As the popularity of social media grew, there is no doubt that public discussions that happen within the different online platforms become agents that sway public opinion on various social and political issues.
This is the reason why many politicians have leveraged on the use of social media platforms like Facebook, Twitter, and Reddit to broadcast their thoughts and to campaign for themselves or for a policy they are pushing for. Likewise, people with ill intent have also exploited the use of social media to smear reputations of politicians and celebrities by using fake accounts, as well as, sway public opinions.
Former Starbucks Chief Executive Officer Howard Schultz was not an exception. Since late January, Twitter has suspended and removed several accounts that use Schultz’ name to pretend to support his plans to run in the elections while pushing for ‘alt-right’ ideologies at the same time.
On Thursday, Twitter has removed three accounts using the handles @GaysForSchultz, @PresSchultz2020, and @HowardJSchultz. The latter described itself in its bio as an account of ‘millennials for Schultz”.
The three accounts mentioned above were seen posting support to Schultz, at the same time, post content from the ‘alt-right,’ a loosely knit movement of white nationalists and neo-Nazis.
The @GaysforSchultz account was seen responding and retweeting Ruth Bader Ginsburg conspiracy theories while @PresSchultz2020 was seen posting anti-Muslim contents in the social media platform.
Howard Schultz, who previously served as the CEO of the globally leading coffee shop, Starbucks, announced late January that he is considering running as an independent presidential candidate in the 2020 Presidential Elections. He has not officially announced his candidacy, but he nonetheless, becomes a target of online trolls and demolition job perpetrated by fake accounts.
Since January, Twitter has suspended at least six pro-Schultz accounts for violating its fake accounts policies, according to a source familiar with the bans who was not authorized to speak publicly. Those accounts — @blacks4Schultz, @women_4_schultz, @GaysForSchultz, @PresSchultz2020, @HowardJSchultz, @GOP4Schultz — and others like them that are still active, and they provide a preview of the kind of fakery researchers expect to see on social media during the 2020 election.
This kind of trickery “is as old as the internet itself,” said Joan Donovan, director of the Technology and Social Change Research Project at Harvard University’s Shorenstein Center.
“The public is definitely still very hoaxable when it comes to people pretending to be an organization,” Donovan said, citing the easily co-opted signifiers that come with identity politics and the decline of the influence of structured social movement organizations.
“It’s hard, because if someone taps into a part of your identity or politics that is meaningful, especially when it comes to political platforms, we want to believe them,” Donovan said.
Schultz spokesperson Eric McPike declined to elaborate if Schultz has a Twitter strategy after an unfortunate incident where his tweet announcing his presidential plans got rationed; a phenomenon where a tweet received far more mocking comments than likes and retweets. However, when questioned if his team has contacted Twitter regarding the fake accounts, he confirmed that they have not.
This kind of identity politicking and demolition strategy is not new in US politics. During the 216 Elections, according to the Justice Department, Russia’s Internet Research Agency have operated thousands of fake Twitter and Facebook accounts that are pretending to be American to polarize voters further in the discussion of helping Donald Trump presidential election.
The same strategy was also used by the disgraced Michael Cohen, who is now awaiting to serve his three to ten years prison sentence when Cohen admitted having hired a male consultant to operate @WomenforCohen to boost his image and manipulate public perception.
The account @Women_4_Schultz was operated for nearly a week by the Trump supporter and far-right activist Jacob Wohl. Won’t say that the account was made to be “goofy.” but he also said that it is part of a broader strategy to manipulate public opinion and vote for Donald Trump in 2020.
“It is not illegal, unethical or untoward for Americans to steer an American election,” Wohl said. “I’m an American.”
“Hoaxing and fraud is a real issue,” Donovan said. “Unfortunately the public is still going to fall for these things because the only way to know if an account is a hoax, is if the social media companies mark them that way.” /apr