Donald Trump used a photo from President Obama’s first — and far better-attended — inauguration for the header image on his newly established official presidential Twitter account today. (The image quietly was removed once it was pointed out, and mocked ruthlessly.) But it wasn’t the only thing Trump apparently took from Obama without attribution: An uncertain — but counting at least in the hundreds of thousands — number of Twitter users found themselves following the @POTUS account early Friday evening despite having taken no action to do so. Including the writer of this post.
As was widely announced this week, the name of the official U.S. President’s Twitter account, @POTUS, was handed from Barack Obama to Trump today after the former Celebrity Apprentice host was sworn in as president. The catch: Trump wasn’t supposed to get Obama’s 13.7 million followers in the exchange. Technically, Trump’s @POTUS Twitter account is new; the original account, established by Obama after he took office in 2009, was changed to an archive account with the handle @POTUS44. When that change happened, the handle @POTUS was reserved specifically for Trump and associated with an email provided by his social media team. (Here’s a short breakdown of how it works.)
So it was, then, that in the first few hours after Trump’s @POTUS account went live, his follower count began at zero. After all, it was a newly activated profile. But that count quickly rose to about 3.7 million-4 million followers. That’s not a tiny amount, but it’s nothing compared to the number collected by his predecessor. Then a curious thing happened: Sometime between 4 PM and 6 PM, Trump’s follower numbers increased dramatically, currently sitting at 14.5 million, which means Trump already has beaten Obama’s total.
But that’s not all. Mike Pence, who took over the @VP Twitter handle, spent most of Friday with a very low follower count — around 70,000 give or take as of 2 PM. Now, he sits at 2.55 million followers, just below Joe Biden’s @VP44 account’s 2.6 million followers. Meanwhile, Melania Trump, who inherited Michelle Obama’s @FLOTUS handle, now has 6.68 million followers, virtually identical to the @FLOTUS44 account’s follower total.
The fact that all three accounts suddenly increased their followers to totals similar to their predecessors is, shall we say, a bit on the nose, especially considering how thin-skinned the new president is about his public profile. Making things murkier, it didn’t just affect people who passively didn’t follow the new @POTUS as a side effect of the transfer but actively unfollowed the account to avoid following Trump. Naturally, this didn’t go unnoticed. Many Twitter users offered their own theories as to what happened — some serious, some joking.
Was this a misunderstanding about how the handle transfer worked? Did Twitter actually import Obama’s followers to Trump’s account? Twitter isn’t saying so far, though CEO Jack Dorsey, responding to complaints, is suggesting users simply unfollow for now.
Twitter support meanwhile acknowledged the problem more directly and described it specifically as a migration, rather than user error.
I can’t speak for everyone else, but I can confirm I was not following @POTUS at all today, only for that to change without my taking any action. Deadline has reached out to Twitter for comment; we’ll update this story when Twitter explains just what is going on.