The Twitter account @emoblackthot was a virtual therapist and best friend for over 170,000 followers – many of them people of color and/or queer. She would post gentle reminders to wear sunscreen every day and stay hydrated, rave about the latest songs she was obsessed with and share her struggles with anxiety and depression. If followers were experiencing anxiety attacks, @emoblackthot was there to talk them through it over DMs.

On a platform overflowing with trolls and angry callouts, @emoblackthot stood out through her promotion of self-care and vulnerability and, as a consequence, quickly became viral. There was only one problem: she was not the person she claimed to be.

Until last week, it was commonly accepted that the person behind @emoblackthot was a black woman. @emoblackthot would post about alleviating her period cramps with chamomile tea, the unfair beauty standards placed on darker-skinned black women and styling her kinky 4C hair. The posts felt like they belonged to a black woman who was confident, fashionable and a tastemaker. (At one point, followers genuinely theorized that the account was run by Normani, a fast-rising R&B/pop singer, or the megastar Rihanna.)

Sometimes, @emoblackthot would tweet about experiencing financial troubles and ask for donations through the Cash App. Followers, many of them black women, would happily oblige, thinking they were giving their money to a fellow black woman in need.

A few months ago, @emoblackthot began teasing the reveal of her identity. She shared concerns that no one would “like” the real person behind the account. Fans quickly assuaged her fears. “Do the identity reveal,” one follower replied to a since-deleted tweet. “The opportunities that will come your way would blow your mind! i know it seems scary but trust the process. it’ll work in your favor in the end.”

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Last Friday morning, the reveal came. @emoblackthot chose something big and dramatic: a photoshoot and interview with the fashion magazine Paper.

@emoblackthot was not Normani. Or Rihanna. Or even a black woman.

The account runner was Isaiah Hickland – a 23-year-old black man.

“I did not envision ever revealing myself,” Hickland said to the Guardian over email about his decision to come out. “I wanted to deactivate the account without explanation and let it die, but people relied on it for their own reasons and I didn’t want to not give them an explanation as to why the account was gone.”

The pushback was swift. @emoblackthot’s followers felt like they had been scammed. “Impersonating a queer black woman for clout is immoral because of all the shit queer bw [black women] receive,” a fan tweeted. “We only wanted an actual role model that was here for us and that cared for us. We thought we had that in EBT, but we were lied to.”

Hickland said he quickly received a slew of threatening and angry messages – including racial and homophobic slurs – after the reveal, which led to him deleting @emoblackthot and his personal accounts. “I fully expected to be held accountable for my wrongdoings,” he said over email. “However, I didn’t expect the amount of vitriol, lies, and hate being spread and sent my way. I feel like my life is over.” Hickland said his mental health had taken a severe hit from the online attacks.

In under an hour, @emoblackthot had gone from being one of the most beloved accounts on “Black Twitter” to one of the most hated. Even popular figures were brought into the mix. After interacting with and following @emoblackthot, the R&B singer Kehlani was forced to clarify (in a since deleted tweet) how much she knew about Hickland. “I was asked for advice on his financial situation at his day job,” she posted. “Once he told me who he was, i told him he owed it to his followers to be honest about who he was … not a publication.”

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Followers of @emoblackthot genuinely theorized that the account was run by the megastar Rihanna.



Followers of @emoblackthot theorized that the account was run by Rihanna. Photograph: Charles Sykes/Invision/AP

Soon, Twitter users began filling in the details. They shared screenshots of him sending messages, as @emoblackthot, in private group chats meant to be exclusively for black women. The reveal made everyone involved ask who we should and shouldn’t trust on the internet.

Sandra Song said she had not been aware of Hickland’s presence in private group chats when she interviewed him for Paper and found the new allegations worrisome. “Throughout our conversation, Isaiah continually emphasized that this was him coming completely clean, so we all assumed that he was being totally transparent with us,” she said.

Hickland said he had nothing but good intentions with @emoblackthot.

“The account began as a burner account of self-expression for me,” he said. (He denies theories that he purchased the account from someone else, possibly an actual black woman, only a few weeks ago.) Hickland originally envisioned the account as a place for him to talk about bisexuality, mental health and social injustice without worrying about ramifications in his personal life.

But as the account’s popularity grew, and so did his financial troubles, Hickland toyed with the idea of using it as a launching pad for a career in the entertainment industry. He pretended to be his own manager and pitched himself to industry contacts “to see if anyone would take a chance on me”. He was desperate: “I’m in an extremely dire situation and I’ve been trying to put myself in a position to get myself out of it.” (He said any donations he received from followers were used for preparing for job interviews and on life expenses while unemployed.)

Pretending to be someone else on the internet is nothing new. In many ways, digital masquerade is built into how we use the internet – whether it’s blatant catfishing, or using a picture of a K-pop singer as our avatar, or only showing the pretty parts of our lives. Social media allows for our identities to become hyper-visible, but it also allows us to adopt new ones.

Dr Crystal Abidin, an anthropologist with a special focus on internet culture, said the reason an account like @emoblackthot – with its simple reminders to drink water and eat food – was able to thrive on Twitter was because of how angry content on the platform has become: “The content is novel in a space that is already so depressed.” She said influencers who place an emphasis on self-care particularly appealed to marginalized communities (as with @emoblackthot’s black female following) because the stressors of everyday life ring true. “The culture of self-care has at its ethos the feeling of being oppressed by mainstream culture.”

Digital masquerade is nothing new, Abidin points out. From Lonelygirl15 to A Gay Girl In Damascus to two TikTok teens faking a gay prom proposal, there have been plenty of faked viral moments.

Hickland said it was likely the @emoblackthot persona was dead forever: “For now, I just plan on detoxing, doing a lot of self reflection, finally starting therapy and figuring out the next steps to attempt to make things right.”





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