Trump Thanked A 'Supporter' On Twitter. Then A Mystery Unraveled.

"It's very difficult to tell what is a real person or what is a bot on a social media website."

On Saturday, President Donald Trump used one of his tweets to thank Nicole Mincey, a supporter on Twitter who was using a @ProTrump45 handle. The account, though, quickly came under criticism after being exposed to Trump's 35 million Twitter followers. Her profile picture was an edited stock photo, her followers were largely bots, and her most common retweets were of accounts that couldn't be linked to real people.

Quickly, the Internet came to the conclusion most would: Nicole was a bot. But a deep dive by The Daily Beast drew a more complex picture. It turns out Mincey was indeed not a real person, but Nicole Mincy — without the "e" — was. She and a group of Trump supporters were running a store, she explained to The Daily Beast, and somebody else was running her fake Twitter account along with a group of others.

As the interview went on, though, the real-life Mincy became dodgy and inconsistent, and she began creating more questions than answers. What came of the interview was a confounding and appropriate Internet mystery: Mincy, Trump and millions of Twitter users were all intertwined in a network of real people and bots, one that often makes it hard to discern what's real and what isn't.


Screengrab of the @Protrump45 account before it was suspended

Brian Finch, a senior fellow at George Washington University's Center For Cyber & Homeland Security, said he suspects the president's retweet was an accident.

"It's very difficult to tell what is a real person or what is a bot on a social media website," Finch told A Plus in an email. "So anyone, even the most tech-savvy person, can be fooled into thinking a post by a bot was generated by a real person."

Quickly, though, Twitter began suspending accounts related to the ProTrump45 online store, which were almost all being used with stock photos — a violation of Twitter policy against identity impersonation. The story, though, speaks to a larger issue that Twitter and other similar social networks are grappling with: how to address the growing number of robots.

"By some accounts, over 45 percent of Twitter accounts out of Russia are bots," Finch said. "They can manipulate their prominence by churning out keywords or story snippets that are trending, thereby gaining higher profiles on social media sites. In other words: their designers/operators understand the algorithms used to promote or highlight stories and use that to help promote their message."

One study conducted by the University of Southern California and Indiana University estimated that as many as 48 million bots were on Twitter. The same study concluded that between nine and 15 percent of all Twitter users were actually bots. Of course, not all bots are bad. Some are used to help organizations get out their message or handle customer service. Others are programmed to tweet for practical causes — like the bot that lets you know whenever someone from President Trump's team likes a tweet, follows or unfollows a Twitter account. 

A Twitter search for the phrase "american politics" by Moscow-based Twitter users. For illustrative purposes.

At the same time, bots have been shown to try and promulgate fake political movements and even have been used to create trending stories on social media. The consensus of the intelligence community is that Russian-run bots were used to disseminate fake news and disinformation during the 2016 election. 

"Nineteen to 20 percent of the messages in the month before the election were originated by bots," Emilio Ferrara, one of the researchers at the University of Southern California told The Washington Post. "About 400,000 accounts that posted tweets related to the political conversation we believe were bots."

Just last week, an army of accounts helped get the hashtag #fireMcMaster trending after the National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster fired two Trump loyalists. It's not just alleged Trump-backing groups, either: former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton reportedly had one million fake Twitter followers during the 2016 election.

"Whether American politicians use it widely I can't say for sure, but it wouldn't be hard for them to do so," Finch said. "This is where good old shoe leather reporting and investigative journalism comes into play — people need to actually track down the alleged poster rather than just rely on something randomly repeated on a website or social media account."

The good news is that Twitter is now doing its best to address the problem. Several programs can help determine if an account is a bot, and the quick scrubbing of the fake accounts pushing propaganda and selling Trump memorabilia is an encouraging sign that Twitter can respond to groups of bots efficiently. 


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