After an anonymous Twitter account amplified a viral video of high school boys in Make America Great Again hats and a Native American elder, there was an immediate outcry on social media. Even a few experts subscribed to an emerging theory: that the post was suspiciously similar to foreign misinformation campaigns during the 2016 election.
But it appears that the account, @2020fight, was run not by a foreign operative trying to fan America’s political divisions but rather by a woman who described herself as a San Francisco Bay Area teacher and advocated liberal causes — and, to all appearances, did not expect to find herself at the center of a media firestorm.
The account, which had over 41,000 followers, was run by a woman who identified herself as “Talia” and used a fake profile photo, belonging to a Brazilian blogger and model. Talia tweeted criticism of President Donald Trump and also used the account to sell teaching materials.
Last Friday, @2020fight picked up a one-minute video showing a throng of Covington Catholic High School students, who traveled from Kentucky to Washington for the March for Life, chanting at Omaha Tribe elder Nathan Phillips as he beats his drum and sings, and added a provocative caption: “This MAGA loser gleefully bothering a Native American protestor at the Indigenous Peoples March.” The video spread rapidly and was seen by millions, but it soon faced criticism for lacking the full context of the encounter, which also involved several Black Hebrew Israelites shouting slurs at the students.
Questions soon emerged about the account. Following an inquiry by CNN about the fake profile photo, Twitter suspended @2020fight on Monday for violating its policy on fake accounts.
A spokesperson for Twitter declined to give a more specific reason for the account’s removal but provided a statement: “Deliberate attempts to manipulate the public conversation on Twitter by using misleading account information is a violation of the Twitter Rules.”
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That language calls to mind the Russian disinformation campaign to influence the 2016 election. Information warfare expert Molly McKew told CNN the @2020fight account was part of a landscape, “where bad actors monitor us and appropriate content that fits their needs.” It also raised concerns from Sen. Mark Warner, D-Va., the Senate Intelligence Committee’s top Democrat. Warner and the Democratic-controlled House Intelligence Committee have asked Twitter to look into the account further, according to a spokesman, as first reported by HuffPost.
But a source familiar with Twitter’s internal investigation, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to share information, says all signs point to @2020fight being a U.S. account.
Fake photo aside, the @2020fight account appears to belong to a real person: a California teacher who went by “Talia” on multiple social accounts. The now-removed Twitter account’s bio contained a link to a seller profile on the website Teachers Pay Teachers, an online store where teachers buy and sell lesson plans and resources. Using the handle “Teaching in the Bay,” Talia described herself as an “Upper elementary & middle school teacher from the Bay Area,” and offered more than 100 worksheets and lesson plans. She attracted a few dozen followers and buyers who favorably rated her products.
A related Twitter account where she promoted her Teachers Pay Teachers account, @teachinbay, was also suspended by Twitter. A spokesperson for the platform declined to comment on that account, including when or why it was suspended.
On Wednesday afternoon, @2020fight deleted her Twitter account, seemingly after Twitter lifted her suspension. (Suspended accounts cannot be deleted.)
In May of 2017, Talia introduced herself on Teachers Pay Teachers’ private forum, viewed by NBC News. “I’m a 5th grader [sic] teacher from the Bay Area, wrapping up my fourth year of teaching. Next year I’m transitioning up to middle school which is both exciting and super scary,” she wrote.
The account known as Teaching in the Bay deleted its Teachers Paying Teachers account following a message from NBC News. Corresponding Pinterest and Instagram accounts are still live, but the account holder has not responded to requests for comment.
Alongside more popular political tweets criticizing Trump and pushing progressive causes like gun control, @2020fight used her account to promote her Teachers Paying Teachers products. “Add a little 70's flair in your life with these schedule cards. Great for the beginning of the year or homeschool!” she tweeted in April. She also asked questions about teaching.
“Is 8th grade too young to do a deep dive into the ‘not great’ Columbus history? We're up to that section in their textbook,” she tweeted in September 2017.
Talia was also listed as an “influencer” on Shoutcart, an online marketplace that allows influencers to sell ads or sponsored content to brands. In that bio, she wrote, “I have a very high engagement account with a popular culture/politics profile. My audience is educated and in their 20s and 30s.”
Talia posted on Twitter with an unusually high frequency, tweeting, retweeting or liking a post more than 200 times a day on average since starting the account in December 2016. The account sent more than 65,000 tweets in just over two years.
Those figures point to potential “inauthentic behavior,” said Clint Watts, a former FBI special agent and MSNBC contributor who tracked Russian election interference at the Foreign Policy Research Institute. “She could have bought followers to spread her reach, had some sort of automation behind it to keep it going.”
These are common tactics for influencers who use Twitter to turn a profit, but also bad actors.
“And then, boom,” Watts said, “she tweets something controversial and is suddenly a source of misinformation in the United States.”