Twitter has taken down a small network of fake accounts purportedly belonging to Black supporters of President Donald Trump.
Darren Linvill, an associate professor at Clemson University who studies disinformation, identified 31 accounts that appeared to be linked to Black conservatives. He also found another handful of phony accounts, including one seemingly belonging to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi's hairdresser and several pretending to belong to White House Press Secretary Kayleigh McEnany.
Many of the accounts retweeted each other, often using identical language. "YES IM BLACK AND IM VOTING FOR TRUMP. Twitter has suspended 2 of my other accounts for supporting Trump," read a typical tweet.
Twitter confirmed that it took down several accounts but declined to offer details.
"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," a company spokesman said. "Presently, we've taken action on some of the tweets and accounts you referenced for violations of our policies on platform manipulation and spam."
Twitter's usage rules ban a range of activities that the platform defines as "bulk, aggressive or deceptive," including using stolen or copied profile information or using multiple accounts to post identical content.
Short lifespan, high impact
Linvill said the "bot" network likely originated in Eastern Europe or Turkey. Some of the accounts involved initially had profiles with Cyrillic writing, he said, while another account had retweeted a Turkish escort service.
Although the fakes were fairly amateurish and did not tweet often, the accounts achieved considerable reach in a short period of time, he said. "There was one tweet that had 30,000 retweets for an account that was brand new. There was one account that had 50,000 followers."
Altogether, the accounts managed to garner a quarter-million retweets or mentions, according to the Washington Post, which first reported the story.
The tweets' wide reach in the span of a few days illustrates how quickly dubious or false information can circulate online, even when social networks move fast to block bad actors, Linvill said.
"Twitter was on top of this, but the damage was already done," he said of the fake tweets. "They'd already gotten their 10,000 retweets."
While bots seemingly originating in Eastern Europe is nothing new, Linvill said this particular network had gotten unusual attention because of its tactics of pretending to speak for Black conservatives in the U.S.
Such activity "steals voices way from real Americans," he said. "It's simply not representative of real American discourse, and that is dangerous for a lot of reasons."
Black voters have been an important target for the Trump re-election campaign. The president'safter his recovery from COVID-19 addressed a rally by Candace Owens' Blexit Foundation, which encourages Black Americans to split with the Democratic party.
Linvill urged social media users to be vigilant online and to be wary of strangers, even those who seem to have the same political views.
"The rules in the digital world are not any different than the rules in the real world," he said. "Disinformation on social media only spreads if we spread it."