The imaginary voters of Baltimore are trending heavily against Catherine Pugh.
At 1:46 a.m. on Thursday, a Twitter account under the name Jessica Flores tweeted a Baltimore Sun story about a complaint regarding the campaign finances of Pugh, a Democratic state senator leading the polls in Baltimore's mayoral race. "Retweet to prompt federal investigation on Pugh @llanahan #InvestigatePugh," Flores tweeted.
Because Flores tweeted this at me, I assumed it was a voter trying to prod a reporter into investigative mode. But something about Flores's online presence seemed generic, almost robotic. I investigated: Flores, not Pugh.
Does Jessica Flores really exist? If not, did the person who invented her specifically target me or just write some code to tweet at Baltimore-area Twitter accounts?
Flores had only been tweeting for three days: two tweets about Pugh, and two other fairly generic political tweets, including "Marilyn Mosby hears criticism from police, activists" with no link. Her Twitter handle, @jessica79406728, has more numbers than letters. The Twitter handles of most of her 45 followers have that very same pattern. (Oddly, all appeared to be women, except perhaps for "Joann Rogers," whose picture was of a clean-shaven man resembling Jean-Luc Picard.)
Does Catherine Pugh critic Joann Rodgers really exist? And does she really look like Jean-Luc Picard? (UPDATE: Several Facebook users point out that the man in the picture is actually Iron Chef Michael Symon.)
Like Flores, her followers had been tweeting for just three days, mostly about Pugh, occasionally including the text of Flores's tweet about Marilyn Mosby—verbatim.
Had one of Pugh's competitors in the mayoral race coordinated this, creating dozens of fake Twitter profiles and populating them with anti-Pugh tweets targeted to Baltimore residents? Or was this just a particularly engaged voter with a lot of time on his or her hands?
I reached out to several campaigns to ask if the candidates are aware of this Twitter campaign and if their campaigns were at all involved. DeRay Mckesson spokesperson Maria Griffin said Mckesson had no knowledge of or involvement in the anti-Pugh tweets. Steve Kaiser, spokesperson for Elizabeth Embry, said she and her campaign had nothing to do with the tweets. Sheila Dixon spokesperson Martha McKenna said Dixon hadn't either. However, McKenna said she's familiar with the tactics--because they've been used against Dixon's campaign.
"There have been at least a dozen instances of different types of online forgeries," McKenna said. "It's pretty sophisticated."
About six weeks ago, McKenna said, a fake Baltimore Sun Twitter account retweeted a fake Fox News account "endorsing" Dixon. McKenna forwarded the tweet to Sun reporter Luke Broadwater, and the Sun contacted Twitter, which quickly took down the fake Sun account.
"We haven't had anything on Twitter since then," McKenna said. There have been other e-mail related oddities recently, though, said McKenna, such as an e-mail with a photoshopped Sun story that looked like it came from the Dixon campaign but did not.
In March, City Councilman Nick Mosby, who was still in the mayoral race, claimed a hacker had "doctored" an e-mail sent by his campaign manager to connect other candidates' fundraising to the "Greek Mafia" and the "Italian Connection," according to a report by Luke Broadwater at the Sun.
And back in December, local blogger Mark Miazga posted screenshots of three fake-looking Facebook accounts that "only to exist to advertise events and show support of various Democratic candidates around the city." The profiles disappeared hours after Miazga posted the screenshots.
Like Julius Henson's famous robocalls and a flier that gave the wrong date for the 2002 Maryland gubernatorial election, the fake anti-Pugh Twitter accounts are happening so close to the election that it's unlikely the culprits will be identified before the votes are cast.