On Monday, Twitter suspended an account that helped ignite a furor over an encounter in Washington between a Native American and a white high school student. The account claimed to be run by a schoolteacher in California, but its profile picture was that of a celebrity blogger in Brazil.
The road to the 2020 election will be paved with the same type of viral social media-fueled scandal that happened last weekend, and the same kinds of questions it has left us with.
Was the account that Twitter suspended really run by a teacher in the Bay Area, albeit one who had a knack for getting national attention and was apparently willing to sell tweets from her popular account? Why exactly was Twitter so quick to take it down, citing as its justification a violation of a rule that is constantly broken on the service? (A source familiar with the matter told CNN Wednesday that the account was suspended for multiple reasons. It has since been deleted.)
Days later, things still aren’t clear. The person behind the account hasn’t come forward, and Twitter hasn’t offered up an answer either. On Tuesday, a source with knowledge of Twitter’s investigation told CNN that Twitter believes the account was based in the United States, but cautioned that it is difficult to precisely determine where accounts are run from. Wednesday evening, NBC News reported that the person behind the account is in fact a teacher in California, though it did not say how it knows.
For more than two years, the Twitter account @2020fight tweeted its scorn for President Trump, racking up tens of thousands of followers along the way. The person or people running the account said they were a schoolteacher named Talia, working in the Bay Area in California, and they tweeted regularly about their job, though without ever including too many identifying details.
Friday night, Talia tweeted a video of the now infamous encounter, with the caption, “This MAGA loser gleefully bothering a Native American protestor at the Indigenous Peoples March.”
The tweet went everywhere, racking up more than 22,000 retweets, and at least 5.8 million video views. The tweet got the attention of numerous high-profile Twitter users and national news outlets.
Soon after CNN asked Twitter on Monday about the account and if it had observed any unusual activity that helped the video go viral, the company suspended Talia’s account, saying that, “Deliberate attempts to manipulate the public conversation on Twitter by using misleading account information is a violation of the Twitter Rules.”
A source familiar with Twitter’s investigation told CNN that Twitter suspended the account because of its profile picture, because some of the information contained in the account’s biography was inconsistent with technical indicators about the account, and because some of the account’s actions appeared to be geared towards manipulating the platform.
The account did have some of the signs of a fake. A seemingly regular schoolteacher with a following of more than 40,000 built up over just two years who tweeted all the time — an average of 130 tweets per day this year — is often one kind of indicator that things might not be as they seem.
And yet Talia’s tweets suggested that the account was real. Though a substantial number of her tweets were political, many were about teaching and education, or the Bay Area.
Twitter users who had followed the account for years told CNN they believed her to be real, maybe a teacher who didn’t want to post her picture or full identity on the internet, out of fear for blowback. Talia’s account was regularly getting hundreds of retweets, after all, and she frequently criticized President Trump — a good way to attract negative attention online.
One Twitter user who says they live in the Bay Area told CNN they had exchanged private messages with Talia about activity and businesses in the area — including a discussion about a car dealership in San Jose. “She’s definitely not a bot,” the user told CNN.
Talia also seems to have run a page on a website called Teachers Pay Teachers selling resources for teachers. On the other hand, she also appears to have been selling access to her large Twitter audience. Her account was featured on Shoutcart, a social media amplification service — where users could seemingly get Talia to tweet something for them for $20.
Shoutcart told CNN that it suspended Talia soon after she was suspended by Twitter, and that the video Talia tweeted that went viral last weekend “was not part of any paid campaign” through its service.
Twitter, Facebook, and other social media companies have all implemented new policies in an attempt to crack down on misuse of their platforms.
But last weekend highlighted a problem that the company’s policies alone will not fix. Social media moves fast, and by the time that high-profile tweeters, newsrooms and the public at large stop to wonder who’s behind that thing going viral, and whether they’re being used — whether to sell a product or push an agenda — it may well be too late.