Clinton tweets between the first and second presidential debates came from automated accounts," wrote two of project's researchers, Samuel Woolley and Douglas Guilbeault.
Creating bots is not exactly discouraged by Twitter — the site allows users to program automated accounts and requires only rudimentary coding knowledge. Most of the accounts, moreover, are harmless. The Museum of Modern Art, for example, made a bot that resurfaces works from its archives.
But, as Woolley and Guilbeault wrote, bots can be used to push a narrative at rapid-fire speed and in huge numbers, creating the perception that fringe issues or politicians have more support than they actually do.
Before their accounts were suspended, the accounts affiliated with the Protrump45.com site tweeted about topics like the Seth Rich conspiracy theory, former Attorney General Loretta Lynch, and "fake news." And Russia relied heavily on Twitter bots during the election to disseminate memes and pro-Trump news stories, many of which were fake.
"The propagandistic power of bots is strengthened when few people know they exist," Woolley and Guilbeault said. "The more people know about bots, the more likely it is that citizens will begin reporting and removing bots, as well as using bots to boost their own voices."