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.”