How hate and misinformation go viral: A case study of a Trump retweet

U.S. President Donald Trump is using a mobile phone during a roundtable discussion on the reopening of small businesses in the State Dining Room at the White House in Washington, U.S., June 18, 2020.

On Sunday night, President Donald Trump retweeted a video of a violent incident on a New York City subway platform. The video shows a Black man pushing a white woman into a train car and is captioned “Black Lives Matter / Antifa.” The problem? It is over a year old and has nothing to do with either Black Lives Matter or Antifa. It, in fact, shows the actions of a mentally ill man with no known ties to either group.

Trump’s Sunday night retweet is a case study in how far-right online networks work across social media platforms to build their followings, promote their messages, and provide Trump with the viral content that filled his timeline on Sunday. The video was first posted online by a self-identified follower of a network of online white supremacists. It was then re-posted with the inaccurate caption by a recently created Spanish-language citizen news site, TDN_NOTICIAS, dedicated to spreading inflammatory, racist news items. From TDN_NOTICIAS, it was a short journey to Trump’s Twitter feed, where he retweeted it. By working off a variety of platforms—Twitter, Dropbox, and Telegram among them—a group of hateful online provocateurs managed to successfully spread a false news report and gain a coveted signal boost from Trump’s Twitter account.

The origin of a Trump retweet

The mislabeled, repurposed clip that Trump retweeted originated from the account of an individual calling himself “I’m with Groyper”—an indication that he self-identifies as a member of the Groyper Army, which the Anti-Defamation League describes as a loose network of online white supremacists. That video was seized upon by TDN_NOTICIAS, which posted it on Sunday with the caption “Black Lives Matter / Antifa.”  Approximately an hour and a half after TDN_NOTICIAS posted it, Trump retweeted it.

TDN_NOTICIAS is a self-proclaimed “Independent Digital Information Medium” based in Chile. It fits a recurring profile in our analyses of computational propaganda: a pop-up news site of unclear origins. It has no functioning web site, minimal web presence, and a heavy focus on partisan political messaging. In fact, between the beginning of our research for this article and its time of publication, someone revived a WordPress site named after the organization, presumably in response to Trump’s boost. As of Sunday evening, the same URL delivered a 404 error. Former versions of the site, accessed through the Wayback Machine, host a click bait aggregator. In short, TDN_NOTICIAS appears to be a small network of social media accounts masquerading as a news outlet, whose Twitter feed is used to sow racist, polarizing content. Based on its Twitter page and a DNS history of two URLs associated with the Twitter page, the website appears to have sprung up in October 2019, followed by the Twitter page in November. Typically, such sites aim to get the attention of mainstream political and media figures in order to either make money through link clicks and ads or to sow extreme political propaganda.

When Trump retweeted the inaccurately captioned video, it appeared in his timeline like this:

Trump_Groyper Retweet

The fallout of a Trump retweet

The “I’m With Groyper” account, which uses the handle @nicolasvicentmm, originally posted the video in a thread of videos depicting Black individuals attacking white people. The user behind the account claimed the video was part of a larger Dropbox repository of similar content. The false claim, shared by Trump, that this video was connected to BLM and/or Antifa was not a part of the original post by the white supremacist “I’m With Groyper” account. This designation only cropped up when it was reshared by TDN_NOTICIAS. There were references to BLM and/or Antifa in other videos in the thread, along with other racially charged topics, but not for this particular video. “I’m With Groyper” spent the 24 hours following the Trump retweet trying to deal with the consequences of a presidential boost to his Twitter accounts. “I’m With Groyper” immediately tweeted that he feared the Trump tweet would result in him being banned from the platform: “I don’t wanna get banned by tomorrow morning, so I’ll be deleting the videos with the more incendiary comments. Sorry, my followers.” He deleted the original video in question and tried to distance himself from the president’s tweet. Then, the account began brainstorming ways to use the “Trump bump” to gain more “seeders”— people who spread white supremacist ideology for the sake of recruitment.

It was all for naught. By the following afternoon, Twitter had suspended the “I’m with Groyper” account.

Despite the deletion of the account, Nicholas Fuentes, the leader of the white supremacist group in question, has immortalized the thread in a series of screenshots.

While “I’m With Groyper” has been removed from Twitter, TDN_NOTICIAS has escaped punishment, but not notice, and has ultimately benefited from this entire episode. In the course of a day, TDN_NOTICIAS followed more than 460 new accounts, gained 600 followers, and received, in one tweet, engagement far greater than anything else they had ever produced. The tweet before the Trump retweet had 108 retweets and 129 likes. The Trump retweet garnered 20.1K likes and 12.5K retweets, the tweet after it 153 likes and 60 retweets. It is possible that TDN_NOTICIAS, finding no profitability in a click bait veneer of a news organization, has been spamming pro-Trump content with the goal of achieving this sort of notoriety.

In addition to the increased visibility on Twitter, TDN_NOTICIAS claimed their account had been temporarily suspended and used it to build legitimacy among its base: “The battle against the left is tough, but fun :).” We have been unable to verify whether or not this suspension actually occurred, but, for TDN_NOTICIAS, the effect is the same. They are leveraging the moment in Trump’s spotlight to pull users into a closed media system, created on-demand. TDN_NOTICIAS has found a new audience and is buoyed by a sense of self-righteousness against, as one commenter put it, “the revenge of the dictator blue bird because Trump RT you.”

TDN_NOTICIAS demonstrates how easy it is to will a seemingly legitimate news source into existence across Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, and a WordPress site, without having any actual content or journalists. TDN_NOTICIAS and “independent news sites” like it around the world may not hold up to serious scrutiny, but to achieve their goals of influence and profitability, they just need to pass a cursory inspection that gets them retweeted.

Influence operations beyond Twitter

Social media sites, apps, and related technology are often viewed as independent from each other—especially when it comes to discussing the provenance of content or generating responses to the problems of disinformation. But as is evident in this episode, the origins of a piece of disinformation are difficult to determine. White supremacists’ use of Telegram, Dropbox, and Twitter demonstrates how influence in mainstream conversations has origins that are often hard to pinpoint. The white supremacists’ use of various media tools to further their hateful goals goes beyond any one social website or application. They are not consigned to Twitter or Telegram but make use of different tools for different purposes: Telegram to strategize, Twitter to reach a broader public.

Online operatives like these are aware of their antagonistic relationship with mainstream platforms and attempt to stay one step ahead of their regulations. While Twitter can attempt to curb disinformation within its walled garden, groups like Fuentes’s Groypers are actively coordinating outside of the major platforms to share, create, and plan the spreading of content. As recently as August 28, Fuentes’s Telegram channel was sharing content related to “off platform” influence to resist the attempts of academics and social media platforms to curb the influence of their networks: 

Despite the efforts of Twitter and other platforms to crack down on white supremacist content, examining the actors involved in this episode reveals problems in the methods Twitter uses to flag such material. Of the three Twitter accounts involved, TD_NOTICIAS, “I’m With Groyper,” and @realDonaldTrump, “I’m With Groyper” is the only one to be permanently suspended—which is ironic. “I’m With Groyper’s” original post, while a clear example of race-baiting, was devoid of the context (the BLM/Antifa tweet from Trump) that eventually led to Twitter’s decision to ban the user. For the account that added the false context of “BLM/Antifa”—TDN_Noticias—this entire endeavor has been a boon.

The different consequences for these three accounts highlight the double standards Twitter uses to enforce its content rules. If “I’m With Groyper” was in violation of Twitter’s policies, why was this white supremacist’s account not deleted earlier? Why have Donald Trump and TDN_Noticias not been held accountable—especially when they shared a more disinformative and problematic version of the video?

Twitter may argue that citizens in the public sphere maintained by the company have a right to view problematic or untruthful statements about or originating from their public officials, but this brings us to the larger issue of Twitter’s role maintaining that public sphere, and the obligations such a role ought to carry. The more Twitter occupies a central place in our political discourse, the more incumbent it is upon the company to apply its policies equally—even and especially by accounts that wield political power.

Jacob Gursky is a research associate at the Center for Media Engagement at the University of Texas at Austin.

Samuel Woolley, PhD, is the director of the propaganda research program at the Center for Media Engagement, the research director of disinformation work at the Good Systems initiative, and an assistant professor in the School of Journalism—all at the University of Texas at Austin.

Twitter and Facebook provide financial support to The Brookings Institution, a nonprofit organization devoted to rigorous, independent, in-depth public policy research.