On Monday, NBC News personality Megyn Kelly tweeted about the criminal cases of Trump associates Paul Manafort and Michael Cohen, noting the remarkable coincidence that Manafort was convicted by a jury within minutes of Cohen entering a guilty plea. There were more than 1,700 replies to her tweet, most of them the sort of banal shouting and condescending bickering that marks most political interactions among strangers on Twitter in 2018. But one of them was notable:
And NONE of it is RUSSIAN COLLUSION.
— Dr. Michael Stuart (@mstuartdds) August 21, 2018
The tweet from Dr. Michael Stuart stuck out because, as another Twitter user noted, Dr. Stuart died in 2015.
That much is true. Stuart, a dentist who was clearly much beloved in his North Texas community, passed away a few days shy of his sixty-second birthday. He left behind two daughters, six grandchildren, and his wife of 42 years. And after Twitter users went after the @mstuartdds account to accuse it of being a hacked troll account, the person posting from it quickly responded: It’s a shared account, and the person then using it was his wife, Kathy.
During his lifetime, Dr. Stuart wasn’t a prolific Twitter user. He posted a few times when he opened the account in 2012, brief tweets about sports or faith, and then—like a number of people—he seemed to mostly forget about Twitter. In 2013, it appeared that the account had been hacked after it posted a handful of ads for a blog selling shady weight-loss products. A year later, there were messages to other users about the death of Robin Williams. The account was used later that year to send porn spam messages, along with more weight-loss ads—and then it went silent until after Dr. Stuart’s death. In 2016, though, it became a much more active account, posting a slew of messages about politics.
So lemme get this straight… Dr Stuart dies ~2014. Then this account gets taken over by a porn spambot… and then his widow miraculously recovered the ability to log in just in time for the most recent election? That’s your story. Your very real story. pic.twitter.com/6ABmGwFhBX
— St. Sluggo, Divine Discontent (@SaintSluggo) August 22, 2018
It is no doubt suspicious that the account went from being hacked and turned into a spam account for pornography to being politically active around the same time Russian operatives began waging an influence campaign against American elections. But that doesn’t mean that Dr. Stuart’s account—which has since been deleted—actually was a troll account purchased from hackers. In fact, according to his daughter, that’s not the case at all.
“My mother was using his account. I’ve obviously convinced her this is a bad idea, so we’ve deactivated my late father’s account, and my mom will set up her own at a later time,” Laura Stuart Mackey told Texas Monthly. “This entire situation has been difficult on all of us. I do admit that it looks like it was hacked just prior to his death, but the Trump tweets are my mother. I don’t necessarily agree with her, but it’s her right to have her own political opinions.”
Even without Mackey’s explanation, there was plenty to the story that lent credence to Kathy Stuart’s claims that she was the one running it. Dr. Stuart had a Facebook page too. Like a lot of Facebook pages, it was more personal—photos of family and friends and other posts that aren’t of interest to anyone except the people who know him. But that account, like the Twitter account, was also shared between Dr. Stuart and his wife, with both of their names at the top. Also like the Twitter account, it became much more active in the run-up to the election, taking a sharply political turn. Interspersed with those posts, though, are a handful of personal things that it would be tough for a troll to fake.
The fake Facebook accounts we’ve seen as part of those influence campaigns don’t look much like that of the Stuarts. Those pages have a large reach, post content that is easily shared, and attempt to steer users into getting more of their messages into their feeds. Dr. Stuart’s profile, by contrast, reaches only a few hundred people he and his wife have been acquainted with in North Texas. Whoever would be making these posts, if it’s not Kathy, would also be maintaining the ruse by occasionally sharing photos from a Rockwall swim meet and commenting on family photos.
An individual’s social media account that may or may not be compromised isn’t a big deal, ultimately, but it’s instructive to recognize that troll accounts—which do exist—are very good at mimicking our current political discourse. The new tweet zinger often involves two actual humans who disagree on political matters calling each other bots. But in this case, those who spread the belief that hackers have taken over a dead man’s accounts to share propaganda were the ones spreading misinformation.