On Election Day in 2016, a meme showed up on Instagram under the Republican Party name, with a picture of Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton photoshopped into a garbage truck and Donald Trump giving a thumbs-up.
Under the party’s elephant mascot, the picture read, “Trash Pickup – November 9, 2016,” while the caption said, “Time to take out the trash America!” The garbage meme went out to more than 270,000 followers and received more than 29,000 likes.
The GOP never commented on the picture. In fact, it’s never commented on any of the 800-plus often-controversial posts that @RepublicanParty has made on Instagram because it’s not an official account. The Republican National Committee uses the handle @GOP on Instagram.
But here’s the kicker: @RepublicanParty boasts 448,000 followers — more than quadruple the 105,000 people following the verified GOP account. That’s worrisome, considering the content shared on @RepublicanParty and the likelihood some people mistakenly believe it’s legit.
The popularity of the namesake account is just the latest reminder that you can’t believe everything you see on social media. Facebook, Twitter and Google are doing battle against fake news. Congress is looking into an active Russian trolling campaign on social media, through which Facebook took in $100,000 worth of ads while Twitter found 201 accounts tied to spreading propaganda.
Now you have to double-check that the account you’re looking at is actually on the up-and-up.
Instagram declined to comment, saying it doesn’t speak about individual accounts.
The GOP declined to comment on @RepublicanParty, but a person familiar within the organization noted the complexities of removing such accounts.
“Their stringent rules about what constitutes an impersonation often make the process of getting a page removed difficult,” the person said.
This isn’t the first time the GOP has been effectively copied.
There was TEN_GOP, a Russia-linked Twitter account that pretended to be the Tennessee Republican party. It amassed about 136,000 followers for nearly a year before Twitter suspended it. The actual Tennessee GOP said it had reported the account three times to Twitter, but the company didn’t take action until 11 months later.
Twitter declined to comment on individual accounts.
Now, on Instagram, the GOP has a similar problem with @RepublicanParty.
The account manages to stay active on Instagram because it doesn’t quite pretend to be the GOP. When you land on the page, it becomes pretty obvious the account is a promotional tool for Greater Half, a pro-Trump merchandise shop that is based out of Bowling Green, Kentucky.
Underneath the name and logo is the label “Personal Blog.” By contrast, the @GOP account has the checkmark indicating a verified account and is labeled “Political Party.”
Yet the @RepublicanParty account boasts far more activity. From the period between October 2015 and July of this year, it saw roughly 8.5 million interactions, according to Jonathan Albright, a research director at Columbia University’s Tow Center for Digital Journalism.
“There’s no reason a random rip-off of the Republican Party should have 8.5 million likes and the GOP only has 415,000,” Albright said. “That’s crazy.”
Using Facebook’s social analytics tool CrowdTangle, he found that the GOP had about 19,000 interactions a month during that period. The @RepublicanParty account had nearly 20 times as many likes and comments with 374,000 monthly interactions.
And none of these are interactions for posts aligned with the GOP’s views. On Nov. 16, 2016, @RepublicanParty posted a meme making light of a protester being run over. The account also spread fake news about the date for Election Day, similar to an online hoax to suppress voters.
“When you constantly wonder why people think your party promotes racism,” one commenter wrote.
Game of clones
Despite its misinformation, @RepublicanParty continues to grow much faster than @GOP on Instagram. It gains nearly 10,000 followers every month, while the GOP account grows by about 4,000 followers a month, according to SocialBlade.
And the real GOP can’t do a thing about it.
Instagram’s community guidelines on Impersonation Accounts say the service takes “safety seriously” on hoax accounts for individuals, but for brands, like the GOP, there’s a higher threshold.
“Using another’s trademark in a way that has nothing to do with the product or service for which the trademark was granted is not a violation of Instagram’s trademark policy,” the social network says on its Help Center.
So even though @RepublicanParty uses the GOP’s logo and name, because it’s not actively pretending to be the political organization, it lives to see another day.
The Democratic Party has its share of imitators on Instagram as well, but none matches the reach of the official account.
@RepublicanParty has become so influential that it’s the first result when you search “Republican Instagram” on Google, and the second result for “GOP Instagram.”
Who’s behind @RepublicanParty?
Albright first discovered @RepublicanParty while tracking a network of Russia-linked Instagram accounts, but there’s no evidence that it’s tied to the country.
He was following merchandise Instagram accounts tied to Being Patriotic, a Facebook group run by a Russian troll farm first discovered by The Daily Beast. All the merchandise shops reference each other in their posts, creating an echo chamber similar to how botnets on Twitter work. The @RepublicanParty account had been mentioned in several posts, Albright said.
“It’s a suspicious account, and it’s in that extended network,” he said. “It pushes the same types of themes and messages that the other ones do. But it’s hard to pull out the ones that would be foreign and the ones that are domestic.”
Chris Benson, the vice president of Greater Half, denied any ties to Russia. He said he took the @RepublicanParty handle for over a year, and has no intentions to pose as the GOP.
He also doesn’t plan on giving up the handle, pointing out the value of having a name associated with the political party.
“We capitalized on an Instagram handle that we knew would help our business,” Benson said. “If I could own @HomeDepot, I would own it.”
Lacking controversial memes, the Greater Half Instagram account has 30,000 followers, less than one-tenth of the @RepublicanParty account.
A service address for Greater Half was listed in Tempe, Arizona, at the same location as Mousegraphics, a family-owned printing service.
Brian Perkinson, owner of the printing shop, said Mousegraphics serves as Greater Half’s warehouse, but he’s not familiar with the company.
“We don’t communicate with them that much,” Perkinson said. “The orders come in, we ship them, we invoice them and they pay us. I think we got their work from a cold call through Instagram.”
Originally published at 5:00 a.m. PT on Oct. 27
Updated at 8:18 a.m. PT: To include comments from Greater Half.
Batteries Not Included:The CNET team shares experiences that remind us why tech stuff is cool.
CNET Magazine: Check out a sampling of the stories you’ll find in CNET’s newsstand edition.