A phony Twitter account poking fun at Chicago Mayoral hopeful Rahm Emanuel has observers chuckling, but its existence raises serious questions about the impact of fake Twitter accounts on political candidates. It also heightens concerns around the need for a more consistent approach from Twitter when it comes to awarding Verified Accounts.
The tongue-in-cheek @MayorEmanuel Twitter account - influenced by the former White House chief of staff's reputation as a foul-mouthed hothead - regularly employs vulgar language as it mirrors the real-life candidate along the campaign trail. Emanuel himself commented on the account recently during an appearance on WLS 890 AM's "The Roe Conn Show with Richard Roeper" radio show this week. He said he would "offer $2,500 or a $5,000 personal contribution to the charity of that individual's choice if they would make public who they are."
Emanuel's imposter yesterday referenced the offer in a post that managed to squeeze two obscenities into 122-characters: "I swear to fucking god, I will donate $2500 to the charity of your choice if you can come and fix this motherfucking radio."
Despite the fact that the fake @MayorEmanuel account has nearly four times the number of followers of the official - and verified - @RahmEmanuel account, and despite the existence of other Emanuel campaign spoofs including @MayorRahm and @RahmforMayor, the phony accounts do not appear to be doing damage. A recent poll showed the candidate nearly 30 points ahead of his closest opponent, Gery Chico.
Yet while the official @RahmEmanuel account displays a coveted checkmark indicating verification by Twitter, the official @GeryChico account does not. Neither do the official campaign accounts of the other candidates for Mayor of the Windy City - Carol Moseley Braun, Miguel del Valle, William "Dock" Walls and Patricia Watkins. A fake @MayorJerryChico account is easily discoverable in a Google search for his misspelled name, but like another false account - @GeryChico4Mayor - it has only a handful of followers.
"I think that a verified Twitter account carries with it an air of legitimacy and importance," said Michael Bassik, SVP digital strategy at political communications firm Global Strategy Group, a firm that works with Democratic candidates and organizations. "It's an exclusive moniker of sorts and [when attributed to an account], most certainly could be perceived by voters as favoring a front runner candidate over their insurgent challengers."
Verified Twitter accounts come at a premium. "We continue to very selectively verify accounts most at risk for impersonation on a one-off and highly irregular basis," a Twitter spokesperson recently told ClickZ News.
A fake Twitter account impersonating a gubernatorial candidate last year "confused many people," said Bassik, who chose not to disclose the name of the candidate. His firm worked with the campaign, whose staff attempted to garner verification from Twitter to no avail by filling out a form on the company's site. The campaign staff never heard back from Twitter regarding the request, according to Bassik.
Other candidates, and even elected officials, also have been unable to garner verified accounts from Twitter. The request form, and the "public beta version of account verification" is no longer available, according to Twitter. "In the meantime, we're still verifying some trusted sources, such as our advertisers and partners," the company's site states. Twitter allows parody and what it calls "role-playing" accounts, but suggests they indicate in their bios or account handles that they are fake. "Accounts with a clear intent to deceive may be permanently suspended," the firm states on its site.
Concerns about potential damage by candidate imposters helped influence a Maryland Board of Elections law last year requiring political campaigns to include a disclosure statement on Facebook profile pages, Twitter account pages, and most display ads.
"Twitter should expand the organ of the campaign that is working on verified accounts," suggested Bassik. When asked about verified accounts and resources dedicated to political campaigns, a Twitter spokesperson pointed to the firm's hire of Government and Political Partnerships Manager Adam Sharp, who started in January.
The situation may become problematic for campaigns as the 2012 presidential primary season gets underway. "It certainly does indicate a need for Twitter to make headway on verifying accounts. This opens up Twitter to the kind of deceptive tricks we are likely to see in the 2012 races. But with their growth and hiring plans I believe Twitter will make progress here before the election heats up," said Chris Talbot, president of Talbot Digital, a digital consulting firm working with Democratic campaigns.
Over the years, along with Twitter, rapidly-growing companies such as Facebook have struggled to accommodate the needs of political campaigns as they've become increasingly important in the political world. While many digital campaign consultants express frustration with a relative lack of resources dedicated to their unique needs - as compared to the resources dedicated to consumer brand advertisers - they recognize the difficulty involved with ensuring an account holder's credibility, in addition to the more general growing pains young companies endure.
"They're growing so fast and furious, that it's really hard to verify an account," said Scott Goodstein, president and founder of Revolution Messaging, a firm that's handling Emanuel's text messaging efforts. "The fact that you have these verification accounts is a major step forward," he said, noting the struggle he experienced when working on the 2008 Obama for America campaign and dealing with a lack of a verification of MySpace accounts. Goodstein stressed his firm has no connection to the Emanuel campaign's Twitter efforts.
As the 2012 season fast approaches, however, political campaigns could grow anxious. "It's important now that Twitter has become a communications vehicle for political campaigns...that the account really belongs to the person it purports to belong to; it's so easy to create a Twitter account in any name," said Bassik.
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Kate Kaye was Managing Editor at ClickZ News until October 2012. As a daily reporter and editor for the original news source, she covered beats including digital political campaigns and government regulation of the online ad industry. Kate is the author of Campaign '08: A Turning Point for Digital Media, the only book focused on the paid digital media efforts of the 2008 presidential campaigns. Kate created ClickZ's Politics & Advocacy section, and is the primary contributor to the one-of-a-kind section. She began reporting on the interactive ad industry in 1999 and has spoken at several events and in interviews for television, radio, print, and digital media outlets. You can follow Kate on Twitter at @LowbrowKate.
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