Democracy Dies in Darkness

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The curious case of ‘Nicole Mincey,’ the Trump fan who may actually be a bot

By Abby Phillip

August 7, 2017 at 7:22 PM

President Trump speaks at Fort Myer in Arlington, Va., during an address to the nation about strategy in Afghanistan. (Carolyn Kaster/AP)
President Trump looks up toward the eclipse without glasses, with first lady Melania Trump by his side, from a balcony at the White House in Washington. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)
President Trump waves while boarding Air Force One at Morristown Municipal Airport in Morristown, N.J., for the return flight to the Washington area. (Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP)
President Trump, first lady Melania Trump and their son, Barron, walk to board Air Force One before departing Morristown Municipal Airport in Morristown, N.J. (Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images)
President Trump arrives in the lobby of Trump Tower in New York to speak to the media about infrastructure and respond to questions about the violence, injuries and deaths at the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville. (Kevin Lamarque/Reuters)
President Trump, center, delivers remarks following a meeting on infrastructure at Trump Tower. Standing alongside him are, from left, Gary Cohn, director of the National Economic Council; Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin; Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao; and Mick Mulvaney, director of the Office of Management and Budget. (Drew Angerer/Getty Images)
Trump speaks about the violence in Charlottesville as he talks to the media. (Kevin Lamarque/Reuters)
Trump speaks to the news media about the protests in Charlottesville after his statement on the infrastructure discussion. (Jim Watson/AFP/Getty Images)
Trump, center, stops to respond to more questions about his responses to the violence in Charlottesville as he leaves a news conference at Trump Tower. (Kevin Lamarque/Reuters)
At the White House, President Trump displays a memorandum he signed addressing Chinas trade practices. (Ricky Carioti/The Washington Post)
Trump salutes as he disembarks from Marine One at the White House. (Ricky Carioti/The Washington Post)
At his golf resort in Bedminster, N.J., Trump speaks about the violent protests in Charlottesville that turned deadly Saturday. (Jim Watson/AFP/Getty Images)
Trump, center, and Veterans Affairs Secretary David Shulkin, left, shake hands with military veterans after signing the VA Choice and Quality Employment Act in Bedminster, N.J. (Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP)
President Trump attends a workforce-development discussion at his club in Bedminster, N.J. From left: senior adviser Jared Kushner, Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, the president, Labor Secretary Alexander Acosta, aide Andrew Bremberg and Ivanka Trump. (Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP)
President Trump speaks to reporters after meeting with Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, left, U.N. AmbassadorNikki Haley and national security adviser H.R. McMaster in Bedminster. (Jonathan Ernst/Reuters)
President Trump and Vice President Pence arrive to speak with reporters before a security briefing at Trump National Golf Club in Bedminster, N.J. (Evan Vucci/AP)
Trump, accompanied by Pence, speaks to reporters in Bedminster. (Jonathan Ernst/Reuters)
President Trump talks about North Korea during a briefing on the opioid crisis at Trump National Golf Club in Bedminster. (Evan Vucci/AP)
Trump walks to board Marine One on the South Lawn for a short trip to Andrews Air Force Base, Md., en route to Bedminster for vacation. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)
Trump talks with West Virginia Gov. Jim Justice at a rally in Huntington. Justice, a Democrat, said he is switching parties to join the Republicans. (Darron Cummings/AP)
Trump listens to a presentation by Veterans Affairs Secretary David Shulkin during a VA telehealth event in the Roosevelt Room of the White House. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)
Trump and Shulkin, center, talk with a patient via a tablet during the telehealth event. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)
Trump, flanked by Sens. Tom Cotton (R- Ark.), left, and David Perdue (R-Ga.), speaks in the Roosevelt Room during the unveiling of legislation that would place new limits on legal immigration. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)
Trump, joined by Cotton, speaks in the Roosevelt Room. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)
Trump, flanked by Small Business Administration Administrator Linda McMahon, left, and adviser Ivanka Trump speaks during a White House event with owners of small businesses. (Jim Watson/AFP/Getty Images)
New White House Chief of Staff John F. Kelly and Trump shake hands after Kellys private swearing-in ceremony in the Oval Office. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)
Trump speaks during a Cabinet meeting at the White House. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)
Trump waves to well-wishers after dining at Trump International Hotel in Washington. (Chris Kleponis/Pool photo via European Pressphoto Agency)
Trump speaks to law enforcement officials about the MS-13 street gang on the Long Island University campus in Brentwood, N.Y. (Evan Vucci/AP)
Police applaud a line by Trump during remarks about his proposed government effort against the MS-13 gang at a gathering of federal, state and local law enforcement officials in Brentwood. (Jonathan Ernst/Reuters)
Trump speaks with reporters at Joint Base Andrews in Maryland after firing Reince Priebus and naming Homeland Security Secretary John F. Kelly as his new chief of staff. (Evan Vucci/AP)
At the White House, Trump welcomes Jennifer Scalise, wife of Rep. Steve Scalise (R-La.), who was shot in June at a congressional baseball practice. The ceremony honored first responders who helped during the shooting in Alexandria, Va. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)
Trump presents the Medal of Valor to U.S. Capitol Police Officer Crystal Griner during the ceremony honoring first responders at the shooting that took place during a GOP baseball team practice. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)
Trump greets, from left, Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker (R), Vice President Pence, House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.) and Terry Gou, chief executive of Foxconn, in the East Room of the White House after announcing the first U.S. assembly plant for the electronics giant. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)
Supporter Geno DiFabio speaks with Trump. (Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images)
Trump and Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri walk to the Rose Garden of the White House for a joint news conference. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)
From left, Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, Trump and senior adviser Jared Kushner attend a meeting with the Lebanese prime minister in the Cabinet Room of the White House. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)
Trump waves to the Boy Scout troops and leaders assembled at the groups national jamboree in West Virginia. (Carlos Barria/Reuters)
From the Blue Room of the White House, the president urges Senate Republicans to move forward with legislation to overhaul the Affordable Care Act. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)
Trump and Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe (D), second from left, stand for the colors during the commissioning ceremony of the supercarrier USS Gerald R. Ford in Norfolk. (Carolyn Kaster/AP)
Trump greets guests during a meeting in the Oval Office with survivors of the attack on the USS Arizona at Pearl Harbor. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)
Photo Gallery: Scenes from Trump’s second six months in office

On Saturday, President Trump tweeted his gratitude to a social-media super-fan, ­Nicole Mincey, magnifying her praise of him to his 35 million followers. 

Here’s the problem: There is no evidence the Twitter feed belongs to someone named Nicole Mincey. And the account, according to experts, bears a lot of signs of a Russia-backed disinformation campaign.

On Sunday, Twitter suspended the Mincey account, known as @ProTrump45, after several other users revealed that it was probably a fake, created to amplify pro-Trump content.

The incident highlights Trump’s penchant for off-the-cuff tweeting — and the potential consequences for doing so now that he holds the nation’s highest office. Even as the president has railed against multiple investigations into Russia’s meddling in U.S. politics, he may have become Exhibit A of the foreign government’s influence by elevating a suspected Russia-connected ­social-media user — part a sophisticated campaign to exacerbate disputes in U.S. politics and gain the attention of the most powerful tweeter in the world.

“The president doesn’t know whether it’s a Russian bot or not,” said Clint Watt, a former FBI agent and fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute, using the term for a fake Twitter account pretending to represent a real person and created to influence public opinion or promote a particular agenda. “He’s just pushing a narrative, whether it’s true or false. This provides a window not just for Russia but for any adversary to both influence the president or discredit him.”

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(Monica Akhtar/The Washington Post)

As a candidate, Trump became known for amplifying tweets from accounts of dubious origin, including one under the name @WhiteGenocideTM, and for disseminating anti-Semitic memes that bubbled up from some of the darkest corners of the Internet.

As president, not much has changed. Trump still routinely hits the retweet button if a Twitter user echoes his criticism of his adversaries or showers him with praise — regardless of who that user is or what his or her motives may be. 

Aides and advisers have hinted that Trump has been urged to tone down his tweeting habits, but the president has shut down those conversations quickly, according to two people who have witnessed such exchanges. He also has on occasion followed bouts of public discourse about his Twitter feed with a rapid-fire tweet storm — perhaps an implicit signal that he has no intention of ceding control of his account to aides now that he is in the White House.

Trump’s tweet storms of the past several days, for instance, have followed intense speculation that his new chief of staff, John F. Kelly, might try to exert greater control over the president’s account. The message? That’s probably not going to happen.

During his six-month tenure, Trump’s former chief of staff, Reince Priebus, was unable to do much to rein in Trump’s social-media rants. Lawyers have tried and failed to impress upon the president the risks of discussing the ongoing investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election and possible collusion by his campaign associates.

Kelly faces much the same challenge. According to people who have spoken with him, he does not believe that he will be able to change Trump’s social-media behavior and believes that being seen as attempting to do so could pose risks, including damaging his relationship with the president.

On Monday morning, marking Kelly’s second week on the job, Trump blasted out nine tweets, including ones renewing attacks on Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.), the “fake news” media, “phony fake news polling,” and the “Fake News Russian collusion story”

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(Reuters)

While Trump continues to dismiss the Russia investigation, bipartisan former national security officials and researchers say that the coordinated, state-backed efforts to spread disinformation during the 2016 campaign were very real. 

“Nineteen to 20 percent of the messages in the month before the election were originated by bots,” said Emilio Ferrara, a researcher at the University of Southern California who conducted research on the impact of bots on the 2016 election. “About 400,000 accounts that posted tweets related to the political conversation we believe were bots.”

If anything, these accounts have found an even greater foothold since the election among Trump’s most ardent supporters online.

In the past week, a virtual army of accounts identified as having ties to a Russia-backed disinformation campaign targeting the U.S. political system zeroed in on efforts among Trump’s supporters to attack his national security adviser, H.R. McMaster, over the firing of two Trump loyalists from the National Security Council. 

A tool created by a bipartisan group of national security experts and researchers to track Russian-backed propaganda accounts found that the “#fireMcMaster” hashtag became popular among these misinformation accounts at the same time that several influential, pro-Trump users on Twitter adopted the anti-McMaster position.

By Friday, the clamoring against McMaster had become so loud that Trump issued a public statement defending him.

“As a Republican, it raises questions for some on the right who obviously have a difference of opinion on someone like Gen. McMaster, but the reality is there is a foreign power here trying to push an agenda,” said Jamie Fly, a former adviser to Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) who helped create the Hamilton 68 project, which tracks the influence of Russian-backed propaganda online.

Researchers say the fake accounts sometimes disseminate content from well-known Russian-backed sources, including Sputnik and RT. The content is then picked up by U.S. conservatives. Or the fake accounts might amplify content created by far-right media outlets known for misinformation, including Gateway Pundit and Infowars.

Fly said Trump’s liberal use of Twitter has only increased the return on investment for a foreign power such as Russia seeking to sow division within the U.S. political system. Accounts can use Trump’s low bar for retweets to their advantage by creating large volumes of content in the hope that he might be drawn to some of it.

“His use of Twitter has elevated the platform,” Fly said. “It’s created a situation where it’s probably even more useful for a foreign power like Russia to try to influence the debate on Twitter.”

In the case of the account that was the recipient of an emphatic “Thank you Nicole!” from Trump on Saturday, Twitter will not say exactly why it was suspended. Online sleuths have posted evidence that the account has changed names several times, including as recently as this weekend. Experts say accounts such as this one often disappear quickly once they are exposed or achieve their objective. No one named Nicole Mincey has stepped forward to say the account is hers.

“We do not comment on individual accounts, for privacy and security reasons,” a Twitter spokesman said in response to an inquiry about why the account was suspended.

At one point, the account boasted as many at 150,000 followers. According to other Twitter users, it was connected to similar accounts, which experts say suggests a network created to disseminate propaganda. These accounts are often set up as one-stop shops for pro-Trump, anti-Democratic Party memes. The accounts often use stock images doctored to display pro-Trump messages or slogans. 

The Trump administration has appeared resistant to addressing the growing problem of Russian online propaganda, which lawmakers and national security experts warn is a continuation of the tactics seen during the 2016 campaign. 

Congress has appropriated $80 million to combat Islamic State propaganda and Russian disinformation online, but the State Department has not used the money, prompting bipartisan condemnation from Sen. Rob Portman (R-Ohio) and Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.), the lawmakers who wrote the legislation establishing the fund.

“The challenge of Russia disinformation is not about Donald Trump, it’s much broader than that,” Portman said in a speech at the Atlantic Council late last month. “It was a serious problem before him, and it’s going to continue to be a problem long after his term in office.”


Abby Phillip is a national political reporter covering the White House for The Washington Post. She can be reached at abby.phillip@washpost.com.

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