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Viral pro-Trump tweets came from fake African American spam accounts, Twitter says

Disinformation experts are anticipating that social media platforms will continue to be central to foreign and domestic efforts to mislead voters.
Twitter headquarters in San Francisco on Oct. 26, 2016.
Twitter headquarters in San Francisco on Oct. 26, 2016.Jeff Chiu / AP file

Twitter has taken action to stop a spam operation that pushed messages from fake accounts about Black people abandoning the Democratic Party.

The company removed two fake accounts and deleted the account of a San Diego man who spammed the platform, a Twitter spokesperson confirmed Wednesday.

The fake accounts were purported to be run by Black people whose viral tweets received tens of thousands of shares in the past month. One of the accounts, @WentDemToRep, logged over 11,000 retweets on a single tweet that claimed that the user was a lifelong Democrat who was pushed to vote Republican by the Black Lives Matter movement. The tweet was posted shortly after the account was created Tuesday.

The WentDemToRep account quickly tagged two other accounts in a reply, @PeterGammo and @KRon619, which were suspended at the same time Tuesday. The Twitter spokesperson said all three accounts were suspended for spam and, "specifically, artificially manipulative behavior."

Disinformation experts and national security agencies are gearing up for the election, anticipating that social media platforms will continue to be central to foreign and domestic efforts to mislead voters.

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The fake accounts, which used the images of Black men for their profile pictures, had five separate posts with at least 10,000 retweets. Recent attempts to co-opt the identities of African Americans to simulate support for President Donald Trump in the run-up to the election have had success online, researchers say.

The profile picture from WentDemToRep was stolen from the Instagram page of Nelis Joustra, a model who worked to get the fake account deleted.

"I called my mom and asked her what to do, because I was stressing out," Joustra said. "The only thing I could do was to report the account and tweet some tweets to tell people that I'm not the person who owns the account and that they're using me on the profile picture without asking me."

The tweet from WentDemToRep was not the first foray into posing as an African American Democrat who had become a Trump supporter.

@KRon619, which was also suspended for spam, claimed in a tweet to be a "Dem my whole life" before he "left the Dems last month." That post was retweeted over 12,000 times. Other posts from July imploring "Blacks, browns, and whites" to leave the Democratic Party got over 6,700 retweets, and another urging "Blacks and whites" not to let "the Democrat media and the communist rioters divide us" was retweeted almost 12,000 times.

On the same day, Twitter also banned the account of Peter Gammo, a Turkish American man from San Diego. Beyond posting its own tweets, the KRon619 account also repeatedly retweeted Gammo's account.

When reached by phone, Gammo said he knew the KRon619 account and "met him on Twitter," but he denied running the account. He said he had an idea why his account was deleted, but he would not elaborate. Gammo said he was not connected to either KRon619 or WentDemToRep.

Gammo's account had 17,000 followers, and his posts most recently focused on pro-Trump messages about the election and video from Black Lives Matter protests.

Posts viewed by NBC News from WentDemToRep and Kron619 were copied and pasted and separately tweeted hundreds of times by other accounts that were created this month claiming to be those of African Americans.

This sort of repeated posting of a single string of text, sometimes used to troll or simulate support, is known as posting "copypasta," which Twitter said in a statement has increased in recent days.

"We've seen an increase in 'copypasta,' an attempt by many accounts to copy, paste, and Tweet the same phrase. When we see this behavior, we may limit the visibility of the Tweets," a Twitter spokesperson said in a tweet.

Brandi Collins-Dexter, a fellow at Color Of Change, an online racial justice nonprofit, said trolls' simulating the identities of African Americans is a coordinated practice that has been a common trope over the last decade for those trying to delegitimize social justice causes.

"The point is to provide ammunition against Black people for policymakers so they can point to things that are being said, allegedly from a Black person's account, to reinforce the idea that Black Lives Matter is a terrorist threat and put them on equal footing as white nationalists in terms of content moderation," Collins-Dexter said.

There is a decadeslong history of non-Black actors posing as African Americans on social media. In 2016, Russia's Internet Research Agency "troll farm" targeted Black voters to depress turnout for Hillary Clinton, according to American intelligence agencies and bipartisan House and Senate reports.

Collins-Dexter also noted a coordinated campaign from the extremist website 4chan in April to pose as African Americans on Twitter who had just received COVID-19 stimulus checks. The fake accounts would thank the president for the checks, then brag about using them on alcohol, in "an effort to perpetuate the 'Welfare Queen' myth," Collins-Dexter said.

The most viral tweet from WentDemToRep showed up as a copypasta several times on 4chan after it was posted Wednesday on Twitter.