The monkey avatar stared back at me, its tongue lolling out of its mouth. It was just another crazy Twitter account, with one exception: this ugly ape represented me, without my permission. It was the profile photo for a handle displaying my name, location, and profession—journalist.
My own account was secure, not hacked. This was a fake account, created by some prankster who stole my exact identity, with a slight variation of my Twitter moniker—and that monkey photo.
Even worse for my ego? My imitator had hundreds of followers—more than I did at the time. I scrolled through tweets for clues. The person aping me seemed to be a bored young male, possibly living in a suburb. I pictured a slacker with bad hygiene, slouched on his mom’s sofa, typing between video games, junk food, and loud television.
As a journalist, I knew not to accept anything on the Internet at face value. Twitter is jam-packed with fake accounts; nearly every celebrity and big corporation has at least one impersonator.
It’s legal, as long as the account is identified as a parody—a loophole that allows the fantasies of @BoredElonMusk or @NotMarkZuckerburg. But by pretending to be me and not identifying as parody, my impostor clearly violated Twitter’s rules. I clicked through security questions, relieved to read that Twitter would remove the offending account, upon request.
Twitter required an old-fashioned fax of a government-issued ID before it would delete the imitator account. I scrambled to copy and send my ID, all the while wondering: What would possess a stranger to impersonate an ordinary private citizen?
It was creepy, unsettling, and embarrassing, not to mention the timing was awful. I was under consideration for a long-term project with a huge media company. Executives and editors were likely doing Google searches of my name, checking me out. I had no way of knowing—or even asking—if they had mistaken this monkey-faced avatar for me.
I opened my Twitter account in 2009. A few months later, I created social media accounts for a journalism conference at Stanford University. It was easy, and I began helping friends and nonprofits do the same. Soon after, large media companies hired me to develop content and new media strategy. In time, I embraced the adrenaline rush of live-tweeting in real time from events, summarizing news for Twitter feeds that are not my own. I liked reporting anonymously; Bill Clinton didn’t know that was me slashing his long-winded sentences down to 140-character nuggets.
The shoemaker’s children often go barefoot, as the saying goes. While I stayed busy filling big-name social media feeds, I often neglected my personal account. Weeks would pass without even a glance at my own Twitter feed. Mostly, I accessed my account from the small screen of my phone, following world leaders, writers, and others I admire.
By the time I discovered I had an impostor, “monkey boy” had been actively tweeting for weeks. Posts ranged from profane to banal (variations of “I love pizza”), rife with bad grammar and misspellings. His bizarre rants seemed mostly fueled by beer and weed. Unfortunately, those inanities popped up in a Google search of my name, as if I had written them.
An entire week passed as I waited for Twitter to respond. I sent repeated emails and faxes, and checked the fake account daily. The monkey seemed to be sticking his tongue out at me in defiance.
When you’ve been targeted online, it’s hard not to get paranoid. I told myself it was unlikely that I knew this moron. Some of my essays are published in college textbooks—maybe he flunked a test and hated me for it? Or he could have been a coward, lashing out at me for some online slight.
Finally, my impostor account was gone, deleted by Twitter with no fanfare. Yet the bad taste remained: I cranked up my privacy settings on all my social media accounts, protecting my tweets and Facebook posts so that only a few followers could view them. Friends teased me for going anonymous, and others complained when they weren’t able to find me on social media or send me messages. Eventually, I relaxed.
The truth is that anyone in the world could impersonate me, and there is little I can do about it. Baseball manager Tony LaRussa tried to sue Twitter over a vulgar impostor account. Corporations and celebrities have tried to shut down impersonators with mixed results. Mayor Rahm Emanuel offered a $5,000 bounty for the identity behind @MayorEmanuel, a popular handle that continues to mock him and his frequent F-bombs.
Bloody hell, even the Queen of England can’t do anything about it, either. I grew to love Elizabeth Windsor (@Queen_UK), a droll parody of Queen Elizabeth’s daily life, with gems such as: “Dear the Church of England, one does hope you’ll allow vote to allow women Bishops. Regards, Supreme Governor of the Church of England. (A woman.)” Or “Text from Prince Charles: “The King of Spain is abdicating to let his son have a go. What a nice man.”
My friend Lee Clow, the advertising guru responsible for Apple’s iconic campaigns, embraced his impersonator, @LeeClowsBeard, by authorizing a book and a funny “beard” app. Today, Lee’s parody account has 10 times as many followers as the real account Lee finally opened.
Unfortunately, most impersonators are hard pressed to write a decent sentence. They seem, at best, like damaged children, trying on the oversized identities of those who create and accomplish in real life. Their imitation is rarely flattering and some do real harm.
A first-grade teacher found an impostor account with rude profanity-laced comments targeting her followers, including parents of her students. In Nelson Mandela’s last months, a creep co-opted his daughter’s identity and tweeted inaccurate reports that Mandela had died. Actor Jonah Hill’s impostor account sent out rude tweets to other celebrities, as did someone pretending to be Dave Chappelle. In a strange twist, the fake Chappelle refused friend requests from the real Chappelle. Then Chappelle watched as his namesake got into a flame war with another celebrity—who, it turned out, was also just another impostor. It was oddly comforting to learn that I wasn’t the only person dealing with this particular monkey on my back.
In the end, I decided I had given this juvenile nemesis too much space in my head. Then, while searching on Dictionary.com, I found a great word to describe my impostor and his ilk: “An insignificant, silly or bothersome person,” read the definition.
I laughed when I saw the example sentence using this perfect word: Pay no attention to that obnoxious little TWIT!