Politics

That Fake Photo of Trump’s Phoenix Rally? The Work of Russian Trolls

This fake photo, intended to show crowds of Trump supporters in Phoenix on August 22, was the work of a Russian company that produces fake web content.
This fake photo, intended to show crowds of Trump supporters in Phoenix on August 22, was the work of a Russian company that produces fake web content. Twitter
Follow along as we update the Trump rally in Mesa live here.

Remember that photo supposedly showing a massive crowd for Trump’s rally in downtown Phoenix?

As it turns out, the account was run by a Russian organization with ties to the Kremlin that's known for spreading fake news and propaganda.

While the hoax gained attention when it was posted (and subsequently deleted), we now know a little bit more about who was behind the account.


As first reported in an investigation by Russian newspaper RBC and then confirmed by BuzzFeed, the Twitter account behind the viral shot of not-Phoenix was run by the Internet Research Agency, an organization in Russia that traffics in a new breed of "information warfare."

According to a 2015 investigation, employees at the Internet Research Agency pretend to be regular people on social-media sites. In reality, these accounts exist solely to spread pro-Russian posts to an unsuspecting public on networks like Twitter and Facebook. Because of these bogus accounts, the agency is commonly referred to as a "troll farm."

The photo that purported to show people filling the street for Trump's August 22 rally at the Phoenix Convention Center was actually taken at the Cleveland Cavaliers' victory parade in 2016. The account, @TEN_GOP, used an avatar of the seal of the state of Tennessee and claimed to be an "unofficial" account of Tennessee Republicans.

The real office of the Tennessee Republican Party had asked Twitter to take down the account on three occasions, to no avail. Twitter finally suspended the account in August, but not before false and misleading tweets like this one were shared by the account, which boasted 136,000 followers. It also gained some prominent fans who shared the pro-Trump content, including Kellyanne Conway, Donald Trump Jr., and the president himself.
In September, President Trump even responded to a complimentary tweet from a backup account shared by @TEN_GOP: "We love you, Mr. President!"


"So nice, thank you!" he replied. So, if the post about Trump's crowd size was a con, who were the marks?

It probably wasn't us. Any discerning Phoenix resident who saw the photo would note that the unusual glass building on the left clearly isn't our convention center. And the remarkable number of people wearing gold and red (the colors of the Cavaliers, of course) would strike anyone as odd.

But by the time sharp-eyed users pointed out that the photo was fake, the damage was done: It had been retweeted more than 800 times.
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Joseph Flaherty is a staff writer at New Times. Originally from Wisconsin, he is a graduate of Middlebury College and Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism.
Contact: Joseph Flaherty