Investigation: President Donald J. Trump's tweets have helped spread a culture of suspicion and distrust of facts that has taken hold in the political mainstream. See how conspiracy-mongers, racists and spies have influenced what he absorbs and amplifies on Twitter.
In September, an obscure Twitter account promoting a fringe belief about an anti-Trump cabal within the government tweeted out a hashtag: #FakeWhistleblower.
It was typical for the anonymous account, which traffics in far-right content and a conspiracy theory known as QAnon, some of whose adherents think that satanic paedophiles control the "deep state." The Federal Bureau of Investigation recently labelled QAnon a potential domestic terror threat.
Still, that did not stop others, including a Republican congressional candidate, from quickly picking up the hashtag and tweeting it. Within a week, hundreds of QAnon believers and "MAGA" activists had joined in, posting memes and bogus reports to undermine the complaint by a government whistleblower that President Donald Trump had pressed Ukraine's leader for dirt on former Vice President Joe Biden and his son.
Then Trump tweeted the hashtag himself.
Such is the frenetic life cycle of conspiracy-driven propaganda, fakery and hate in the age of the first Twitter presidency. Trump, whose own tweets have warned of deep-state plots against him, accused the House speaker of treason and labelled Republican critics "human scum," has helped spread a culture of suspicion and distrust of facts into the political mainstream.
The president is also awash in an often toxic torrent that sluices into his Twitter account — roughly 1,000 tweets per minute, many intended for his eyes. Tweets that tag his handle, @realDonaldTrump, can be found with hashtags like #HitlerDidNothingWrong, #IslamIsSatanism and #WhiteGenocide. While filters can block offensive material, the president clearly sees some of it, because he dips into the frothing currents and serves up noxious bits to the rest of the world.
By retweeting suspect accounts, seemingly without regard for their identity or motives, he has lent credibility to white nationalists, anti-Muslim bigots and obscure QAnon adherents like VB Nationalist, an anonymous account that has promoted a hoax about top Democrats worshipping the Devil and engaging in child sex trafficking.
"I've been retweeted by the President of the United States, President Trump!" replied VB Nationalist, who gained thousands of followers after the high-level boost and took it as a sign of encouragement, adding, "Tell me again, how he doesn't care about us."
To assess this unprecedented moment, The New York Times examined Trump's interactions with Twitter since he took office, reviewing each of his more than 11,000 tweets and the hundreds of accounts he has retweeted, tracking the ways he is exposed to information and replicating what he is likely to see on the platform. The result, including new data analysis and previously unreported details, offers the most comprehensive view yet of a virtual world in which the president spends significant time mingling with extremists, impostors and spies.
Fake accounts tied to intelligence services in China, Iran and Russia had directed thousands of tweets at Trump, according to a Times analysis of propaganda accounts suspended by Twitter. Iranian operatives tweeted anti-Semitic tropes, saying that Trump was "being controlled" by global Zionists, and that pulling out of the Iran nuclear treaty would benefit North Korea. Russian accounts tagged the president more than 30,000 times, including in supportive tweets about the Mexican border wall and his hectoring of black football players. Trump even retweeted a phony Russian account that said, "We love you, Mr. President!"
In fact, Trump has retweeted at least 145 unverified accounts that have pushed conspiracy or fringe content, including more than two dozen that have since been suspended by Twitter. Tinfoil-hat types and racists celebrate when Trump shares something they promote. After he tweeted his support for white farmers in South Africa, replies included "DONALD IS KING!" and "No black man can develop land."
The president gets some of his questionable material on Twitter from the 47 accounts he follows that show up in his feed, a curated timeline of tweets that come mostly from his family, celebrities, Fox News hosts and Republican politicians, some of whom in turn follow Twitter accounts that promote QAnon or express anti-Islam or white nationalist views.
QAnon-related accounts have potentially migrated to the president's iPhone courtesy of retweets by Donald Trump Jr., the Fox News anchor Maria Bartiromo and the conservative commentator Eric Bolling, all of whom Trump follows. The younger Trump has also retweeted Russian intelligence operatives pushing divisive stories about immigration and voter fraud.
Trolls and fringe elements quickly figured out that the best way to reach Trump is to appeal to his ego. Last year, an anonymous account with a profile photo of actor Kurt Russell and posts promoting QAnon tagged Trump in a tweet, declaring, "You're the greatest President of my lifetime, Sir." It was not really Russell, but Trump retweeted it with a "Thank you!," helping the account add 2,900 followers that day, before Twitter eventually suspended it.
Authentic or not, the most fervent MAGA and QAnon accounts — at least 23,000 of his followers have QAnon references in their profiles — form a dependable Greek chorus that exploits the tricks of the medium to amplify the president's message. Trump benefits from the activism of his online supporters and the platform's algorithms, which tend to reward the most partisan content within digital communities.
But the constant exposure to the worst elements of social media poses risks. Clint Watts, a former FBI agent and a cybersecurity expert who studies propaganda campaigns on social media, said the time Trump spent on Twitter "gives you an amazing opportunity to game the president."
"You are very clearly capable of using Twitter to entice and influence this president," he said. "You can distort the guy's views from your house."
Since the dawn of the internet, the nation's leaders have been largely sheltered from the storm of disinformation and bile that churns on its fringes. Social media barely existed during Bill Clinton's presidency, George W. Bush's reference to "the Google" betrayed his unfamiliarity and Barack Obama chafed at being denied an iPhone but agreed to it.
But with the arrival of Trump in the Oval Office, Twitter managed to connect the ultimate seat of power to the darkest corners of the web for the first time. There is little evidence that Trump harbours concerns about promoting accounts that traffic in fake or inflammatory material.
The White House declined to comment for this article and turned down an interview request with the president. But at a White House "social media summit" in July that brought together far-right activists and provocateurs, Trump expressed appreciation for the fodder he sampled on Twitter.
"The crap that you think of," he said, "is unbelievable."
Mastering the craft
The path to #FakeWhistleblower stretches back to a seminal conspiracy theory in Trump World: #FakeBirthCertificate.
Trump's campaign to sow doubts about Obama's birthplace, as he was considering running for president himself in 2012, showcased his talent for propagating a useful lie. It also overlapped with his growing presence on Twitter.
When his account was created in 2009, the three-year-old platform was just beginning to extend its reach beyond a community of journalists, techies and other early adopters. Over time, as high-profile public figures joined and Twitter allowed for longer messages, its influence grew as a forum for people to comment in real time about live events, world leaders to make official pronouncements and celebrities to interact with fans. Twitter said earlier this year that it had 126 million daily active users.
For Trump, a Twitter account quickly proved useful for promoting himself, sounding off about politics and, eventually, amplifying his attacks on Obama. By the time he started tweeting the birther smear in November 2011, his fans had already been doing the same, creating memes and hashtags like #FakeBirthCertificate, first used for that purpose in April 2011 by a supporter who cited Trump in the tweet.
After Trump started tweeting on his own in early 2013 — he previously had help from an assistant — he was soon recycling misinformation. He retweeted an anti-Obama account that had tweeted at him, "The birth certificate that you forced Obama to show is a computer generated forgery." And he spun conspiracies within conspiracies, tweeting: "How amazing, the State Health Director who verified copies of Obama's 'birth certificate' died in plane crash today. All others lived."
Trump's experience using Obama as a punching bag made him adept at weaponising what he found on Twitter when he decided to run for president. As his following grew, so did his ability to give prominence to objectionable material and — intentionally or not — those responsible for it.
In early 2016, he twice retweeted an obscure white supremacist account, @WhiteGenocideTM, that had directed a tweet at him ridiculing Jeb Bush, an opponent in the Republican primary. The since-suspended account, which regularly posted neo-Nazi propaganda and listed its location as "Jewmerica," gained hundreds of followers in the days after Trump's retweets.
By the time he faced off against Hillary Clinton, a perfect storm had coalesced on a more polarised and partisan Twitter — bringing together activists and trolls practised at spreading conspiracy theories and hate, and Russian intelligence operatives seeking to foment discord. A how-to manual titled "Advanced Meme Warfare" circulated online with instructions for creating material to help the Trump campaign by trashing the Clintons.
"The idea is to stack up so much doubt, emotional appeals, and circumstantial evidence ON TOP of facts that we create a landslide of anti-Hill sentiment that permeates through society," it said.
As memes ricocheted around Twitter, Trump frequently retweeted them and made use of hashtags like #CrookedHillary. After he won the election, Trump was asked if he would continue being combative on Twitter once he settled into the White House. In an interview with "60 Minutes," he defended his tweeting as "nothing you should be ashamed of," but pledged to change his tone as president.
"I'm going to do very restrained, if I use it at all," Trump said. "I'm going to do very restrained."
The implications of Trump's Twitter habit became apparent early in his presidency. In short order, he was railing about "fake news," questioning the findings that Russia interfered in the 2016 election and peddling the fiction that millions of illegal ballots had cost him the popular vote.
Beyond his own tweets, the president stepped up his practice of retweeting others, sharing anti-Muslim videos posted by a British far-right figure who had been retweeted by Ann Coulter. (He later stopped following Coulter after she criticised him for not making progress on the Mexican border wall.)
That episode highlighted one of the ways the president sees information on Twitter. His feed regularly contains tweets from his son, Donald Jr., who follows and retweets alt-right figures like Stefan Molyneux, a Canadian who pushes "white genocide" conspiracy theories and has promoted white nationalists on his YouTube channel.
The younger Trump has also followed Lauren Southern, another Canadian right-wing activist who has promoted the "great replacement" theory that white populations are being overrun by non white immigrants with the help of global elites. In May, the president retweeted a post in which she complained that far-right voices were being suspended on social media.
Six people the president follows — including Dan Scavino, the White House social media director — in turn follow Terrence K. Williams, a comedian who has been retweeted by Trump frequently. Among the retweets was a phony smear claiming that a Muslim congresswoman had partied on the anniversary of September 11, and a conspiracy theory linking the Clintons to the suicide of the imprisoned sex offender Jeffrey Epstein.
Beyond the people he follows, there is another potential pathway to the president on Twitter — his "mentions," the surging stream of tweets and replies that are directed at him by tagging his handle.
Fake accounts that Twitter identified as being run by foreign intelligence agencies have made frequent use of this tactic to try to get his attention: Russian accounts targeted Trump with tweets making the false assertion that Russia did not hack the Democratic National Committee's emails. A Chinese account directed a tweet at him calling CNN "goofy commies." And an Iranian account heckled him, saying, "Every morning that American people wakeup, they are nervous about your new tweets."
The odds of his seeing a tagged post amid the deluge are slim, in part because Twitter's algorithms try to screen out objectionable material and his account may employ filters. Some of his Twitter activity is also be managed by Scavino. Still, Trump spends time looking at tweets that mention him or hashtags that interest him.
The content he chooses to retweet is similar to his own: mostly partisan attacks and praise for himself, with occasional inflammatory material mixed in. While it is not always clear whether his retweets are intended to endorse their authors, the president is effectively launching those accounts into the public eye.
On St. Patrick's Day last March, while awaiting the conclusion of the Mueller report, Trump went on a daylong Twitter tirade, batting out more than 30 tweets that appear to have come from extended immersion in the streams flowing through his account.
The morning dawned with a 6:01am barb from Donald Trump Jr. — "So many stains on the #GhostofJohnMcCain" — presaging several tweets from the president an hour later attacking the deceased senator over old grudges. At the same time, amid a rapidly building flood of mentions, there was a plea directed at him to "reverse the replacement" of white people, a tweet from an account with an anti-Semitic name demanding Fox News undo the suspension of the host Jeanine Pirro for anti-Muslim comments, and hundreds of references to QAnon.
The president shared a conspiracy-minded post by William Craddick, a right-wing writer who peddled the "pizzagate" hoax that Democratic politicians secretly ran a child-trafficking ring out of a Washington pizzeria. "Russiagate," Craddick wrote, "was designed in part to help the UK counter Russian influence by baiting the United States into taking a hard line against them." And Trump sent out a tweet by Jack Posobiec, another pizzagate promoter, linking to a news story about Latino gang members stabbing and burning a teenager.
By nightfall, Trump had retweeted an obscure QAnon follower who, a few weeks earlier, had pushed the Democratic-paedophilia smear. His retweet of that account — whose profile image is a stylised "Q" wearing a red MAGA hat — drew notice on the online message boards of 4chan, which were abuzz with speculation that the president had tacitly approved of QAnon theories.
The binge ended at 9pm, when Trump tweeted, "MAKE AMERICA GREAT AGAIN!"
QAnon entered the public consciousness in October 2017, when someone using the code name "Q" began posting on 4chan, claiming to have secret knowledge of a conspiracy within a Democrat-controlled "deep state" to oust Trump in a coup.
According to Q's groundless theory, Trump was aware of the plot and was quietly working to unravel it with Robert Mueller, the special counsel, using the Russia investigation as a cover to sweep up the perpetrators through mass arrests. The most extreme adherents of what became known as QAnon — short for "Q Anonymous" — also postulate that the deep state is part of a global network of corrupt elites involved in Satanism, paedophilia and cannibalism.
Remarkably, this conspiracy would migrate from the dark fringes of social media and into conservative political circles, where it took root among a segment of Trump's most fervent supporters. People holding Q signs have shown up at Trump rallies, and the "Q" symbol found its way into a "Women for Trump" 2020 campaign video.
Last year, two QAnon disciples were arrested in separate episodes, and in May the FBI included QAnon in an intelligence bulletin warning of potential violence stemming from "anti-government, identity-based and fringe political conspiracy theories," particularly as the 2020 election approaches.
There are few places where QAnon's visibility has been greater than on Twitter, where Trump has helped propagate it. Although Trump does not follow any QAnon-related accounts, some in his Twitter circle do.
Bill Mitchell, a conservative podcaster who promotes QAnon, is followed by nine people whom the president follows and has potentially appeared in his feed more than a dozen times. The president has frequently retweeted him, including one post advancing the discredited suggestion that Obama wiretapped Trump's phones in 2016.
In an email to the Times, Mitchell said he considered the president's retweets "a hat-tip without an overt endorsement." He believes that the president is deliberately provocative on Twitter to keep political enemies off balance and unable to "think strategically," he said.
"Through his tweets, President Trump keeps the Democrats and media in a perpetually heightened emotional state, in this case offense and anger," he wrote, adding that he respected QAnon's leaders as "patriots and Trump supporters."
More than 50 accounts that have QAnon references in their profiles — and dozens more that do not but also promote the conspiracy — appeared among those followed by Donald Trump Jr.; Bartiromo; Ronna McDaniel, chairwoman of the Republican National Committee; Katrina Pierson, a Trump campaign adviser; Rep. Jim Jordan of Ohio; and a handful of others who are all, in turn, followed by the president.
There is no indication that these people, who collectively follow thousands of accounts, are aware of the QAnon presence that lurks there, much less support it.
But the potential for QAnon accounts to appear in the presidential feed underscores the viral nature of disinformation on Twitter, where a tweet can hatch on the fringes, hopscotch through layers of accounts and, aided by hashtags and bots, gain wide currency.
On Thursday evening, a QAnon promoter tweeted an unsubstantiated yarn that years ago he overheard a key witness in the impeachment inquiry bad-mouthing America and talking up "Obama & globalism." QAnon accounts passed it around, and by the next morning it had been retweeted by Posobiec, who in turn was retweeted by Donald Trump Jr. — in less than 24 hours, the story had wormed its way into the president's Twitter circle.
And it has happened before. During a busy Sunday morning of tweeting in August, Bartiromo retweeted an anonymous account called @QBlueSkyQ that had posted a series of conspiratorial messages about the Russia investigation, along with a video snippet of her Fox interview with George Papadopoulos, a former Trump campaign aide arrested in the scandal.
Even a glance at @QBlueSkyQ's profile would have revealed that it was a die-hard QAnon account. It has tweeted doctored images and fake memes promoting a falsehood that top Democrats sexually torture children to harvest adrenochrome — a chemical derived from adrenaline — for a life-extending elixir. The @QBlueSkyQ retweet was one of at least a half-dozen times Bartiromo helped circulate such accounts, though none of the posts dealt with the QAnon conspiracy directly. Bartiromo declined to comment.
QAnon accounts have also been retweeted by Bolling, a former Fox News commentator. Bolling said that he had no idea any account he retweeted was connected to QAnon, and that it was unfair to expect him to "vet every account that I retweet."
"I wouldn't have done it had I known," he said. "I have nothing to do with QAnon."
Bolling retweeted an anonymous QAnon account called @K12Lioness several times, most of it partisan political material and all unrelated to the Q conspiracy. But in between the run-of-the-mill tweets that caught his attention, the account was also pumping out vile memes and messages from the deepest fringes of the QAnon universe, like this post in June:
"The Democrats have lost their minds (adrenochrome) eating baby parts. MY GOD Americans WAKE UP!!"
Deploying the trolls
Trump was two weeks from his inauguration in January 2017 when he tweeted, "So how and why are they so sure about hacking if they never even requested an examination of the computer servers?"
It would be the start of a relentless campaign, continuing to the present, to dispute that the Russians interfered in the 2016 election. Eventually, the narrative would merge with another — that Biden intervened in Ukraine to protect his son's business interests — in the now-infamous phone call in which Trump pressed Ukraine's president to search for the DNC's email server, implying without evidence that it was somewhere in his country.
That effort began within days of Biden's official campaign announcement in April, when a Trump supporter tweeted a meme of Biden with the words, "China & Ukraine, Quid Pro Joe." The post prompted another Trump fan to put a hashtag to use: #QuidProJoe. The #QuidProJoe and #FakeWhistleblower hashtags had both been created years earlier for issues unrelated to Biden and Ukraine, but were dusted off and put into service by Trump supporters.
The #QuidProJoe hashtag remained relatively dormant until a few weeks later, when it was retweeted seven times by a pro-Trump, bot-like account that cranks out more than 100 tweets a day, including QAnon and fervent anti-Democratic material. The hashtag steadily gained currency, and by September, when news erupted of the whistleblower complaint filed a month earlier, it was part of a growing arsenal of social media tools seized on by Trump's supporters, including Donald Jr.
A slew of hashtags — nearly all of them created by anonymous, unverified accounts, some connected to QAnon — have been deployed on Twitter in recent months attacking the impeachment inquiry, and in particular Rep. Adam Schiff, the California Democrat who leads the House Intelligence Committee. Many have crude names, like #LyingSackOfSchiff, #SchiffForBrains and #FullOfSchiff.
So far, none of those hashtags has gotten a presidential tweet. But every day, Trump offers his Twitter fans reason for hope.
On October 19, between tweeting "Shifty Schiff is Corrupt" and retweeting an anonymous account that regularly traffics in alt-right and Russian propaganda, the president tweeted out a fresh hashtag being pushed by his supporters: #StopTheCoup.
Twitter went wild.
Written by: Mike McIntire, Karen Yourish and Larry Buchanan
Photographs by: Josh Haner and Al Drago
© 2019 THE NEW YORK TIMES