December 30, 2012

Impersonator Accounts on Twitter

Elvis-impersonator-martin-fox-01-1- (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
If you use Twitter, you've almost certainly come across "parody accounts" (i.e., those operated exclusively or almost exclusively for the purpose of making fun of someone). I have seen parody accounts for the Christian god, Jesus, the Pope, Atheism+, and many others. It is usually easy to tell them from the real thing. Some can even be quite funny at times.

In the past few weeks, there has been a proliferation of a different type of parody account on Twitter, one that seeks to impersonate real people. For example, a few of the bloggers who write for Freethought Blogs now have accounts that attempt to impersonate them. I have run into a few of these that were easy to recognize as impersonators and a couple that weren't.

Some consider these impersonator accounts just another harmless form of parody; others consider them pure evil. Personally, I do not care for them one bit. They make it tough to know if I am interacting with the person with whom I think I am interacting. I'll give you a recent example.

A few hours after writing this post on infighting in the atheist community, I was sitting here thinking about getting a little work done and this pops up on Twitter:

Adam Lee
See how the Tweet appeared to be addressed to Ophelia Benson but included my handle so I would receive it too? If you read my post, you know that I never said any such thing. I hit the reply button and sent the following tweet:

my tweet
Not even a minute later, I receive this: Ophelia Benson
Huh? I thought I was replying to a legitimate tweet, and that was the response I received. Since I have very few previous interactions with Ophelia and no recent ones I can recall, I'm not sure how should I have known to delete her from an interaction I did not initiate? In any case, I decided to respect her wishes and removed her from subsequent responses while wondering if Adam Lee had been similarly scolded. I was surprised by the sudden animosity, and then it hit me: I may have just fallen victim to an impersonator. I did a little investigating and found no reason to think that this was not the real Ophelia, but it is tough to be sure.

Now imagine my surprise when I received two additional tweets from this same Ophelia account (I checked carefully) after I received her request never to communicate with her again. It is hard to blame her here because she seems to have done exactly the same thing I did (i.e., replied to tweets others sent to her on which I had been included). What a pain to have to check each tweet to determine whether the source is authentic or impersonator! And no, I have not tweeted Ophelia and have no plans to do so.

So who is behind these impersonator accounts? Ed Brayton (Dispatches From the Culture Wars) has decided that the culprit is "someone in the slymepit community." When asked if he had any evidence to support this accusation, Brayton replied:

It sounds like anyone who is not a fan of his blog network or Ophelia will be assumed to be a member of the Slymepit forum. That's unfortunate, but I agree with Brayton's suggestion that we try to eliminate these impersonator accounts. Parody is one thing, but these impersonator accounts really get in the way.