@Team_Trump45 and the Hazards of Online Sleuthing

started like any other day for @Team_Trump45. The Twitter account posted a meme depicting Hillary Clinton, splayed out on the ground, saying, “Help! I’ve lost and I can’t shut up!” Then the account shared another Clinton meme, showing the cover of her book What Happened alongside a phony cover featuring President Donald Trump and the words, I Happened. Soon after, @Team_Trump45 turned abruptly personal, posting about their “daughter” Nicky. “Well her temperature is going up fast 102-104,” the tweet said. “We gotta go to the hospital.”
Then the account—which would later change its handle to @DeepStateExpose—returned to tweeting about Trump. It posted three memes in three minutes: one showing a map of the US, all red, and the words, “Keep it up Libs. This will be 2020”; an illustration of Trump pulling a barge carrying items meant to represent various industries; and an image of Trump alongside money signs and arrows, meant to symbolize the economy. Several hours later, it tweeted a fourth meme, about the “Trump Train.”Those four posts attracted the attention of Trump, who retweeted them to his 38 million followers. This was the same day that the president posted a tweet referring to Kim Jong Un as “Rocket Man” and a GIF depicting him hitting Clinton with a golf ball. The day of controversial tweets earned Trump headlines. The New York Times referred to @Team_Trump45 as one of the president’s “fans.” @Team_Trump45 must have been elated, though not surprised; it wasn’t the first time Trump had retweeted the account, but it made the nonstop posting about the president worth it. Millions would see @Team_Trump45’s tweets, and they would even live on in the presidential record. The question was: What did the account want with all the exposure?

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Sign up for our Longreads newsletter for the best features, ideas, and investigations from WIRED.At the time, @Team_Trump45 had 161,000 followers and went by the display name “Trumpism 5.0 ™.” (The trademark wasn’t real, and the display name changed often.) The user’s profile said, “Trumpism epitomizes Conservatism, Capitalism, patriotism, & respect for the Constitution. #MAGA.” The account posted constantly, almost always pro-Trump tweets, but the rest were about Nicky. In May 2017, the account first shared the link to a GoFundMe campaign to “help Nicky fight her battle with cancer.” The campaign had been created that month and the goal was set at $100,000. @Team_Trump45 referred to having a “daughter with cancer” and posted descriptions of what it said were the girl’s tumors. It continued sharing the GoFundMe link into September, around the time of those Trump retweets.
Pictures of Nicky that @Team_Trump45 posted showed a young girl with big blue eyes. She was smiling, but appeared to be laying in bed, dressed in a hospital gown. Nicky apparently made a painting, which @Team_Trump45 posted, of a woman in a blue gown with a cape billowing behind her that looked like a starry sky. The woman had reddish hair, like Nicky’s before she lost it. Nicky called the painting “Night.”On the day after Trump’s retweets, @Team_Trump45 posted another update: “Nicky is still fighting, blood transfusions, platelet transfusion, high fever, she turned blue but she’s still fighting somehow. Thank you.” Over the next few months, the account gained 13,000 followers. Donations poured in, reaching over $30,000. But some people were getting suspicious about whether the campaign was legit.Of course, Trump is famous for retweeting dubious accounts. One account Trump thanked in a tweet, @10_gop, which claimed to be a Tennessee-based source of “conservative, daily news that you won’t find on mainstream media,” later appeared on a list of accounts operated by the Internet Research Agency, a Kremlin-backed troll farm. Another account Trump once retweeted, @Blacks4Trump16, had identified its operator as “a black woman” but later started regularly retweeting the account @Identitarian14, which described itself as “pro-white.” Twitter has suspended at least a dozen accounts Trump retweeted or quoted, and at least 16 more have since been deactivated, according to an analysis by the nonprofit Media Matters for America.