Howard Schultz's announcement in January that he was considering running for president as an independent may have been met with chuckles and eye rolls from pundits, but on Twitter, political operatives, trolls and profiteers saw an opportunity.
Within days of the announcement, Twitter was home to fan accounts that seemed to span every demographic, praising the coffee executive's possible campaign and vowing support. Along with general anonymous fan accounts, profiles claiming to represent moderates, Republicans, men, women and white and black voters all jumped on the billionaire's bandwagon.
But, as many Twitter users suspected, some of Schultz's fan accounts were not the grassroots supporters they claimed to be.
Since January, Twitter has suspended at least six pro-Schultz accounts for violating its fake accounts policies, according to a source familiar with the bans who was not authorized to speak publicly. Those accounts — @blacks4Schultz, @women_4_schultz, @GaysForSchultz, @PresSchultz2020, @HowardJSchultz, @GOP4Schultz — and others like them that are still active, and they provide a preview of the kind of fakery researchers expect to see on social media during the 2020 election.
This kind of trickery "is as old as the internet itself," said Joan Donovan, director of the Technology and Social Change Research Project at Harvard University's Shorenstein Center.
"The public is definitely still very hoaxable when it comes to people pretending to be an organization," Donovan said, citing the easily co-opted signifiers that come with identity politics and the decline of influence of structured social movement organizations.
"It's really hard, because if someone taps into a part of your identity or politics that is meaningful, especially when it comes to political platforms, we want to believe them," Donovan said.
At a New York City book event in January, Schultz said he is "not trying to win the Twitter primary." The candidate initially stumbled on social media, with the first tweets from his official account accruing far more responses than retweets or likes — a phenomenon known as getting "ratioed." At the book event, a heckler even shouted out "go back to getting ratioed on Twitter."
Schultz spokesperson Erin McPike declined to elaborate on whether Schultz had formulated a strategy for Twitter. Asked whether Schultz's team had been in contact with Twitter regarding any of the fake pro-Schultz accounts, McPike said it had not.
Online astroturfing has become commonplace, used by insiders, outside groups and even foreign governments to sway public opinion and perception. Russia's Internet Research Agency operated thousands of accounts posing as Americans before the 2016 election in an effort to further polarize public opinion and elect Donald Trump, according to the Justice Department.
"Hoaxing and fraud is real issue," Donovan said. "Unfortunately the public is still going to fall for these things because the only way to know if an account is a hoax, is if the social media companies mark them that way."
Other Twitter efforts have been on a smaller scale. Former Trump attorney Michael Cohen, who will soon begin a three-year prison sentence for lying to Congress, breaking campaign finance laws and tax evasion, paid a male consultant to create and operate a fawning @WomenForCohen account in a bid to elevate his profile during the 2016 election.
The fake pro-Schultz accounts have operated similarly, but on a much smaller scale.
One of them, @blacks4Schultz, which used a stock photo of a black man cheering for its profile picture, was active for just a day before Twitter shut it down but still garnered hundreds of mostly mocking likes and retweets for its post: "a tax on the ultra wealthy would be wiggity wiggity wack!!"
The Trump-supporting far-right activist Jacob Wohl operated @women_4_schultz for nearly a week, an account with few followers and only one popular tweet, which disparaged Sen. Kamala Harris, D-Calif.
In an interview with NBC News, Wohl said the intent behind the Schultz account was to "be goofy," but acknowledged it is part of a broader strategy — first reported in USA Today — to create social media accounts for Democratic candidates perceived as weak in the hope they would go on to lose the 2020 election to President Donald Trump.
"It is not illegal, unethical or untoward for Americans to steer an American election," Wohl said in a phone call with NBC News. "I'm an American."
Austin Carter, 27, a doctoral candidate in Orlando, Florida, created the nonunderscored @WomenForSchultz, tweeting jokes and replies under the username "Thot Coffee," with the bio, "Real alive human women that have the hots for the coffee man."
Carter said he was inspired by Michael Cohen's fan account.
"I thought @WomenForCohen was the funniest, most ridiculous thing," Carter said. "At the same time, Howard Schultz was getting destroyed on Twitter and everyone was making fun of him. I wanted to get in on the fun."
Carter said he admires Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., and Ilhan Omar, D-Minn, and supports Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., in 2020.
Asked whether he was concerned about misrepresenting himself as a group of women or a fan of Schultz, Carter said: "I made sure you knew it was a joke account. But you never know who's going to take something at face value."
Carter sees one major benefit to his @WomenForSchultz account.
"I scooped the username before Jacob Wohl did."
Other fake accounts were more committed.
A Seattle group purporting to be "a grassroots movement of ordinary Americans," called "Ready for Schultz" had been tweeting under the @draftschultz handle. The account and corresponding website, ReadyforSchultz.com, were both deleted in February after a Seattle Times reporter called a local public relations firm believed to be responsible for the account.
"At this time our organization is not willing to identify members of the group," a Ready for Schultz representative tweeted to the reporter before closing the account.
At the same time, the underscored @draft_howard account attracted 21 followers in the week it tweeted, seemingly earnestly, about Schultz's intended campaign, often with the hashtag #theperfectblend — a reference to Schultz's time as Starbucks CEO. Its bio contained a link to a YouTube video, a nonofficial advertisement cut together from Schultz interviews and news hits, backed by The Who's "Baba O'Riley," and posted by an anonymous YouTuber "Common Sense."
The draft_howard account also linked to a blog where it urged readers to join "the mission," and contribute to a related GoFundMe campaign, where donors of $17.50 or more were promised a "complimentary T-shirt of your choice!"
The $10,000 campaign, which attracted no donors, was launched by "C. Sense," but the profile's URL still contained a real name — William Spruance from Wilmington, Delaware.
"My friend put me down for that as a joke," Spruance said when reached by phone about the online efforts to support Schultz. "I'm not a supporter of Howard Schultz. My friend put me down as a low-cost prank."
Spruance, 22, recently interned at the online news outlets The Daily Caller, a conservative news and politics website, and The Whim, a failed online news startup, according to his LinkedIn profile. During the recent midterms, his LinkedIn account showed that he served as field director for Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick, R-Penn., who was elected to Congress last fall in a moderate district. Fitzpatrick's office did not return requests for confirmation of Spruance's employment.
"I understand how that adds up, of course," Spruance said. Still, Spruance denied having authored @draft_howard or any of the Schultz fan accounts. Spruance agreed to connect NBC News with the friend whom he says "signed him up," but stopped responding to calls and texts. That same day, the blog, Twitter account and GoFundMe campaign were taken down.
But not everyone supporting Schultz online is trolling. Other accounts seem to be backed by real Schultz fans — including at least two Starbucks employees.
Mike Olafsson, 51, a Starbucks manager from Exton, Pennsylvania, has been hoping for a Schultz run since 2013, when he registered schultz4america.com, schultz4president.com and a handful of similarly named websites.
Olafsson said he tweets positively about Schultz from anonymous Twitter accounts "because I'm an employee and I don't want my support to be seen as partisan."
Markelle Cullom, 25, a Starbucks manager from Phoenix, has no similar reservations about her involvement with the fan account @schultz2020fans.
Cullom, who appears in Schultz's book "From the Ground Up," said she was able to go to college because of a Starbucks program. Now, she and her boyfriend, Michael Jones, 28, say they are supporting her former boss's potential campaign — and themselves — by selling Schultz-branded merchandise like shirts, hats and, of course, coffee mugs.
"It's for-profit right now," Jones said. "We would like to be involved in supporting some part of the campaign, but we don't have anything aligned yet."
The people behind more than a dozen other pro-Schultz fan accounts declined interviews. One claimed to work for a Democratic senator, while another said they feared that coming forward would result in "censorship" by Twitter. Tweeting by all the active accounts has slowed.
"I will be logging out of this account and not coming back," the user behind @HSchultz2020 tweeted last month. "I'm sorry to all the friends/howard fans I've made along the way, but the backlash from people on twitter calling me stupid and a russian bot has been too much. I can't take it anymore."
@SchultzWomen4 was more direct in its signoff.
"I give up," they tweeted. "Bring [sic] a fake Schultz account is too much work."