Social Networks

Twitter Gets Punk’d

The microblogging site mistakenly verified a fake account for Rupert Murdoch’s wife and won’t explain how this happened. Can Twitter be trusted?

Stephen Lovekin / Getty Images

In one sense it’s not a big deal that Twitter, the microblogging company, got punked by a prankster and for a brief time verified an account that supposedly belonged to the wife of Rupert Murdoch. The spoof lasted only a couple of days before Twitter figured out the tweets were not truly penned by Wendi Deng Murdoch, and then issued an apology for the mistake.

What is troubling is that Twitter won’t say how the mistake happened and can’t offer any assurances that this won’t happen again—which raises some serious issues about Twitter’s credibility and trustworthiness.

Instead of being open and transparent (two words that groovy folks in Silicon Valley love to toss around), Twitter is stonewalling. So far the company is simply hiding behind a lame statement—which was issued on Twitter, of course.

“We don’t comment on our verification process but can confirm that the @wendi_deng account was mistakenly verified for a short period of time. We apologize for the confusion this caused,” the statement says.

That’s it? Really? Is this the same company that keeps trying to take credit for “changing the world” and touts its big role in helping launch the Arab Spring? Is this the same Twitter that is supposed to be about enabling people to overthrow repressive regimes where the media are controlled so tightly that people can’t find out the truth?

Actually, no. This Twitter is the one that can’t figure out how to make money and is at risk of turning into a massive disappointment to A-list Valley venture capitalists who have invested millions of dollars in the hope of someday reaping a fat payday with an initial public offering of stock.

This is the Twitter that has suffered years of management turnover and internal chaos, a flood of high-level departures, and rumors that internally the place is a total mess.

Now it turns out that this gang that can’t shoot straight also can’t be counted on to verify accounts with reliability, and, worse yet, can’t or won’t explain itself when mistakes do happen.

The “Wendigate” fiasco started after Rupert Murdoch—the real one—joined Twitter on Dec. 31. The next day, up popped an account for Wendi Deng Murdoch (@Wendi_Deng), which Twitter soon verified as authentic.

The spoof was so spot-on that soon press outlets were reporting on what “Wendi” was saying on Twitter, as if those posts were legitimate—even when “Wendi” started doing nutty things like flirting with Ricky Gervais.

In an interview with The Guardian, the creator of the account claimed to be a British man living in London who simply wanted to pull a prank and was shocked when Twitter verified the account as authentic.

Adding to the fun, that person has now started taunting Twitter, first pointing out that Twitter verified the account without ever contacting him, and later inviting Twitter’s PR chief, Rachel Bremer, to get in touch to discuss the mistake. “You have to wonder about the management of Twitter and News International,” the impostor wrote, and “surely Twitter should be checking out its Verified status more carefully? No?”

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Knocked back on its heels, Twitter seems to have no idea how to respond.

Indeed, the biggest thing the anonymous prankster has accomplished has been to point out the hypocrisy of Twitter. How can a company that is ostensibly so committed to openness and rapid dissemination of information at the same time make so little effort to communicate with the outside world?

In fact, Twitter seems to go out of its way not to communicate.

Unlike most companies, it doesn’t publish a phone number or a list of PR contacts on its website. The only way to reach the PR team is to fill out a contact form, which produces an auto response advising you that Twitter’s super-busy flacks are “usually able to respond within a few days.”

I got lucky and received a response in less than an hour. A spokeswoman said Twitter’s verification process “is used on a case-by-case basis,” and what happened with Wendi Deng has never happened before. “We will of course do our best to not let it happen again,” she said. As for not publishing PR contact names and numbers, the spokeswoman said Twitter’s system is very efficient.

Meanwhile, Fake Wendi is carrying on, tweeting up a storm and having a blast. And a joke that started out being about Rupert Murdoch and his wife ends up having a very different target—Twitter itself.