ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:
What started out as the story of a Twitter bot has become much stranger. Over the weekend, President Trump retweeted a bit of praise from a Twitter user named Nicole. And as people online dug into Nicole's identity, they found clues suggesting she was not a real person. Ben Collins was one of those people digging. He's a reporter for The Daily Beast. And his story today has the intriguing headline, "I Found Nicole Mincey, Trump's Biggest Twitter Fan. She Isn't A Bot, But She Has A Ton Of Secrets." Hey, Ben.
BEN COLLINS: Hey, how you doing?
SHAPIRO: Good. So this account that the president retweeted, Nicole Mincey, had the handle @Protrump45. What were the first clues that this account was not what it claimed to be?
COLLINS: Oh, man, there were a lot of them. First of all, her profile picture was a stock photo. Now, that's not something you're allowed to do on Twitter. You're not allowed to impersonate someone else. And she sort of messed with the wrong stock photo company because the CEO of that stock photo company then went on a rampage finding all these people who were associated with her that were using stock photos as their profile pictures. So that was...
SHAPIRO: So it wasn't only her profile pic. A lot of her followers, people retweeting her were all using stock photos from the same company.
COLLINS: Yeah, people with extraordinarily similar biographies. They weirdly all blogged at ProTrump45. There were a lot of these people.
SHAPIRO: So yesterday everybody saw that and concluded, OK, this is just a front. These people are fake. But somewhere behind all that fakery was a real person. Who was it?
COLLINS: That's correct. Part of her name is Nicole Mincey. She is also a person from New Jersey who, just as @Protrump45 said she was, grew up in a tough situation, now goes to college. She claimed to be a black woman. Both were black women. I talked to the person who really truly has that identity. And then things got a little weird.
SHAPIRO: She said that she was part of a group and that group basically used the real details of her identity pretending it was her. Is that what happened?
COLLINS: She said that she was recruited because she posted pro-Trump memes on Instagram. And this group of people - she said their names were Lorraine and William - reached out to her and said, hey, do you want to blog for ProTrump45? Which is really honestly mostly just, like, a make America great again trinket website. So when she wasn't blogging for them, they were using her name to push pro-Trump messages under this larger house account. That's the one that was tweeted at by the president last week. Now, she says she had nothing to do with that Twitter app. These people stole her identity after working with her for months. But that story sort of started to unravel as I talked to her.
SHAPIRO: We should say that the Twitter account has been taken down. The tweet has been deleted. What did you take away from your conversation with this very real woman caught up in this very strange story?
COLLINS: I honestly don't know what to believe anymore. She gave me some phone numbers for some of these people that she claimed were Lorraine and William. All of them rang through. One of them rang through to a phone service that makes a free instant telephone number. She said that Lorraine was in Texas when the only person with Lorraine's full name is in Newark, not very far away from where she lives. There are a lot of fishy things about this, but no proof.
SHAPIRO: It sounds like you feel caught in a hall of mirrors where even the things that you think you've learned may or may not be true.
COLLINS: It is a staple of our time to feel this way 24/7 (laughter).
SHAPIRO: Well, that's what I wanted to ask about. This is a staple of our time, you say. How does this fit into the larger world in which we live right now?
COLLINS: Yeah, nothing is really true, but everything is true all at once. I think what's fascinating about Nicole or whoever claims to be Nicole is that they kept posting these memes claiming that, you know, the mainstream media is full of fake news trying to feed you an agenda that isn't real. And when you try to get answers from these people about who they really are, you can't do it.
SHAPIRO: Why would somebody set up these potentially fake Twitter accounts?
COLLINS: It's money (laughter). By tweeting back at the president, you can see a lot of people's desire to buy a lot of trinkets and, like, tchotchkes and things involving Donald Trump and making America great again. And this was a lot of their marketing strategy at ProTrump45. They would tweet back at the president and link to mugs of liberal tears or deplorable lives matter T-shirts, things like that. There is money to be made from this. And also, the other, more important thing potentially is that faking support online for a bunch of political characters is, in fact, a lucrative business. You can - even if one person at the end of the day believes in Donald Trump, they can pretend to be, you know, hundreds or thousands of these people.
SHAPIRO: Daily Beast reporter Ben Collins speaking with us via Skype. Thanks a lot.
COLLINS: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.