Faking ItPosted on

When is an impersonation account on Twitter or Facebook a problem for a prominent sportsman or other well-known individual?

Martin Clarke, Editor of the MailOnline (the world’s most read English language website) admitted yesterday at the Leveson Enquiry that “there have in the past been rogue tweets with fake accounts that have fooled other people on the Internet”.

By referencing “other people” we might presume that Clarke is claiming that the MailOnline haven’t been duped in the past. Indeed, he told the Enquiry “If the tweet was alleging something contentious, then obviously you would have to check it out in the normal way to normal journalistic standard … Unless they’re verified accounts, then we treat them with huge suspicion”.

So far so good, however, I’m not so sure how “huge” this “suspicion” is that the MailOnline treats tweets with. As the Media Blog  pointed out last week, the Mail’s website reported only last week on tweets apparently sent by Katie Price (aka Jordan). The trouble being that the tweets were actually from a fake Twitter account @MissKatiePriice (note the two “i’s” in Price).

In the fast-paced online publishing world errors are inevitable (some more forgivable than others). There is, unfortunately, a long line of examples of newspapers reporting comments made by fake Twitter and Facebook accounts. From the Sun apologising to Tom Cleverley for falsely alleging that he was making sexual advances to a girl on Facebook (not him) to the Independent apologising to Andy Townsend for reporting sexist comments made in his name on Twitter (not him) the dangers continue.

Its lamentable but it is necessary to regularly audit or monitor social networking sites if you are a person in the public eye. Twitter and Facebook are committed to preventing impersonation accounts. When their terms and conditions are abused by impersonators and other cranks then the integrity and credibility of their service is damaged. The terms are clear:

Facebook – Fake profiles (timelines) created to imitate real people (impostor accounts) are not allowed on Facebook

Twitter – Twitter accounts pretending to be another person or entity in order to confuse or deceive can be permanently suspended under the Twitter Impersonation Policy

Fake profiles become a problem when they appear convincing. I have worked for clients who have had no less than 40,000 followers for a fake account before we had it deleted. One account had befriended a client on Facebook, taken his private photographs, and used the pictures on a fake Twitter account to give the account a genuine appearance. All the more reason to keep your private photographs offline.

Problems don’t just arrive when the mainstream press pick up comments from false accounts. In recent times Twitter was abuzz after England goalkeeping legend Peter Shilton apparently made some outrageous homophobic comments (not him) and, a couple of years ago, a client of mine having finished a game for his club was approached by a club official to advise that there was an American teenager here to see him who claimed to have been communicating with him on Facebook. Disturbingly an impersonator had been communicating with the impressionable teenager and had invited her over to England to watch a game.

Aside from making removal requests to Facebook and Twitter what more can be done?

Having a verified account is a huge help (though didn’t help Katie Price vis a vis the Mail) as users (and newspapers) are able to more easily distinguish between the genuine and the fake. But what of the well-known individual who doesn’t fancy Tweeting? Well, they could try an approach used by the likes of JK Rowling and Fernando Torres. Neither uses Twitter but both have verified accounts with one simple message. Torres’ tells the world as follows:

@torres –  have not started on Twitter yet, but this is my official page and it is ready to go when the timing is right.

Will the timing ever be right? Maybe not but in the meantime the wannabe Fernandos will struggle to get an audience.

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