I have a client who’s got something in common with Bill Murray, Kanye West, Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel and the BP oil company. She’s been the victim of a Twitter impersonator. And, unlike Bill Murray’s Twitter Doppleganger, her impersonator was not telling jokes. In fact, he or she was saying hateful things about people who my client would never dream of offending. And this Twit (yes, I think that’s an apt moniker for this individual) was using her very visible position in her profession to make those tweets appear even more hateful. The irony is that my client doesn’t even use social media and when word of these tweets got back to her she was at a loss to know what to do. Welcome to a New Kind of Crisis – The Twitter Impersonation.
Twitter imposters are not new. Even as far back as 2009, celebrities as diverse as the Dalai Lama and Shaquille O’Neal were finding themselves victims of this phenomenon. A 2013 study by Barracuda Labs, for example, uncovered 99,000 fake Twitter accounts on the web. Given the increased popularity of Twitter, you can expect this number to escalate exponentially.
So, what should you do if you’re a victim of a Twitter impersonator? Squawk. Squawk to your contacts and squawk to Twitter. Unlike other crises – where you aim for a low-key response that generates little or no exposure – this one demands a lot of noise.
But before you start making all that noise, you need to know the difference between a parody account and impersonation. Parody accounts are fully protected on Twitter. If they are upfront that they aren’t the real you (and they aren’t using your image or any copyrighted materials of yours), there is probably very little you can do about it. Impersonation, on the other hand, is against Twitter Rules, which state: “Twitter accounts portraying another person in a confusing or deceptive manner may be permanently suspended under the Twitter Impersonation Policy.” For that reason, when your report this to Twitter, make sure to fill out their form completely and be clear about how your Twit is impersonating you or your organization. You may want to link to specific tweets your Twit posted to show what they are doing to harm you.
If you are, indeed, the victim of a Twitter impersonator, here are the steps to take:
Step #1: Reach out to your entire contact list via email. Yes, we’re going Old School here, but it’s the safest way to let them know that you’ve been the victim of a Twitter imposter. Ask them not to accept a follower request if your Twit reaches out to them. And, to stop following your imposter to decrease the visibility of his or her tweets. If you are active in associations, local government, higher education or other high profile situations, contact their administrators as well to let them know that you are not your Twit. Ask them to advise their members not to accept any follower requests from the impersonator. If you’re active on Twitter and have built up your own community there, use that too to get the word out to call out your impersonator.
Step #2: Get in touch with Twitter to report the situation. The good news is that Twitter makes it easy to Report Violations. The bad news is that it’s going to take a while. My Twitter Guru, Morgan Flagg, tells me that Twitter’s folks are the most aggressive against impersonators of accounts with a million or so followers, like those of celebrities. That’s why you need to start with Step #1 to proactively take the wind out of your Twit’s sails. Chances are once you decrease the visibility of the Twit’s tweets, it won’t be any fun for them anymore and they’ll get bored with their little prank.
Nevertheless, you do want to get the account taken down. So go to the Help Section of Twitter. Search for “Impersonator” in the box in the top right corner. From there, click on “Reporting Impersonation Accounts”. You’ll get the details on how to submit a ticket to get your Twitter Impersonation resolved.
A few other tips:
- File the complaint from your company’s email address. Filing it from a third-party email (like your personal Gmail account) provider means Twitter has to take another step to verify that you are the real you.
- Be specific on the part of the form that asks “How is this account pretending to be your brand, company, or organization?” Don’t just click every box. Checking every box will increase your chances of being ignored, while choosing even just one box may get the other account removed.
- Be patient. You’re not alone, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t speak up for yourself. If you haven’t heard back in a week or so, go back to Support (or tweet to @Support if you’re on Twitter) and ask for an update. It can take some time, but be politely persistent.
Social media brings with it real opportunities for engagement with a variety of customers, referral sources and resources. On the other hand, the openness of the web invites all kinds of shenanigans and opens the door to some real crises. Build a community. Interact with them frequently and defend your identity with vigor. Be the Master of Your (Online) Domain and it will show up on your bottom line.
UPDATE: A version of this story appears in the June 22, 2015 edition of the Hartford Business Journal