One tweet containing this message had nearly 10,000 retweets as of Wednesday afternoon before it was deleted:
Others picked up on this unsourced claim about Trump’s followers and amplified it with their own analysis about what it might mean:
The rumors even escaped Twitter. Hillary Clinton appeared to refer to them during a Recode event Wednesday. “Who is behind driving up Trump’s Twitter followers by the millions?” she said. “We know they’re bots. Why? I assume there’s a reason for everything. Is it to make him look more popular than he is? Is it to try to influence others on Twitter about what the messaging is?”
The thing is, the viral claim — that Trump had gained more than 5 million followers in three days, who were “mostly bots” — was “completely false,” according to Twitter spokesman Nick Pacilio. It’s easily disproved by looking at historical evidence of Trump’s followers over the past few weeks. Three days before those initial tweets about Trump’s followers, he had 30.6 million followers. He currently has 31.1 million followers.
Welcome to the world of “liberal fake news,” a growing source of fact-checkers’ nightmares and conservative schadenfreude. While not equivalent to the bigger, more established and more lucrative misinformation infrastructure on the Internet that caters to conservative audiences, it has become a daily part of living online for those on the left watching for signs of Trump’s downfall, and for the journalists who scour Twitter for conversations about the news. And the effect is the same: disruptive and destructive noise that occludes the reality of the world in which we live.
There are plenty of examples. A viral tweet showing a little girl insulting an actor playing Trump got 200,000 retweets a few weeks ago, largely from people who appeared to believe it showed the real president (it was from a television show). Vice recently published a revealing column about how the Federal Communications Commission’s routine response to complaints about a vulgar Stephen Colbert joke started an unwarranted liberal outrage cycle claiming that the government was trying to censor Trump’s opponents. And then there are the stories from journalist Louise Mensch and Clinton White House vet Claude Taylor divining the impending reveal of an indictment and Trump’s impeachment. Neither report has been independently verified, and some have noted that their tantalizing narratives of an impending fall for Team Trump don’t even appear to understand how the government works.
“It’s getting worse,” said Brooke Binkowski, an editor at Snopes.com, a fact-checking site that focuses on Internet rumors and hoaxes. “It’s getting a lot worse.” Viral hoaxes “used to mostly come from the right, a little from the left,” she said. “Now it’s the right and left. Twice as much work.”
“The right, their big failing is that they think they have the moral upper-hand,” Binkowski added. “The left? Theirs is that they believe they have the intellectual upper-hand. Both can be exploited.”
Binkowski says the phenomenon often shows up in a viral tweetstorm (or, in some cases, Medium post) analyzing Russia’s alleged connections to and influence on the Trump administration. While there is plenty of real reporting happening on this topic — not to mention actual investigations — the stories the facts tell are messy and incomplete. These viral tweetstorms — the most famous is Eric Garland’s “Game Theory” epic — fill the gaps between the facts with speculation and provide a feeling of certainty for those who read them.
“It’s a distraction” driven by an audience that “wants to see this administration fail,” Binkowski said. “Everybody thinks they’re going to be the star of the spy movie.”
Liberal misinformation hasn’t yet produced the equivalent of the Seth Rich conspiracy theory, which made it all the way to a Fox News report before the cable network eventually retracted the story. But it is becoming increasingly visible, as the New York Times noted this week, in part because of the huge role Twitter plays in connecting journalists into conversations about the topics they cover. Unsubstantiated claims like the one about those 5 million new Trump followers bubble up to journalists, who are often asked to report on them or to fact-check them. And attempts to clarify or debunk them often come too late to stem the spread of the original falsehood.
Like any effective piece of viral misinformation, the 5 million followers claim started from a true observation that’s more nuanced and less sexy than the conspiracists’ claims. Data pulled by the social-media audience management company SocialRank does suggest that there’s been an influx of “egg accounts” (or those with a default profile picture, indicating that they are brand new, not fully set up and/or a possible bot) following Trump recently. From February to late May, the percentage of his followers with the default user icon jumped from 20 percent to 33 percent.
That’s interesting enough, perhaps, for a legitimate news story noting the phenomenon, and to catch the attention of experts. But that’s a far cry from establishing exactly what’s going on with Trump’s followers. Maybe someone’s artificially buying followers for @realDonaldTrump, something that anyone can do for any account, for relatively benign or nefarious purposes. Or, maybe Twitter’s “who to follow” recommendation system that urges brand-new accounts to follow a handful of popular, verified accounts right away — such as @realDonaldTrump or @justinbieber, based on their interests — is contributing to a rise in “egg” accounts following Trump. Maybe it’s a combination of both.
“There’s a smidgen of truth in there, and then [it leads to] something easily disprovable. You can get caught up in it,” said Alexander Taub, SocialRank’s co-founder and chief executive. Taub added that his team has seen an increase in requests for help from journalists on stories like these.
We asked SocialRank to look at Justin Bieber’s account. And while they weren’t able to make an exact comparison to Trump’s, they did see that the pop star’s account also appeared to have an influx of followers with the default avatar over the past month. The point is, there are multiple possible explanations for an observable phenomenon that appears to support a tiny piece of the viral falsehood.
Binkowski has noticed something else that’s a bit more disturbing, from Snopes’s attempts to address viral misinformation on the left. “When we debunk stuff like this, we get a slew of emails accusing us of being paid off,” she said. The site’s fact-checkers are used to this response from some more intense conspiracy theories with followings on the left, such as the anti-vaccination movement. But lately, that angry reaction has come from a wider audience of left-wing readers.
“There are a lot of people just calling for BS,” Binkowski said. “They react with such hostility when people come in to say, ‘There’s more to the story.’ There’s no discourse.”