The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

#Resistance Twitter keeps falling for @NotPeterStrzok, an obvious Peter Strzok parody account

Peter Strzok, former FBI deputy assistant director for counterintelligence, waits to testify before a hearing of the House Judiciary and Oversight and Government Reform committees on July 12. (Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

@NotPeterStrzok is not Peter Strzok, the former FBI agent who was fired over anti-Trump texts. @NotPeterStrzok’s bio on Twitter says “parody account – paying tribute to Peter Strzok.” There is now a verified Peter Strzok account on Twitter, @petestrzok.

Meanwhile, nearly 50,000 people have retweeted, and more than 150,000 people have liked this tweet @NotPeterStrzok:

This tweet, again, is not from the real person. It was written by a random Internet prankster.

Never (re)tweet, a lesson that fake Twitter accounts teach us

The tweet from @NotPeterStrzok is substantially more viral than anything the real Strzok has tweeted. That includes the real Strzok’s official statement about being fired and an appeal for supporters to donate to a GoFundMe account, which as of this writing is just approaching 9,000 retweets. @NotPeterStrzok is still on Twitter, with more than 28,000 followers, fewer than those of the real, verified Strzok, who has more than 44,000. Still, each of the parody account’s tweets are getting hundreds of retweets minimum. A quick glance at the replies to those tweets (“thank you for your service,” “#strzokforpresident”) shows that many are unaware they’re talking to a random parody account.

The account also fooled at least one prominent journalist (who used to be my colleague at The Washington Post):

Interviewing someone whose claim to fame is anonymously creating parody accounts of prominent political figures is always a tricky proposition. Part of the way a successful parody account goes viral is by tricking influential accounts into amplifying it, including journalists. So keeping in mind that this is an interview with an unreliable narrator who has a history of tricking journalists, this is what the person running @NotPeterStrzok told me about himself in an interview through direct messages on Twitter: He’s based in Pakistan, he just turned 21, and he works as a “content and academic writer” and says he manages some social media accounts for “Asian celebrities” on the side. Also, he declined to tell The Post his real name, citing the fear that he would be harassed.

This isn’t the first parody account @NotPeterStrzok says he’s made. One of his parody accounts, impersonating a Bollywood actress, was convincing enough that it was quoted by Pakistani media. He’s also impersonated former acting attorney general Sally Yates, he said, although most of his previous impersonations have since been suspended from Twitter.

Tricking the public on Twitter by pretending to be a public figure is a long tradition. In 2017, #Resistance Twitter was falling for an unverified account impersonating Vice President Pence. The account’s bio boasted that the parody was for the purpose of “exposing the liberals hypocrisy.” And in 2016, several media outlets fell for a fake account impersonating rancher Ammon Bundy.

The guy who made a fake Ammon Bundy account says it was easy to trick the Internet

The creator of @NotPeterStrzok says he has a formula for making his particular accounts work. First, when he’s bored, he’ll check Twitter’s trending list for any names of famous people. “I check if the person, who is trending, is already on twitter or not, if he/she isn’t then I set up a new account with good bio & username to make it look authentic,” he wrote in a direct message on Twitter. “Then I post [a] few tweets.” The same tactic also works in situations like Strzok’s case, in which the target does have a newly created account that is, for the time being, unverified by Twitter.

Then, the real work begins — getting an audience. To do that, he says, he “search[es] for relevant top tweets & follow all those people who retweeted those tweets.” In other words, he finds people who are already getting a lot of engagement by tweeting about the trending person he’s trying to impersonate, and then he makes them aware of his account by following them. Once he does that, they’ll get a notification on Twitter. Then, if that person assumes the account is legitimate, they might start tweeting about it, too.

To make his Strzok parody, @NotPeterStrzok renamed an existing account, meaning that those checking his profile would see that the account had been around for a couple of years. The first tweet on the parody account is currently a close copy of the first tweet from Strzok’s real account. And then, basically, @NotPeterStrzok role-played as everything that #Resistance Twitter would want Strzok to be:

“It is more interesting & engaging” than what the real Strzok tweeted, @NotPeterStrzok said in the interview. “It’s controversial. And controversial things get viral more easily!”

His accounts used to get suspended from Twitter, until @NotPeterStrzok figured out that he needed to label them as parody. Now they seem to be able to live on as viral misinformation, nestled in a rule loophole that protects his accounts as entertainment — even if they’re going viral because people believe they’re retweeting a real public figure.

I asked @NotPeterStrzok whether, when people mistake his accounts for the real thing, he feels some responsibility to remove the misinformation from the Internet. “Misinformation is a big issue,” he agreed. But he pushed back on the idea that he is responsible for creating it. “My twitter handle says ‘NOT Peter’ & i’ve also stated in bio that it’s a parody account, still thousands of people are rerweeting my tweets & think it’s real Peter. It’s people who are spreading misinformation not me ! But as I said it’s a entertainment for me & for thousands out there. The ‘real’ celebs have access to media, even if something gets misreported widely, they can issue a statement to media.”

Last week, Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey, similarly indicated that the media is the place to refute misinformation on the platform. Dorsey spoke while defending the platform’s decision to keep conspiracy theorist Alex Jones’s accounts active — even as Facebook, Spotify and YouTube banned him for violating their harassment and hate-speech policies.

“It’s critical journalists document, validate, and refute such information directly,” he said, “so people can form their own opinions.”

The success of @NotPeterStrzok presents a great case study in some of the complications with this proposed solution. The parody account’s most viral tweet, propelled by a quick series of amplifications — including from some journalists — was already reaching a wide audience by the time fact-checking could catch up (or, for that matter, Twitter could verify the real Strzok). @NotPeterStrzok sent me a screenshot of the analytics for his most viral parody tweet on the account. As of Tuesday afternoon, the tweet had nearly 7 million impressions across Twitter.

The tweet has already accomplished its mission, and here I am writing an article about it one day later. Meanwhile, @NotPeterStrzok wanted me to mention, “I feel i’m talented, digital marketing agencies should run after me, their bad lol.”

Read more: 

Why did the lemon go viral?

The never-ending conspiracy theory about bots following Trump on Twitter

You’ll never guess how the QAnon conspiracy theorists feel about all this media coverage