On Dec. 5, an account that said it was Vice President Mike Pence’s “Official Profile” on the conservative social network Parler posted a link to a Trump Challenge Coin giveaway.
“Own A Piece Of History With President Trump’s Commemorative Medallion!” said @MikePenceVicePresident, directing people to a website where they could order a free Trump commemorative coin if they paid for shipping. The post attracted over 170,000 views. Days later, the Pence account reshared a message from a “Team Trump” Parler account that promoted a CBD oil that falsely claimed to be endorsed by first lady Melania Trump.
Pence’s office confirmed that the account, which attracted hundreds of thousands of views, is fake. So are roughly 50 other Parler accounts that masqueraded as prominent Republicans, including White House chief of staff Mark Meadows, Sen. Lindsey Graham, Donald Trump Jr., and former Trump attorney Sidney Powell to shill sketchy products to Parler’s pro-Trump user base.
On Tuesday, Parler said it banned the accounts after being contacted by BuzzFeed News. “I believe most of those fraudulent accounts were a sad attempt to circumvent our advertising network,” Parler CEO John Matze said.
The fake accounts masqueraded as popular right-wing figures, as well as conservative news sources and average Trump fans, with the goal of earning money. Their ability to quickly attract followers and hundreds of thousands of views shows how Parler’s current growth spurt and freewheeling, anti-censorship ethos has created opportunities for manipulation and financial schemes. The platform experienced rapid growth thanks to promotion from Sen. Ted Cruz, Rep. Devin Nunes, and other Republicans who pitch it as a place free from censorship. Along with fake accounts preying on Trump fans, the Washington Post reported that Parler, which is funded by the billionaire Mercer family who bankrolled right-wing news site Breitbart and disgraced data firm Cambridge Analytica, is inundated by porn spammers.
Renée DiResta, research manager of the Stanford Internet Observatory, said Parler has reached the size where it's worth spamming. “The people who ran this campaign leveraged some pretty typical tropes about liberal elites taking things away from conservatives, framed with the requisite outrage that liberals would do such things, and it seems that it resonated enough for ordinary Parler users to echo their spam posts,” she told BuzzFeed News.
Amy Peikoff, Parler’s chief policy officer, said the platform tries to prevent fake accounts and bots, and noted that they exist on all social platforms. "We would answer any and all claims about fake accounts on Parler by noting that our competitors experience a much larger, more dangerous influx of bots/fake accounts on a regular basis than we do, and they do less than we do, relatively speaking, to curtail the growth of fake accounts,” she told BuzzFeed News. “We are conscientious and cognizant of the problem of impersonator accounts, and we are quick to eliminate any which do not comply with our community guidelines.”
The accounts in the faux Trump network followed each other, amplified each other’s content, and often promoted offers for Trump coins, Trump hats, and CBD oil. It’s unclear who operated the accounts, and Parler declined to release details. At the heart of the network was a Parler account called @LibertyWriters, which claimed in its bio to be run by the same people who operated Liberty Writers News, a conservative site that Facebook banned in 2017. In 2018, BuzzFeed News revealed that Liberty Writers founders Paris Wade and Ben Goldman worked with the creators of the first American politics website run from North Macedonia, the small Balkan country that became home to a cottage industry of pro-Trump sites.
A spokesperson for Wade told BuzzFeed News that he and Goldman had nothing to do with the Liberty Writers Parler account and the other fakes. The spokesperson provided a copy of an email Wade sent to Parler on Nov. 15 to complain that the account was fake. He also sent a document from the Nevada secretary of state showing that Liberty Writers is no longer an active company.
“This page is pretending to be a company I own. We aren’t running it,” wrote Wade about the Liberty Writers Parler account. Wade and Goldman now run a political consulting firm.
“Liberty Writers is no longer a property operated by Mr. Wade. It was dissolved with the Nevada secretary of state’s office more than 10 months ago,” said Sean Walsh, a spokesperson for Wade. “When it was discovered that some group was using the name on Parler, Parler was notified that the name Liberty Writers was not affiliated with Mr. Wade and the company should act accordingly.”
The fake accounts, which often used the same profile photos and bio text as the verified Twitter accounts they duplicated, used a variety of methods to trick people on Parler into thinking they were authentic. This included exploiting Parler’s verification system and changing account names after getting verified. Many of the accounts completed Parler’s identification verification process, which requires the person controlling an account to upload a government ID. Once they do, the account receives a red “Parler citizen” badge that conveys an added layer of authenticity. But people on Parler are likely unaware that this only confirms a real person is behind the account — it does not mean that the account’s name is the same as on the ID. Only accounts with Parler’s gold “verified influencer” badge are confirmed to be run by the same person or entity.
Peikoff said the platform is in the process of “refining” its verification system.
“Our goal has been simply to let people know when they are interacting with real people, not bots, and our badging system — particularly our red badge — was designed with this purpose in mind,” she said. “We are currently refining our badging system to make it more effective at this, and to address recent attempts by spammers to game our verification processes.”
DiResta said Parler’s current system is confusing, and the ease with which someone can change account names leaves it open to manipulation. “The red versus gold distinction wasn't really made clear upon onboarding,” she said. “Most people who join social platforms aren't thinking about all of the different loopholes that can be manipulated, like a person getting a verified badge and then changing their name.”
The imposter Sidney Powell account went a step further by including a fake gold Parler verified influencer badge in its profile photo. The account made itself private and told people the only way to access the latest information about Powell’s court cases was to follow it. “The information & evidence I have is not to be displayed publicly for the good of all,” read the account’s bio. “That’s why I turned my account private.”
On Dec. 4, it asked followers to “chip in” and help the Republican candidates in the Georgia runoff by buying a Trump coin. The coin webpage it linked to misled potential buyers with a fake tweet from House Leader Nancy Pelosi and fake endorsements from Fox News hosts Jeanine Pirro, Lou Dobbs, and others. A Fox News spokesperson confirmed to BuzzFeed News that its hosts and personalities did not endorse the products.
DiResta said Parler needs to become more proactive about removing spam or it risks alienating users. “Deceptive spam rings using impersonation and other predatory practices to deceive users and bilk them of money is not going to be good for the Parler brand or user experience,” she said.