The tweet had more than a thousand shares in the hours after President Donald Trump’s State of the Union address on Tuesday. “I am a black trans woman and after this amazing speech tonight I proudly say I support Donald Trump my President,” user “BlackTransQween” wrote, using a profile picture of a black transgender woman. “We need to get behind this man.”
“BlackTransQween” also tweeted against immigration and gender options on driver licenses. When the profile disappeared this week, conservatives cried censorship. But in reality, the account had been suspended for breaking Twitter’s rules against impersonation, after writer Gabe Gonzalez revealed the account was using a picture of Charlene Arcila-Ecks, a transgender health advocate who died in 2015. The theft was the latest in a trend of people stealing African-Americans’ photos to push right-wing causes online. And with the 2020 elections looming, the identity theft is ramping up.
“It’s a concerted effort to put on basically a digital blackface,” Shireen Mitchell, founder of Stop Online Violence Against Women told The Daily Beast.
Mitchell said she’s been observing these impostor accounts since 2013, long before Trump’s ascendancy. That’s when trolls launched a campaign called “Stop Black Girls” to counteract an event called “Black Girls Rock.” Impostors would lift stock images or social media photos to pose as black women and make inflammatory statements, Mitchell said.
“There was this ongoing campaign of pretending to be black women and make everybody angry because we were ‘angry black women.’ That’s the norm, the stereotype. No one would stop and say ‘that looks wrong’ because the assumption and the stereotype,” she said. “You use the stereotype to project that all black women are angry, so that anything we say or do becomes part of a disinformation and dismissal campaign.”
Those tactics soon found favor with a new kind of troll. When the Internet Research Agency, a Russian troll factory, started buying ads to target U.S. Facebook users ahead of the 2016 presidential election, a significant portion of the ads targeted black voters. Russian-run accounts like “Blacktivist” posed as African-Americans and encouraged people to vote for Jill Stein or, at the very least, not Hillary Clinton.
Meanwhile, Donald Trump and his supporters promoted stock pictures of black families in advertisements on the campaign trail. In June 2016, Trump tweeted a follower’s meme, which purportedly showed a black family “for Trump.” But the picture of an African-American family was actually from a local news article on a family picnic. It appeared high in the Google image results for “black family.”
The family’s father, Eddie Perry, told BuzzFeed Trump’s tweet was “political propaganda.”
"I'm not saying there aren't black families who endorse Trump," Perry said, "however, this black family didn't endorse anyone."
In 2017, Trump retweeted an account that claimed to be a black girl thanking him. The picture was actually a stock image for a T-shirt site.
Other Twitter pro-Trump Twitter accounts have been caught out using stock images of black people as their profile pictures. When the profile picture Twitter user “The Dope Conservative” was revealed to be a Shutterstock image captioned “Black man posing with crossed arms and wearing glasses,” the Twitter user claimed all his photos of himself were on a USB drive, which was stolen. The account has since been deleted.
With the 2020 elections on the horizon, trolls have a new cast of candidates to promote or downvote. Meanwhile, trolls came out in support of Howard Schultz, the billionaire Starbucks CEO who is mulling a presidential run. A now-suspended account claimed to represent “Blacks4Schultz.” The profile image, of a black man cheering in a “Howard!” shirt was actually a poorly altered stock image.
And during Trump’s State of the Union, prominent conservative Twitter users retweeted pro-Trump praise from the account that stole Charlene Arcila-Ecks’ picture. The insult was obvious: Arcila-Ecks was the founder of the Philadelphia Trans-Health Conference, and used her role as an ordained minister to counsel other religious leaders on trans inclusiveness. She passed away in 2015, but the conference has continued to run, even as the Trump administration attempts to roll back transgender rights.
The impersonation used the same tactics as before the 2016 election, Mitchell says—and this time we need to be paying attention.
“Black women were the canaries in the coal mine. We were the one the testing ground happened on,” she said of the 2013 campaigns. “Here we are on the other side of it, getting ready to go into 2020, and I’m getting heat for even bringing it up.”