July 30, 2014 SIGN IN | REGISTER
Roll Call

Combating Twitter Parodies and Impersonators

Scott J. Ferrell/CQ Roll Call File Photo
Rep. John Mica, who doesn't have a Twitter account, was parodied by the Twitter account @CongressmanMica. The account was recently suspended.

The handle @CongressmanMica has been claimed on Twitter, but Rep. John Mica isn’t behind it.

The Florida Republican’s office recently discovered the parody account and has taken action to protect his public image on the site, even though he does not use Twitter.

A Roll Call survey shows about 85 percent of Members have Twitter accounts, giving lawmakers the opportunity to directly connect with constituents. But they must also be conscious of their public image on two levels: the accounts they control and the ones they don’t, such as parody prankster @CongressmanMica or more malicious impersonators.

The first step in establishing a Twitter identity is to choose a handle. The majority of lawmakers adopt a straightforward handle containing their title and name, but others opt for a more informal moniker, even if it means the owner of the account isn’t immediately identifiable.

Rep. Dutch Ruppersberger goes by @Call_Me_Dutch. The handle comes from the Maryland Democrat’s reaction to being called “Congressman” or “Representative,” according to Press Secretary Jaime Lennon. “He replies with, ‘Just call me Dutch!’” Lennon said.

The handle reflects Ruppersberger’s personality, Lennon noted. “The Congressman is an everyday, normal guy,” she said. “He doesn’t like the formal titles.”

Julie Germany, vice president of digital strategy at the public affairs firm DCI Group, thinks personalized Twitter handles are a good idea. “The more you can do to appear to be a real person, using Twitter as a real person, the more effective you’ll be,” she said.

Rep. Billy Long also has an informal handle. The Missouri Republican says @auctnr1 derives from his Missouri license plate, “AUCTNR,” which is a nod to his career as an auctioneer. The handle @auctnr was already taken when he registered on Twitter, so he added the numeral. “Kind of like Air Force One,” he joked.

Long has received positive feedback about his unique Twitter handle. “I think I get a lot more comments than other people do,” he said, calling the standard handle of title and name “kind of old.”

One way Long could help Twitter followers find his official account is by verifying his handle, a formal designation process that many Members take to protect their identity.

Long hasn’t sought this extra layer of image security, but he’s not worried that it will hurt him.

If anything, he said, his unique handle will help drive constituents to his Twitter account. “It probably creates more notoriety that I don’t have a standard handle,” said Long, who has more than 1,800 followers. “I have quite a few followers, and I think people pass it around.”

Verified Accounts
Although Long has found verification unnecessary, the designation is one way to boost an account’s visibility and legitimacy. According to Adam Sharp, manager of government and political partnerships at Twitter, about 90 percent of the Members of Congress on the social network have had their accounts marked with the official blue badge showing verification.

Most users must be the subject of impersonation before Twitter will start the verification process, but that requirement is waived for public officials because they are often targeted. Lawmakers must be active users; complete their profile with a photo, biography and a link to their Senate or House website; and file documentation to receive the blue badge.

One of the benefits of the process is that it clearly differentiates official accounts from impersonators. “While we can resolve those cases [of impersonation] pretty swiftly, it is a reactive exercise,” Sharp said. “Whereas the verified account is more proactive.”

Additionally, verified accounts separate Members from individuals with similar names.

Germany suggested public officials secure that blue badge to help Twitter users distinguish legitimate content from spam or irrelevant accounts. “It’s just going to become another one of those tests that we mentally put ourselves through, whether we recognize it or not,” she said.

Parody Accounts
Even with the safeguard of verification in place, lawmakers are still targeted by parody accounts.

The handle @auctnr wasn’t related to Long when he registered on Twitter, but it later became a parody of the Congressman. Tweets included “Missourians shouldn’t choose the hottest candidate — so they should probably not choose me.” The account has been inactive since May.

Such accounts are allowed under Twitter’s parody policies as long as they obviously distinguish themselves from the target’s account. The biography for @auctnr clearly states that it is satirical.

“You can parody someone, but it has to be disclosed,” Sharp said, describing it as “letting the user in on the joke.”

The account @CongressmanMica was a parody account that largely tweeted about the House Transportation and Infrastructure chairman’s hair.

The account, which had been active since at least April and was labeled as a parody, was recently suspended. Mica’s press secretary, Brian Waldrip, said last week that the lawmaker’s office had recently noticed the account and would contact Twitter to see whether it violated any policies.

On Monday, Mica’s office said the account was suspended because it had failed to sufficiently identify itself as a parody. Because of company policy against commenting on individual accounts, Sharp declined to comment on the status of @CongressmanMica.

Impersonators
While parody accounts are clearly labeled and generally lighthearted, impersonator accounts are defined as those that pretend “to be another person or entity in order to deceive.” They are prohibited under Twitter’s policy.

One example is @RepPeterKing, which targets House Homeland Security Chairman Peter King. The account does not disclose that it is unrelated to the New York Republican’s official account, which is just one letter off: @RepPeteKing.

The fake account takes a dark tone, including the warning, “Muslims not welcome.” A tweet on Sept. 10 said, “As we remember #911, and lock up every #moslem, lets not forget other threats: #mexicans & #Black males. #crime #gangster plz RT.”

King’s office could not be reached for comment on the matter.

To combat impersonator accounts, the Member or someone who can legally speak on his behalf must contact Twitter, according to its policy. Twitter would then verify that the account is an impersonation and suspend it.

“It is pretty easy to determine whether or not someone is a Member of Congress,” Sharp said.

A related public image problem on Twitter is “name squatting,” as Sharp called it. Lawmakers without accounts could find that handles containing their name and title have already been registered by someone else. For example, it would be against Twitter policy for a candidate to register multiple handles in the name of an opponent. Evidence of name squatting should be reported to Twitter.

Germany said issues such as impersonator accounts and name squatting are the result of the changing social media landscape. “With the increase in adoption of social media tools ... we’re seeing an increase in spam,” she said.

Those Without Twitter
Members who have stayed away from Twitter haven’t necessarily avoided social media altogether. Mica, for instance, maintains a Facebook account.

Germany pointed out that each social media platform has its own advantages. “There’s a definite personality, there’s a definite way of communicating and interacting that goes with each of those tools,” she said.

However, she encouraged public officials to join Twitter so that they can participate in the discussions happening there. “People are going to continue to talk about you,” she said. “If you’re not there, then you’re missing out on seeing what they’re doing.”

There is value in directly communicating with constituents through social media, Germany said. “By not adapting, they lose the ability to speak directly to their constituents without going through an intermediary,” she said.

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