On Friday night, a video of a group of MAGA hat-wearing teens surrounding and apparently taunting a Native American man, Nathan Phillips, made the rounds on social media. People around the country shared the short clip, condemning the students’ actions and suggesting that this behavior was just par for the course in President Donald Trump’s America.
On Saturday, the original narrative came into dispute after a series of longer videos emerged showing that the students had been harassed earlier by a third party, and although they were clearly mocking Phillips after he approached them, they did not initiate the contact with the Native American man, as was previously reported. Conservatives rejoiced, and Trump tweeted that “the students were treated unfairly with early judgements proving out to be false – smeared by media.”
Monday evening, CNN published a story reporting it had contacted Twitter about some dubious aspects of the account @2020fight, which first shared the video with the narrative that caused it to go viral. The suspicious features, CNN found, included a fake picture, polarizing content and a high-post tempo. Following the report ― and ostensibly after some investigation by Twitter ― the account was suspended from the social media platform.
The subtext that many analysts and readers gleaned from CNN’s piece and Twitter’s decision was that the account that first propagated this misleading content could be a foreign troll ― possibly Russian ― engaging in a sinister “information operation” to stir up division in American society. Social media posts of CNN’s article abounded, including a tweet from the lawyer Michael Avenatti and other influential figures.
However, as independent disinformation researchers who have thoroughly studied information operations on Twitter, we have found no convincing evidence that the account is controlled by a foreign actor (or was even acting in bad faith at all), and have instead found some evidence suggesting that the user is entirely genuine.
One alleged indication suggested by CNN that @2020fight ― who went by “Talia” ― was fake is that it used a phony profile picture. That’s true. A reverse image search quickly revealed that the account used a photo of Brazilian blogger and model Nah Cardoso. But on its own, that’s also evidence of very little: Millions of real people expressing their truly held beliefs use photos of other people. In Talia’s case, it could have simply been a scheme to attract more followers to her account.
CNN’s finding that the account posted frequently ― 130 tweets per day on average ― is also true, but the implication that readers should interpret that figure as conclusive troll behavior is mostly unfounded. That high-post tempo is not sufficient evidence to label her a troll, especially given that a large proportion of those posts were retweets, and that millions of political activists may maintain a similar pace of posting.
Since @2020fight is now suspended, her profile is no longer accessible on Twitter. However, we found hundreds of cached tweets that show perfect mastery of idiomatic English, and even discussion of everyday issues ― something unusual in true Russian troll accounts.
While most of her tweets do demonstrate a far-left political stance, such partisanship is never sufficient to identify a user as a troll.
In her bio, Talia describes herself as a Californian and a “Teacher & Advocate. Fighting for 2020,” and her tweets and several edits to her bio seem to corroborate that description. Since 2016, she changed the linked website from a somewhat successful online school supply store for teachers in the San Francisco Bay Area (possibly managed by her), to a blog run by an author named “Talia,” who wrote 11 articles in 2017 about teaching issues and classroom instruction, none of which were especially politically polarizing. Both the store and the blog were deactivated on Tuesday morning.
Of course, we don’t know the exact reason that Twitter suspended @2020fight ― it’s understandable that the company would want to keep secret its exact methods for identifying nefarious foreign actors. Perhaps the account did demonstrate a clear association with a foreign government, which would certainly justify its removal. However, Twitter banned the account ― which was accused of misrepresenting a massively divisive political issue ― only after CNN pointed out a few circumstantial indicators of troll behavior. What seems more likely then, is that Twitter panicked and overreacted to pressure from the media after it realized that it may have facilitated what could be one of the most successful disinformation efforts in recent years.
So, if Talia’s account was genuinely run by an activist teacher from California, this “troll scare” is an object lesson in caution ― and more fundamentally in how foreign influence operations can threaten democracy, even indirectly. If a growing share of contentious political discourse devolves into accusations of being a “Russian troll,” the value of debate in our democracy more broadly will suffer.
In that sense, then, perhaps this itself is an added ― but often overlooked ― power of true foreign influence operations: the knowledge that such disinformation exists on an industrial scale causes skepticism of any opposing opinions, further polarizing the public and weakening any chance of reaching consensus through genuine, good-faith speech.
Ethan Fecht is a cybersecurity researcher, former intelligence analyst, and student of international relations at Brown University. Jack Nassetta is a researcher of disinformation and online political discourse and a student at the School of Media and Public Affairs at George Washington University.
Calling all HuffPost superfans!
Sign up for membership to become a founding member and help shape HuffPost’s next chapter