At about 4 a.m. on Saturday morning, a couple hours after she started pretending to be Sean Hannity, Dell Gilliam says she got a direct message back from the head of WikiLeaks, Julian Assange. That’s when she said she “kind of panicked.”
“I felt bad. He really thought he was talking to Sean Hannity,” said Gilliam.
Gilliam, a technical writer from Texas, was bored with the flu when she created @SeanHannity__ early Saturday morning. The Fox News host's real account was temporarily deleted after cryptically tweeting the phrase “Form Submission 1649 | #Hannity” on Friday night. Twitter said the account had been “briefly compromised,” according to a statement provided to The Daily Beast, and was back up on Sunday morning.
When Gilliam made the account, she did not expect to be setting up a meeting over “other channels” for Assange to send “some news about Warner,” an apparent reference to Sen. Mark Warner, the top Democrat on the Senate intelligence committee investigating Russian interference in the 2016 election.
During the election, WikiLeaks’ dumped Democratic emails stolen by Kremlin hackers, even leading President Donald Trump’s CIA director to brand Assange’s organization a “hostile intelligence service” last year.
Just minutes after @SeanHannity disappeared, several accounts quickly sprung up posing as the real Hannity, shouting from Twitter exile. None were as successful as Gilliam’s @SeanHannity__ account, which has since amassed over 24,000 followers.
Gilliam then used her newfound prominence to direct message Assange as Hannity within hours.
“I can’t believe this is happening. I mean… I can. It’s crazy. Nothing can be put past people,” Gilliam, posing as Hannity, wrote to Assange. “I’m exhausted from the whole night. What about you, though? You doing ok?”
“I’m happy as long as there is a fight!” Assange responded.
Gilliam reassured Assange that she, or Hannity, was also “definitely up for a fight” and set up a call for 9:30 a.m. Eastern, about six hours later.
“You can send me messages on other channels,” said Assange, the second reference to “other channels” he made since their conversation began.
“Have some news about Warner.”
Less than 48 hours later, Warner made headlines claiming that the Senate intelligence committee received “end-of-the-year document dumps” that “opened a lot of new questions” about Trump and Russia.
When reached by The Daily Beast about the messages, Warner’s spokesperson pointed to WikiLeaks’ ties to the release of recent document drops performed by Russian entities, like Kremlin cutout Guccifer 2.0.
“Give me a break. WikiLeaks is a non-state hostile intelligence service with longstanding ties to the Russian government and Russian intelligence.”
While Assange was not the only high-profile person duped by the account, his interactions with it were likely the most significant.
Citing mysterious sources and to-be-revealed bombshells, Hannity has been alleging he will unveil “the biggest scandal in American history” for weeks on his primetime Fox News show that has devolved into mostly a recitation of conspiracy theories about a “secret society” and the “deep state.”
Both Hannity and Assange’s WikiLeaks have pushed similar document drops and hashtag campaigns since before the 2016 election, most recently the push to release a confidential memo about government spying under the hashtag “#releasethememo.” Last year, Hannity even invited Assange to guest host his radio program. Both participated in baseless speculation about the murder of former DNC staffer Seth Rich, which Hannity later dropped after advertisers dropped his program.
Leaked Twitter correspondences between Donald Trump Jr. and the official WikiLeaks account made headlines in November of 2017. Trump Jr. had not disclosed the direct messages until after the November report by The Atlantic.
Hannity, Assange and Fox News public relations did not respond to a request for comment.
This was not Gilliam’s plan when she created the account on Saturday morning. In fact, she said she didn’t really know much about Sean Hannity when it all started. Gilliam said she watches Fox News, NPR, and CNN in equal parts, had “intentionally ignored [Hannity] because he seems to have no respect from anybody on either side except for Trump.”
She said she simply wanted to play a joke on another Sean Hannity account, @SeanHannity_, with one underscore and not two.
“It kind of started on a whim. I was going to tweet at one of the fake Sean Hannity accounts that was up to tell them not to be me,” she said.
Then, in part because Gilliam seemed to have picked up on Hannity’s conspiratorial and frenzied voice, things picked up fast.
“I don’t even really know how [Hannity] sounds, so I started by copying the tone of the first fake one,” she said.
“To all the lib haters, know that I am back and here to stay. You can’t silence the truth and you have no idea what’s coming,” her first tweet read. “To all my loyal supporters - follow me on my new account to stay updated. Twitter can try to knock us down but we will keep rising up! #SeanHannity”
That tweet, which had 1,800 retweets and 3,500 likes, was retweeted by dozens of verified journalists and Twitter personalities.
Chrissy Teigen took a shot at Gilliam’s version of Hannity in front of her 9.67 million followers.
“Settle down, braveheart,” she wrote. Over 8,000 people retweeted it.
Gilliam’s experience as a bureaucrat, whose interest in fine print is “interesting to me, but nobody else,” helped her monopolize the fake Hannity space.
“I realized that in the Twitter rules it says you can’t make a fake account unless you say you’re not affiliated with that person,” she said.
Under @SeanHannity__’s bio, it reads “(Above not affiliated with) New Account!” She remained live while SeanHannity_ with one underscore and several others were booted off the service.
“People don’t read parentheticals,” she said.
Gilliam said she plans on keeping the account going, or donating her 24,000 followers to an environmental nonprofit she works with. She’s already tweeted out a YouTube video from a band she likes from Nashville to try to get them more followers.
Recovering from the flu, she didn’t sleep all of Saturday, reading through tweets by duped celebrities and mountains of messages.
“I’d say it’s one-third hate mail, one-third hero worship, one-third people saying they figured it out. His followers are disturbingly angry,” she said.
“Reading the messages, I can see how believing in this false reality would be really easy to do. I was starting to get really nervous about what was really happening. It all sucks you into a level of paranoia I’d never seen before.”