How Trump fell for fake news

On August 5, a Twitter account with 146,000 followers, belonging to somebody named Nicole Mincey, posted this message: “Trump working hard for the American people…..thanks❤????????” Trump gave it his official stamp of approval: a retweet. “Thank you Nicole!” he added. Trump’s retweet got 49,000 likes and 10,000 retweets of its own.

Trump was had. There is no Nicole Mincey, and Twitter suspended that account a day later.

“Nicole Mincey was a fake character,” a woman calling herself Lorraine Elijah, believed to have run the Twitter account and a web site associated with it, told Yahoo Finance in an email. “We obviously went to [sic] far. I joined twitter to make money and now this is a nightmare gone wrong.”

Trump’s retweet of ProTrump45

Further investigation reveals that “Nicole Mincey” is a fabricated Internet persona based loosely on a real person who was most likely recruited by scammers through social media. But rather than some sophisticated operation run by a foreign intelligence service, as the imagination might suggest, Nicole Mincey appears to be the creation of a couple of hucksters with a more mundane plan in mind: simply selling some hats and T-shirts.

Anybody with a social-media account or email address knows the Internet has a bottomless dark side filled with scams, phonies and worse. “Nicole Mincey” is now part of that sinister funhouse.

Yahoo Finance cannot fully document who created her. But we are confident there is no such person, and that her creator duped gullible consumers, a few mainstream media organizations and even the president himself into trusting that she was real. In this context, President Trump’s reliance on Twitter and his continual complaints about “fake news” have new significance that redound on Trump himself.

Confidential tip line: rickjnewman@yahoo.com. Encrypted communication available.

Yahoo Finance became interested in Nicole Mincey in mid-July, because of several irregularities on a Web site she supposedly founded, www.ProTrump45.com. The Web site’s “About” section, for instance, was filled with typos and grammatical errors. Repeated calls to the 800 number never went through. And the Twitter account associated with the site — now suspended — had several hallmarks of a fake “bot” account, such as an inordinate number of followers. Some of those followers had profile pictures that showed up on other social media accounts with totally different names — a classic sign of fakery.

One of several photos that accompanied the Twitter account of the fake persona “Nicole Mincey.”

Yahoo Finance ordered a flag from ProTrump45.com to see if it would arrive as promised in 7 to 10 days. The site took our money, through a PayPal account — $30 for the flag, $15 for shipping and $2.40 for tax, for a total of $47.40. But no flag ever arrived. We did get a notice, however, saying, “Your order is on its way,” along with a UPS tracking number. When we contacted UPS, a spokesman told us the tracking number was bogus and the order had been “stopped as fraud.” We did a “who is” search looking up registration details for the Web site and found it had been registered anonymously through a Florida company called Perfect Privacy, essentially masking the site’s real owners.

“We came up with this idea to make some money.”

The emailed order confirmation from ProTrump45 did contain one curious clue, however: an email address that belonged to a student at St. Peter’s University, a small Jesuit school in Jersey City, N.J. An August 5 story on heavy.com, which first raised questions about whether Nicole Mincey was a real person, said the student had been a victim of identity theft who planned to file a police report. But in a phone conversation with Yahoo Finance, the student told us she had been involved with ProTrump45 web site as a blogger and had been recruited to the effort by two people, “Lorraine Elijah” and “Dr. William Byrd,” who followed her on Instagram and invited her to join the Web operation sometime this past spring.

“I joined a group of people online who supported Trump,” the student told Yahoo Finance. “We came up with this idea to make some money off of this. We bought advertising. We bought articles.” The way to make money was selling Trump merchandise on ProTrump45 — hats, T-shirts, flags. The Twitter account would drive traffic to the Web site. “I think Lorraine” — the web site operator who had recruited the student on Instagram — “bought followers for us,” the student said. “I don’t even have the Twitter app on my phone.”

Yahoo Finance chose not to identify the student, who says she has hopes for a successful business career and would suffer if negative publicity linking her to a suspicious Web site and twitter account were irrevocably published on the Internet. Her name is not Nicole Mincey, but there are similarities between the fake name and the real one. We have not been able to independently verify what the student told us.

The articles that began to appear spawned the myth of Nicole Mincey, a young black woman who supported Barack Obama back in the day, but saw the light in 2016 and ended up a Trump supporter. The first “Nicole Mincey” story Yahoo Finance is aware of appeared on World Net Daily on May 14, with the headline, “Black, liberal woman dumps Obama to run Trump store.” The story quoted the fake Mincey saying, “The reason I switched to being a Republican was I realized Obama didn’t necessarily help black people during his presidency like he promised.” It described her as somebody who “comes from a liberal Democrat background.”

A June 5 story in The Daily Caller, founded by Fox News host Tucker Carlson, changed the story a bit. Mincey wasn’t a former liberal, but a native of hardscrabble Camden, N.J., who grew up with a mother who was a “hardline conservative.” Adding to the confusion, a Facebook page purporting to be the Donald J. Trump shop–which is unverified by Facebook and separate from Trump’s official Facebook page–linked to the Daily Caller story:

This Facebook account appears to be unrelated to Trump’s official page.

There was also a “Nicole Mincey” radio interview with a service known as USA Radio, on May 25. A confident-sounding woman told host Ernie Brown how she had flipped from an Obama backer to a Trump supporter. “I looked up the facts of the Obama administration,” she said, “and I realized some pretty dismal facts about how he cared about black Americans.”

The student told us the radio interview was performed by a woman from Texas, also recruited by Lorraine Elijah and William Byrd, whose last name she didn’t know. The student claims to have been unaware of the planted Nicole Mincey stories, and to have broken ties with the ProTrump45 operation in mid June, after writing a handful of blog entries.

“The store was getting disorganized,” she said. “They weren’t keeping up with the orders. I wasn’t getting paid.”

“We used an alteration of the real girl’s name for attention”

Lorraine Elijah, the web site operator, acknowledged in a series of emails using portions of the student’s identity while creating the Mincey myth.

“We used an alteration of the real girl’s name for attention,” she said.

When asked about the flag Yahoo Finance ordered from the web site, which never arrived, she said, “William forgot to mail it out.” She did not answer questions about who she and William really are, where they are located, or whether they made any money off the ProTrumpo45 web site. She did say a Washington Post story suggesting Nicole Mincey’s creator is a Russian is “bullshit.” “I live in America and have never been out of the country. William is also American. So [are] the rest of members whose names im [sic] not disclosing.”

Yahoo Finance cannot verify whether Lorraine Elijah and William Byrd are real names or aliases. The woman calling herself Lorraine Elijah told us in these exact words: “William byrd. Lives in Pennsylvania i believe. He’s not a dr like his twitter says. Also the business was not a scam. It was a legitamate business until William stopped doing his part there were about 3 orders that never got done.” We attempted to reach William Byrd but phone calls to a number for him were not returned.

“Nicole Mincey” made a few more media appearances in late July. On July 31, Buzzfeed ran a story on Nicole Mincey by somebody named “banesclark,” which described her as a “twitter famous black conservative … who has a whopping 146k followers.” The story said that on Sept. 3, “Nicole Mincey plans on trending a hashtag in support of president [sic] Trump called #ProTrump45.” The page on which the Mincey story appeared has a disclaimer that says, “This post has not been vetted or endorsed by BuzzFeed’s editorial staff.” Buzzfeed took the story down after Yahoo Finance asked about it.

A nearly identical article appeared the same day on Medium, under the byline “Kendra Manning,” most likely another phony ID. Medium has since taken down that article. The same piece appeared on fringe sites such as WN.com and onmogul.com. Then, on the weekend of August 5, the heavy.com expose appeared. The name on the @ProTrump45 Twitter account changed briefly, to @alexandriam0ra, but Twitter suspended the account shortly after that. The web site, ProTrump45.com is still online, but you can no longer order from it. The site is effectively disabled.

Perfect Privacy, which registered the ProTrump45.com Web site anonymously on behalf of its operator, is a subsidiary of Web.com, which offers Internet services to small businesses. We told the company we suspected the web site of fraud, and asked if they could tell us who runs it. Brian Wright, a spokesman for the company, suggested we use the anonymous email address Perfect Privacy creates with each registration, to try reaching the web site’s owners. The email bounced back and Web.com decline to provide any information about the real owners of the domain.

The Daily Caller did not respond to questions about the Nicole Mincey story on that site. The White House did not respond to questions about Trump’s retweet of the fake Nicole Mincey post, or his Facebook link to the Daily Caller story about the same bogus person.

There’s no reason to think Trump was aware of the phony account when he retweeted it. And Trump has enough surrogates in the real media without having to rely on phonies. But the ability of a handful of scammers to fool the Internet and even the president, for a while, testifies to the dangers of trusting what you want to believe. Trump is certainly right when he grouses about fake news. Even more right than he probably knows.

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Rick Newman is the author of four books, including Rebounders: How Winners Pivot from Setback to Success. Follow him on Twitter: @rickjnewman