By the time the news spread that the Dalai Lama had opened a Twitter account it no longer seemed such a novelty that a high profile individual would join the micro-blogging service, even if he was a divine being. The account gathered nearly 20,000 followers before Twitter pulled the plug two days later when representatives of the Tibetan leader informed the company that the profile had been created by an impersonator, an action that violates Twitter’s Terms of Service. Site administrators then turned the handle over to the Dalai Lama and as of this writing it has remained unused, with not a single tweet issued.

But on the day the faux Dalai Lama joined the service, I saw multiple tweets linking to the account uncritically and even a few mainstream news sources, including the AFP, reported that the spiritual leader had entered the Twitterverse.

This is not the first time that a celebrity or company has had to take action against fake social media accounts created in their name. Given the relative ease to sign up on most platforms and the lack of verification needed, brands and individuals are having to swat down daily attempts to sabotage their reputations. Two days passed before the Dalai Lama’s staff were alerted to the fake account. Impersonated people may find their images severely damaged if an impostor has the time and the energy to wreak havoc prior to being shut down. And with the proliferation of fake accounts, journalists and social media users have to be increasingly wary when well known brands suddenly pop up online.

When someone was impersonating the real pro basketball player Shaquille O’Neal on the account, @ShaquilleONeal, Shaq himself started Twittering with the handle THE_REAL_SHAQ to dispel any suspicions that he was an impostor. Celebrities like Lance Armstrong and Miley Cyrus have had to respond to legions of doubting Twitter users and say that they were, in fact, who they said they were. And as we learned when several famous Twitter handles were recently hacked by nefarious pranksters, even the legitimate accounts may not be producing accurate information.

Media Satire

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Dan Lyons

Though people have been impersonating celebrities for years before the Internet even existed, Dan Lyons became one of the first to gain notoriety for it online. Unlike the Dalai Lama impostor, Lyons fully disclosed that he wasn’t the person he was impersonating when he launched his Fake Steve Jobs blog in 2006. From the very beginning he never intended for anyone to believe that he was the real Apple CEO, a fact that kept thousands guessing as to his real identity until a New York Times article finally outed Lyons — who was a Forbes editor at the time — in August 2007.

“I always wanted it to be clear that it’s not the real Jobs,” Lyons told me in a phone interview. “But I was surprised how many people wrote in thinking it really was Steve Jobs. I was modeling mine on Private Eye, a humor magazine in England. It had a column called the ‘Secret Diaries of so and so’ where they would pretend to write in the voice of someone else. That was my idea; if you read Private Eye you know in that context that it’s not Madonna writing, it’s someone making fun of Madonna.”

For Lyons, the existence of the blog was no different than the satirical impersonations we saw every week of Tina Fey playing Sarah Palin on “Saturday Night Live.” Though the posts had an edge that didn’t always cast Jobs in a positive light — he was portrayed as a egotistical narcissist — Lyons said that he simply tried to write what he thought Jobs would really say if he didn’t need to be diplomatic.

“I think it just depends on what’s being said,” he explained. “With the Dalai Lama thing I can see them being pissed because that’s misrepresentation; that’s really tricking people, and for mine you were all in on the joke, and it was mostly Apple fans. And then it became a way to cover the news through an assumed perspective. At first, I thought it’d be an exercise in fiction, and then later it had elements of truth to it, and then it became a mixture of the two.”

I asked Lyons how he thinks celebrities should respond to their fake counterparts. When the real Jobs was asked about Fake Steve, he replied that he found the blog clever and amusing. Lyons felt that this is often the appropriate response to mere satire — just as Sarah Palin made a cameo on “Saturday Night Live” to show that, yes, she could take a joke. But Lyons recognized that it wouldn’t take much for a fake account to go too far, whether it’s failing to disclose that it’s a fake or else turning its satire to hateful vitriol. Lyons experienced this first hand when someone launched a Fake Dan Lyons blog (no longer in existence) that went as far as setting up Craigslist sex ads using the real Lyons’ picture.

“I always felt like if Jobs or Apple had gone to Blogger and made a big stink, I would have just shut it down,” he said, “Or if they had shut it down I would have said ‘Fine, it was fun.’ I wouldn’t have made a big free speech argument about it. If I really thought that this was keeping Jobs awake nights, I would have felt bad about it. As long as he was okay with it, then it was all right.”

Twitter’s Take

Last week, I exchanged emails with Twitter co-founder Biz Stone about the company’s approach to brand and celebrity impersonators. He agreed that most users express skepticism whenever someone claiming to be a celebrity joins the service.

“Shaq actually called one of his followers personally to prove it was him, which was great,” he said. When in doubt, it’s a good idea to check the celebrity’s official website to see if it links to the Twitter account, a good indication that the handle is legitimate.

Because there are thousands of new users signing up every day, it’s virtually impossible for Twitter’s relatively small staff to monitor accounts for imposters. Instead, they often have to rely on the person being misrepresented contacting the company. I asked Stone whether Twitter would ever shut down a disclosed satirical account, and he replied, “I think parody can be a healthy expression if it’s done right and doesn’t cross into impersonation.”

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Demi Moore’s Twitter feed

In the end, though, he encouraged celebrities to not only join the micro-blogging service, but to run their accounts themselves. “It’s easy and it gives them direct access to their fans,” he said, “MrsKutcher [the Twitter handle for actress Demi Moore] actually shared a Twitpic of a paparazzi with the Twitter [post], ‘Say high to your mother for me.’ I thought that was hilarious but it shows that something like Twitter puts the power in their hands instead of the other way around.”

Ryan Dombal at Pitchfork Media had a helpful rundown of musicians’ Twitter feeds, and he guessed whether each artist was really responsible for the tweets. MC Hammer got a “Yeah, it’s him,” while AC/DC was “Not a chance.”

The problem for Twitter is that if enough fakesters cause havoc, people will lose trust in the system, something that’s hard to win back online.

Journalists Fooled by Twitter Pranksters

When the news broke that the Dalai Lama had opened a Twitter account, several journalists and bloggers quickly filed stories reporting the debut, only to have to issue corrections when it was revealed to be fake. The incident highlighted the often difficult balance journalists must strike when trying to verify these accounts while still remaining timely.

Lidija Davis, a regular writer for ReadWriteWeb, was one of the web journalists who had to update her piece to explain that the handle was a fake. In a phone interview last week, she explained that in many cases it’s impossible to get hold of a person’s press rep at odd hours when she’s quickly filing a story.

“News is very different now and you want to get the news out there as quickly as you can,” she said. “And though it’s no excuse, there aren’t people in the middle of the night standing by their phones to verify a story.”

Davis explained that this isn’t just a problem for journalists, but for social networks and regular users as well, so much so that eventually social media platforms and brands will have to address the issue directly. But as for how they will address it, she said she had no idea.

“It’s a huge problem,” she said. “It’s a stage where everyone is still learning, Twitter is still learning, I’m still learning how to deal with this kind of story.”

Almost on cue, I received word shortly after beginning this article that the actress and singer Miley Cyrus’ Twitter account had been briefly hacked. “IM NOT A F***ING ROLE MODLE I HATE LITTLE KIDS,” the impostor tweeted. “I ONLY DO HANNAH MONTANNA FOR DA $$$$$$$$$$”

Simon Owens is a former newspaper journalist and an associate editor for MediaShift. He currently works as an online analyst for New Media Strategies. You can read more of his writing at his blog or contact him at simon[.]bloggasm [at] gmail.com.

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