In a span of 10 minutes Monday night, I watched three people who work in the news business quote a viral tweet from @MikePenceVP, and retweet it with a message intended for Vice President Pence. The viral tweet was not from Pence, but instead from an unverified parody account, whose bio clearly says it is a “fan account,” links to two of Pence’s verified Twitter handles and argues the account’s goal is “exposing the liberals hypocrisy.”
It’s an effective parody, with more than 46,000 followers. And because of its popularity, depending on what you type, Twitter will sometimes automatically suggest the parody account’s handle for those attempting to tag the vice president in a tweet. The fake Mike Pence tweets things that, at least to liberal ears, the real Mike Pence might say, including inflammatory and glib defenses of the new administration’s policies. It’s an account designed to provoke a response, and it regularly gets one.
Parody Twitter accounts have long been a part of the Internet’s hoax ecosystem. But the past few weeks have tested the abilities of relatively Internet-savvy people to discern between a political hoax or a misleading meme masquerading as news and the real news emerging in a rush from the new government. This is particularly true among Trump’s opponents: when you believe the White House is acting like it’s suddenly grown a giant Wario mustache, it becomes much easier to buy into every villainous-sounding thing about it, whether it’s true or not.
“Never Tweet” is a joke among frequent Twitter users that highlights the eventual fate of every person with a Twitter account: Someday, you will exercise bad judgment or be misunderstood in 140 characters. The only way to avoid making such a mistake, the joke goes, is simply to never put anything on Twitter. But more and more, it seems the joke should be “Never Retweet.” As conspiracy theories and untrue statements continue to come out of the White House, the people who have steeled themselves to be hypervigilant in Trump’s America are spreading some of their own, often with nothing more than an unchecked retweet of something devious that seems possible these days.
“No big deal — just the White House re-writing Bill of Rights to replace references to ‘persons/people’ w/ ‘citizens’. Not a joke. Not a drill,” read one viral tweet accusing the Trump administration of, essentially, making a major change to the Constitution. The evidence: images of the White House website’s page on the Constitution, which uses the word “citizens” in its summaries of multiple amendments, where the Bill of Rights uses the word “people.” The apparent change was deeply disturbing to people who are concerned about Trump’s regard for the Constitution, after a dramatic and chaotic week in executive branch actions. But those retweeting this or other tweets pointing out the “change” forgot to do one thing: Check to see whether it was any different from the White House’s Constitution page under President Barack Obama.
Guess what? It wasn’t.
As far back as April 2015, the Internet Archive’s Wayback Machine shows that the Obama administration displayed an identical page of the Constitution on its own White House website. The Trump administration simply kept the page when it transitioned.
“We are seeing a lot of hoaxes being accepted as genuine by people who oppose Trump, and it’s all ideologically driven,” said Brooke Binkowski, an editor at Snopes, in an email. And that includes on Twitter, where some of this misinformation is gaining a wider audience when the source seems reliable. “I would caution people not to take any twitter accounts at face value, no matter how insidery they claim to be or how real they ‘feel.’ ” Binkowski says. “There are strange forces afoot and many of them enjoy tricking people, or making them look or feel stupid.”
Want another example? How about this debunked claim from a tweet by a New York Observer writer that Trump’s administration had photoshopped his hands to look larger in a photo hanging at the White House? There was also this viral Twitter meme about the House speaker’s logo for Rep. Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.):
Paul Ryan's official logo vs. the Parteiadler, official emblem of the Nazi party. pic.twitter.com/2GOTUonFsu
— Seth Abramovitch (@SethAbramovitch) January 6, 2017
The meme implied that Ryan had either intentionally or accidentally taken inspiration from the Nazis in picking a seal. Except it simply depicts the speaker’s mace, a staff that has long played a symbolic role in the U.S. House and is often depicted in the seal of the House speaker. What’s more, the speaker’s logo depicts an American bald eagle with its distinctive white head. And the bald eagle has been the country’s national symbol since 1782.
Or how about another one about Pence? Look at this viral tweet claiming that the vice president had deleted an old post that was critical of Trump’s campaign pledge to ban Muslims:
— Karl Turner MP (@KarlTurnerMP) January 29, 2017
The tweet was never deleted. It is here:
Calls to ban Muslims from entering the U.S. are offensive and unconstitutional.
— Governor Mike Pence (@GovPenceIN) December 8, 2015
The same phenomenon is also at work for moments of elation. Jesse Singal at New York Magazine looked into how this was at work in the virality of “rogue” accounts from the National Park Service and other parts of the federal government. Although there are many signs of dissent from within the federal workforce, including on social media, the vast majority of those “rogue” accounts were unverified when they went viral, and remain so now.
“People who share these accounts and their tweets desperately want it to be the case that some brave government staffers are tweeting their resistance to the Trump agenda. Because they want it to be true, they don’t bother to ask the questions they would ask if the information didn’t confirm their political biases,” Singal wrote.
This is particularly true for a Twitter account called Rogue POTUS Staff, which claims to be “the unofficial resistance team inside the White House.” Their Twitter bio proudly declares that they will block anyone who tries to identify them, and they have refused attempts to verify their connection to the White House, even without publicly revealing who they are. Binkowski, at Snopes, said that the account has ignored multiple requests from her for verification.
The tweets from Rogue POTUS Staff are popular, but without actual verification to prove that their insights are genuinely from within, they’re essentially just political astrology for liberals: plausible-sounding but unproven contributions to a churn of worry and suspicion that seem to confirm your hunches. In an environment of real concerns about the current administration and reliable reports of internal disarray, the tweets are addictive for Trump’s opposition:
Suspicion that Bannon urging POTUS to egg on protests, then call in National Guard to disperse, as demonstration of power. #resistpeacefully
— Rogue POTUS Staff (@RoguePOTUSStaff) January 29, 2017
— Rogue POTUS Staff (@RoguePOTUSStaff) January 30, 2017
“Fake news” has become kind of a meaningless term, as speculation about its role in the election of Trump became a meme that was, eventually, turned against the mainstream media by a sitting president who appears to be looking for a way to vent his anger about unfavorable coverage. It’s tough to draw complete equivalencies between the long-growing, lucrative cottage industry of “fake news” that targets right-wing Americans and what’s happening on Twitter now, but some of the lessons we learned from dissecting the former apply here: namely, that hoaxes work because they are designed to feel “right” to a portion of the population, to be shared without thinking. Their online distribution might not be equal across the political spectrum, but no one is immune from them.