It's easy to make an account on social media: All you need is access to a computer and an internet connection.
You can post just about anything you want across most social platforms; the information posted doesn’t have to be fair, accurate or even civil. And because high-profile people use social media to relay their messages — whether it’s Beyoncé announcing her pregnancy or President Trump claiming he was wiretapped — these types of posts make the news.
It is therefore crucial to discern which social media handles are legitimate and which are run by hoaxters, bots or trolls.
Verifying the authenticity of social media handles is not dissimilar from interacting with people in real life. In the real world, we follow basic cues to help distinguish between genuine people and shifty characters trying to scam us. You’ll need these instincts online, as well as a basic understanding of how social platforms work.
The first place to determine whether you’re looking at an account of a public figure is the “verified” symbol, a blue check icon next to the person’s social media handle. The symbol indicates that you're reading posts from that person. Twitter has taken measures — usually an email verification process — to ensure that handles associated with CNN or Taylor Swift are actually genuine.
Let’s take a look at verification with an example from Twitter that was recently flagged by BuzzFeed’s Craig Silverman. In this case, an account was posing as former U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch (the account has since been eliminated).
There were at least five signs that the account was an imposter:
1. There was no “verified” icon next to her name.
2. The account was created recently. This sometimes indicates a faker is responding to news events, although not always, as was the case with former U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara’s Twitter handle. His account now has a “verified” icon.
3. Some of the posts on the hoax Lynch account included all caps and exclamation marks — more than is usually common for people in high office. Also, note her profile description that places “first” in quotation marks and adds an exclamation mark.
4. Low-quality images: The images used on this account are fuzzy, and her square profile image captures her mid-sentence. Public figures usually put their best face forward, literally. Look for high-quality images of the person, which are usually harder to obtain from a quick search.
5. A famous trick of imposter accounts is to transpose letters and symbols to create the account name. The “L”s in the hoax Lynch handle are actually capital “i”s. You’d only know this by careful scrutiny of letters or copying and pasting this handle into a document and testing out different fonts that may highlight the distinction.
For comparison, here is the legitimate account for Lynch, which includes the verified symbol, high-quality images with American flags everywhere and a join date of May 2015.
Regular Folks vs. Hoaxes, Bots and Trolls
Public figures’ accounts are easier to verify than the rest. However, many of the previous debunking rules apply. “Bots” are Twitter handles that are populated by an automated feed. Not all bots are pernicious (check out Museum Bot), but a new study estimates up to 15 percent of all Twitter handles, or 48 millions users, are bots. One researcher estimated 70 percent of fake news in the months before the U.S. election was spread by 15 handles, likely bots.
Trolls are another matter entirely. Twitter has policies in place to guard against and block trolls. But once they're removed, trolls often return under an altered name and attack the same people. Look for these signs to determine the authenticity and intentions of a social handle:
1. Does the profile have a photo or use the default image of the platform? For example, Twitter uses a white egg as its default image, Instagram uses a silhouette of a person against a grey background. (UPDATE: Twitter retired its 7-year-old egg at the end of March 2017, bringing the default image of the silhouette of person against blue-grey background in line with other social platforms).
2. A social media handle with fewer than 100 posts may be a lurker — someone who only reads posts and does not engage with others — or it might be a new account created in response to a trending news story. Conversely, if the handle has more than 100,000 posts, it could be a bot handle that posts hundreds of links to hyperbolic news stories every hour.
3. A real person posts a steady stream of information throughout the week and sleeps several hours a day. Fake handles crop up and post in clusters and then are abandoned. To get more in-depth information on the posting habits of a particular Twitter handle, give foller.me a spin.
4. Legitimate, active accounts often have a higher number of followers than people they follow. If the number of people they follow is wildly out of proportion to the people that follow them — following 25,000 and being followed by 100 — you might be looking at a hoax account.
5. When someone is blocked from a social media platform for abusive behavior, the person sometimes reappears with Name1, Name2, Name3 to create a unique handle name. This type of poster is referred to as a “troll” and often starts arguments and posts the same off-topic message repeatedly.
6. If there is frequent use of exclamation marks, or headlines with links only, the handle may not be run by a real person. They may be pushing out links rather than having a genuine exchange with their followers.
7. Look to see whether the person interacts with others on the platform with civil banter or all-caps warfare.
8. See if people who follow this handle post and engage with it. If the last post was more than six months ago, the account is inactive. It could be that the person no longer uses the platform, or the “cause” or response to news events for which is was created has ended.
March 21, 2017
Aimee Rinehart is the Partner Network Manger at First Draft, a nonprofit dedicated to building tools and resources to help people verify the information they are finding online. She began moderating online communities in 1999.