Is this the real Pope? Five ways to spot a fake Twitter account

Monday 3 December 2012, 16:05

Sue Llewellyn Sue Llewellyn is a social media expert and BBC trainer. Twitter: @suellewellyn

Even before the Pope’s officials launched his Twitter account (below), there were several fake accounts to distract the gullible. The Pope on Twitter

Big news figures are a magnet for mischief-makers - but there are ways to spot the hoaxes. So, when fearless Felix Baumgartner leaped into the record books, his heroic feat inspired a host of parody accounts. One small step for man, one giant leap for the Twitter fakers.

Fake tweet This tweet caught everyone’s attention and was widely retweeted by several very influential users. Understandably, you might think, it is pretty powerful.

But that was enough to make me wonder: could he really be tweeting at a time like this?

I clicked on ‘Felix’s’ profile and found that his 19 tweets had already garnered more than 74,000 followers and this ‘amazing’ tweet had been retweeted more than 21,000 times. Yet a quick look at @BaumgartnFelix’s profile showed that it was clearly marked as a parody.

Self-confessed parody account As he jumped so did his follower numbers: an additional 20,000 in just 15 minutes.

Nobody, it seemed, was bothering to verify the tweets. A couple of hours later the account had attracted nearly 150,000 followers - including a huge number of journalists. It was a classic lesson in look before you leap - or retweet - which I collected for training purposes.

So how can you spot a fake account? And what should you do to verify it?

Here are five simple things to look out for (with another five and a summary of my top ten tomorrow):

1.         Is the tweet newsworthy?

Be extra vigilant if someone famous has died or there’s a great news line. Some usually reliable Twitter users were fooled by a fake BBC account, @BBCNewsBreaking, which has nothing to do with the BBC (below):

Retweeting of a non-BBC story

2.      Check the spelling and structure of the username.

How would you have known the BBC lookalike wasn’t the real thing? Fake Twitter accounts often use the real name, or something very similar, and the same photo as the genuine article, but the username is marginally different. So @BBCNewsBreaking (below) is a spoof of the official @BBCBreaking.

BBC imitator comes clean Watch out for the vowels in particular: 0 (the number) being substituted for O, for example. In the case of Gary Barlow’s official account, the extra ‘i’ in ‘officiial’ fooled quite a few.

Not Gary Barlow on Twitter 3.      Is the tweet from someone making news themself? A politician or a footballer, for example?

When the MP Andrew Mitchell hit the headlines for allegedly calling a Downing Street policeman a pleb, a fake @A_MitchellMP account sprang up to ‘apologise’ and wreak havoc. (Note the ironic hashtag.)

Not Andrew Mitchell on Twitter When the joke was over, the spoofer came clean.  Verify everything you find on Twitter before retweeting.

4.      Check the bio - what does it say?

Does it say spoof or parody or contain anything unusual that might set alarm bells ringing (see Felix Baumgartner, above)? According to Twitter’s terms of use, parody accounts are not discouraged but they are obliged to make this clear in the bio.  Many of the really obvious spoof accounts can be enormously entertaining and are justly popular: @Queen_UK and @50ShedsofGrey.

5.      Is the account verified?

With one notable exception (@Wendi_Deng, below), which was mistakenly verified for a short period over the Christmas period last year, accounts with the official tick badge have been checked by Twitter and are who they purport to be. However, not everyone in the public eye has been verified. So, if they haven’t got the tick, it doesn’t necessarily mean they are a fake - just be careful.

Wrongly-authenticated account The second collection of five tips from @suellewellyn on how to spot a fake Twitter account will be published here tomorrow.


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