Fake Black Trump supporters appear mysteriously on Twitter, reach thousands, then vanishOctober 13, 2020
Then, on Sunday, the account was gone — suspended by Twitter for breaking its rules against platform manipulation.
The remarkable reach of @CopJrCliff and other fake accounts from supposed Black Trump supporters highlights how an account can be effective at pushing misleading narratives in just a few days — faster than Twitter can take it down.
A network of more than two dozen similar accounts, many of them using identical language in their tweets, recently has generated more than 265,000 retweets or other amplifying “mentions” on Twitter, according to Clemson University social media researcher Darren Linvill, who has been tracking them since last weekend. Several had tens of thousands of followers, and all but one have now been suspended.
Researchers call fake accounts featuring supposed Black users “digital blackface,” a reference to the now-disgraced tactic of White people darkening their faces for film or musical performances intended to mimic African Americans.
Many of the accounts used profile pictures of Black men taken from news reports or other sources. Several of the accounts claimed to be from members of groups with pro-Trump leanings, including veterans, police officers, steelworkers, businessmen and avid Christians. One of the fake accounts had, in the place of a profile photo, the words “black man photo” — a hint of sloppiness by the network’s creators.
“It’s asymmetrical warfare,” said Linvill, lead researcher for the Clemson University Media Forensics Hub. “They don’t have to last long. And they are so cheap to produce that you can get a lot of traction without a whole lot of work. Thank you, Twitter.”
Linvill said he found some evidence of foreign origins of the network, with a few traces of the Russian Cyrillic alphabet appearing in online records of the accounts. One account previously tweeted to promote an escort service in Turkey, Linvill found.
But overall, the origins of the coordinated effort are hard to know. What distinguished the accounts were their similarity to each other, the content they tweeted and the remarkable reach they achieved in a few days of activity. Several also followed each other.
Twitter spokesman Trenton Kennedy said Twitter already had taken down some of the network identified by Linvill for violating rules against platform manipulation and spam.
“Our teams are working diligently to investigate this activity and will take action in line with the Twitter Rules if Tweets are found to be in violation,” Kennedy said in a statement.
The @CopJrCliff account, while claiming to be from a police officer in the swing state of Pennsylvania, in fact featured a profile picture cribbed from a recent online article about a police officer in Portland, Ore., the site of prolonged protests over racial discrimination. The account supposedly was opened in 2017 but first tweeted last week, on Oct. 6.
It was one of 15 accounts using nearly identical language in tweets: “YES IM BLACK AND IM VOTING FOR TRUMP!!!”
The Portland officer whose image was used for the account, Jakhary Jackson, became a darling of conservative news organizations this summer, after criticizing White protesters for hurling invective at members of law enforcement, including at Black officers, in remarks to a local television station.
Jackson, in an interview on Tuesday, said he does not use social media and has never lived in Philadelphia, the location listed in the @CopJrCliff account. It was not the first time Jackson’s identity had been purloined on Twitter; he recalled an earlier instance in which he sent a copy of his driver’s license to the social networking platform to prove that an account claiming to be him was fake.
The comments that turned him into a conservative icon “weren’t pro-Trump, they weren’t pro-Biden,” Jackson said. “But people will use people of color to push certain agendas.”
The network of fake accounts claiming to represent Black Trump supporters, Linvill’s research shows, became increasingly active in the past two months, in the aftermath of a Republican nominating convention that prominently featured African Americans seeking to soften the president’s image and challenge persistent claims that he is racist. Attracting more voters from the traditionally Democratic constituency of Black voters has been a key element of Trump’s reelection campaign, especially as his support has dipped among other demographics.
Trump’s first public address since announcing his coronavirus diagnosis, delivered Saturday from the White House, was to conservative activists rallying around the mantra of “Blexit,” a campaign to convince African Americans and other minorities to leave the Democratic Party.
The president’s campaign manager, Bill Stepien, suggested to reporters in a call on Monday that Trump will be able to offset declining support among seniors “by gains in certain voting populations — Black, Hispanic and others, based on the president’s appeal, his policies and the outreach he’s been conducting for the last four years.”
Still, surveys point to a chasm in preferences among Black voters. Former vice president Joe Biden outperforms Trump by 81 percentage points with the demographic, according to the Pew Research Center. Black Americans are among the most likely voters to indicate their choice is “for Biden,” according to Pew, rather than simply against Trump.
Their staunch support for Democrats has made Black voters frequent targets of voter suppression and other demobilization efforts, often more potent than deceptive online campaigns aimed at persuasion.
In August, Facebook removed a page for “voter suppression tactics” that stoked fear about mail-in balloting, including with an ad using an image of NBA superstar LeBron James. Aimed at battleground states where minority turnout could be decisive, the ads appeared designed to reach voters of color.
Several foreign disinformation accounts that Twitter and other social media companies have removed in recent years had Black Americans voters as their targets and featured explicit references to racial tensions in the United States. Such tactics also were a signature of Russia’s Internet Research Agency during the 2016 presidential election, when fake accounts purportedly from Black people carried messages calling on others not to bother voting because neither Trump nor his Democratic rival, Hillary Clinton, had their best interests at heart.
The accounts recently suspended by Twitter, while claiming to represent an African American viewpoint, apparently sought to build an audience for a meme about Trump’s Black support that may resonate most with White voters, experts said. Once the meme gains traction, with hundreds of thousands of interactions, the fake accounts that seeded the idea lose their importance.
“The damage is done,” said Filippo Menczer, a professor of informatics and computer science at Indiana University at Bloomington. “There is payoff just in getting the volume out there, and the fact that the original post is gone doesn’t really matter.”
He credited Twitter for taking down the accounts but said the company needs to act more quickly to disrupt networks that “manufacture echo chambers” — and should be more transparent about the actors behind them, whether their origins are foreign or domestic.
The network of fake accounts that was suspended in recent days included some users who were not portrayed as Black, said Linvill. They included three fake accounts for Trump’s press secretary, Kayleigh McEnany, and one for Erica Kious, a hair stylist whose San Francisco salon controversially gave a haircut to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) in August, in violation of local rules. These accounts were retweeted by several of the fake accounts from supposed Black Trump supporters before getting removed.
There also was a fake account from a supposed White police officer, retweeted by some of the fake accounts, that said, “IM A WHITE COP AND I MADE MY BLACK COP PARTNER SWALLOW THE RED PILL,” a reference to convincing someone to accept uncomfortable facts. “He said I opened his eyes and he is voting for trump. We have to help administer the RED PILL to DEMS!!!”
Several of the fake accounts turned up in research that Mandiant Threat Intelligence, a cybersecurity firm that also tracks disinformation, reported to its clients last month, highlighting a potential financial motive. It found that the accounts linked briefly to tweets from fake Trump accounts, using a slight misspelling of his name, that included advertisements for Trump 2020 t-shirts. There also were some direct links to a website selling campaign t-shirts.
“They are impersonating Black Trump supporters, Black authoritative figures such as veterans and police officers, and various prominent individuals in order to gain rapid traction and virality,” said Lee Foster, Mandiant’s senior manager of information operations analysis. “Their tweeting behavior and content, which included constant calls for retweets and frequent posting and then removal of links to custom pro-Trump t-shirts, could indicate that their political commentary was secondary to a financial motivation.”
Among the set of short-lived accounts featuring supposed Black supporters of Trump was one that claimed to be from a married U.S. Marine named Ted Katya, with three children and a faith in God. The profile describes Katya as a “Newly converted republican conservative.” It had more than 18,000 followers before being suspended.
But the profile photo was of another man, a former football player from Michigan with a different name who saved a 3-year-old boy escaping a burning building in Phoenix in July. The photo of the Ted Katya account is identical to one in a news report on the rescue. The fake account used the same #BlacksForTrump hashtag as several others in the network, as well as the repeatedly reused, “YES IM BLACK AND IM VOTING FOR TRUMP!!!”
Also tweeting the same words was an account named Keith The Mill Worker #Trump2020, which had more than 11,000 followers and the same photo of Trump and “VOTE REPUBLICAN” banner as the @CopJrCliff account. The supposed steel millworker account also retweeted Trump several times before getting suspended.