On Tuesday, the New York Times was snookered by a fake Twitter account purportedly belonging to retired Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn, who resigned from his position as national security adviser on Monday night. (Update: House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi and Rep. Elijah Cummings also referred to the same tweet.)
In two tweets, the account @GenMikeFlynn implied that Flynn’s resignation was a function of his taking the fall as part of a larger conspiracy.
While I accept full responsibility for my actions, I feel it is unfair that I have been made the sole scapegoat for what happened. (1/2)
— Michael Flynn (@GenMikeFlynn) February 14, 2017
But if a scapegoat is what's needed for this Administration to continue to take this great nation forward, I am proud to do my duty.
— Michael Flynn (@GenMikeFlynn) February 14, 2017
If that were true, that would be a big deal. But there’s no evidence that this account is actually Flynn’s — and, therefore, no indication that it’s true. The Times removed a reference to the tweet from a news article and corrected its piece.
Twitter has evolved into something of a news release distribution system for notable public figures. President Trump figured out early that sending out tweets was more effective than issuing public statements some other way: bigger audience, more immediate effects. This also makes the social network an appealing target for pranksters and those looking to impersonate someone famous.
So how can you make sure that tweet with the surprising revelation is actually from the person it claims to be? Some tips.
1. Is the account verified?
Twitter’s authentication process — that little blue check mark — is meant to be the one-stop shop for validating the identity of well-known users. If you see a check mark next to Trump’s name in a tweet, you’re probably looking at a tweet from the president.
This system isn’t foolproof, though. Several years ago, Twitter verified the wrong Wendi Deng, then Wendi Deng Murdoch, wife of Rupert Murdoch. @Wendi_Deng was a parody account that got a check mark; @WendiDeng was the real thing.
The system also isn’t foolproof because the lack of a check mark doesn’t mean that the user isn’t the person at issue. New accounts or accounts from less-well-known people — say, some person who recently emerged into the public eye — will not have a check mark even if they’re authentic.
There’s another way this can be important. Going back to our example, the @GenMikeFlynn account is not verified. Flynn had a Twitter account until late January that he used during the 2016 campaign to share (often sketchy) information. That account, @GenFlynn, was verified.
This brings us to another important consideration.
2. When was the account created?
Perhaps the most important indicator of the validity of an account is when it was created. You can check this easily online; the site MyTwitterBirthday, for example, lets you check when an account was created.
The @GenMikeFlynn account was created Feb. 1, 2017 — the day after @GenFlynn went offline. That seems … suspicious. Why not just reactivate the old account if you’ve suddenly decided after 24 hours that you’ve changed your mind?
This is more helpful on those occasions when a person suddenly enters the public spotlight. As soon as anything happens in the news, idiots flood Twitter with parody accounts for that person or incident. So if you’re checking out a story about someone and the Twitter account you’re looking at was created at about the time you first heard of that person — it’s probably fake.
3. Check old tweets.
To get around this, a lot of these parody morons will take existing accounts and change the username, biography and photo to match whatever the story of the day happens to be. That doesn’t take much time.
What does take time is going back and deleting old tweets. So if you’re looking at an account from @AltUSNatParkService and its first tweet is, say, this one from 2015 …
@WingsScotland Oi, fellow plebian. What say you, honourable rev, on the elecshun result?
— NOT ALT WORLD (@NotAltWorld) May 9, 2015
… perhaps the account is not actually being run by people who work for the U.S. government.
I know what you’re thinking: That’s not @AltUSNatParkService! Well, it used to be. They changed their identity again.
How do you check first tweets? Twitter makes a tool to let you do that. Or you can also use Twitter search to see earlier tweets. In the search box, try something like from:[username] until: 2013-12-25. That will find every tweet from that username until Christmas 2013.
4. Check the spelling of the name.
Recognizing that people are familiar with the usernames of famous accounts, hoaxsters will often take advantage of English-language tricks and Twitter’s sans-serif default typeface to make new accounts that appear at a glance to be those of established users.
In Twitter, for example, the following usernames will all appear to be the same at a glance:
Only the first is the actual president’s account. To get around this, type the username in yourself, rather than just clicking on it.
5. Do a gut-check.
The most important way to spot frauds is to see whether the account’s tweets make sense. For example: If the recently ousted national security adviser suddenly appears on Twitter to imply that he’s actually part of a broader conspiracy for which he’s taking the fall — that might not be true. We all have a tendency to gravitate toward information that’s sensational, particularly if it confirms our existing beliefs. (I’ve certainly done this.)
In those moments when it seems as if a Twitter account is telling us precisely the thing that we’re most interested to hear — that’s the moment to start being suspicious.