Twitter impersonators have many motives, but providing a public service is not typically one of them. But that—at least in part—led an impersonator known only as “Anon Guy” to spend five months posing as Rep. Dean Heller (R-Nev.) and tweeting updates from Heller’s webpage to followers. I discovered Anon Guy’s posts while researching Twitter’s new Verifiable Accounts, a feature that authenticates the accounts of high-profile tweeters, protecting them from Twitter fraud. Ironically, Anon Guy thinks this is a good idea. Curious as to why he would “Twitter-jack” his congressman’s identity, I emailed him. I was surprised to find him on the other end of the phone minutes later. “It was really more of a caretaker role, because at that time everyone was talking about Facebook and Twitter,” Anon Guy said. The Nevada blogger explained that he wanted to reserve the username for the congressman and encourage him to use the social networking tool. He said he had every intention of handing over the account when someone from Heller’s staff contacted him. I asked why he didn’t contact Heller himself, but he said the wait had become an experiment of sorts—he wanted know how long it would take for Heller to realize he’d been had. So his motives weren’t purely benevolent. “Surely someone on his staff was on Twitter,” Anon Guy said. Yet weeks went by without any word. “I started to get about 15 or so followers, so I decided to put something on there.” He initiated a strict rule of posting only snippets of official press releases. His first Heller tweet, posted Feb. 13, read:
“Just like the bailout, this legislation will prove to be a colossal waste of taxpayer dollars. http://tinyurl.com/at96ly”
He broke the rule only a few times: once to wish followers a happy Mother’s Day and again on Memorial Day because “people would think it was odd if I didn’t,” he said. He tweeted for 17 times over 163 days without once being contacted by Heller or a staff member. He amassed 645 followers, and his tweets gained some notoriety. The Heller account, still unexposed, was honored with a Washingtonian “Best Congressional Tweet of the Week,” written up in the Las Vegas Sun and listed on “Tweet Congress.” He also received a tweet from Sen. John Ensign’s Twitter account. A staffer wrote:
JohnEnsign: Is this Congressman Heller, or someone else behind this account? –Staff
Surprisingly, that tweet didn’t finish Anon Guy—though it may have spooked him a bit. Not wanting to lie outright, he replied, “Just getting our Twitter feet wet. Still have a ways to go to match the Senator, though.” This being his first Twitter account, it was technically true. The staffer never replied. The “experiment” ended with the tweet that landed on “Best Congressional Tweets,” a seemingly innocuous message that congratulated a local high school student on winning a congressional art contest. Anon Guy, who often blogs about Nevada politics, put up a post noting Heller’s status as a remarked twitterer, though he knew congressional employees sometimes read the blog. The next day he found himself locked out of the Twitter account. “I thought, ‘Dang, did I forget my password?’,” he said. “I went back in [under another name] and saw the site had been changed completely.” That was June 8. Heller’s office did not respond to requests for comment. The now-official Heller Twitter account has six posts and 277 followers. After we spoke, Anon Guy sent me an email that said he’d also reserved Rep. Shelley Berkley’s (D-NV) name on Twitter—and had emailed her office the account information. Berkeley’s office said they had not recieved Anon Guy’s email, although it is possible it was spam-blocked. Berkeley has no plans to become a Tweeter, staffers said. That doesn’t mean the Twitter account is silent. Demonstrating just how easy Twitter jacking is, “Rep. Shelley Berkley” sent me a personalized tweet.
Amy Harris also contributed to this story.
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