Proving identity in social media


This is something that’s been troubling me for a little while, but the recent “fake Tony Benn” saga on Twitter has prodded me into posting about it.

A couple of days ago @tonybenn started posting on Twitter posing as the veteran Labour MP. The posts continued for a couple of days, during which time word spread among the Twitter community and conversations developed between @tonybenn and other Twitter users.

Yesterday MP, blog writer and Twitter user @tom_watson outed the @tonybenn account as a fake through a face-to-face conversation with the real Tony Benn MP.

This isn’t the first time this kind of thing has happened on Twitter and on other social media platforms, and I’m sure it won’t be the last. I don’t think there was any real harm done on this occasion either.

But it does expose a risk for individuals and organisations that have not already established a social media presence on key networks yet.

There is absolutely nothing stopping anyone, with genuine or dubious intentions, from registering a social media presence on virtually any social network pretending to be someone else.

Once there they can easily establish credibility through adding text, image or videos taken from elsewhere on the web – which all adds to a sense of authenticity to the presence. Then as people start to friend or follow the presence, a snowball effect takes hold where the presence of a perceived community around the fraudulent presence – providing a subconscious endorsement to the presence encouraging others to believe its authenticity.

As the community around the presence grows, the potential for reputational damage grows. And that’s why public relations and communicators need to take notice.

So what strategies could be used to reduce the risk of this happening?

Be there in the first place

I guess the most obvious solution is to have a genuine and active presence on the key social media tools in the first place.

That won’t stop people pretending to be people they’re not online, but it’ll reduce the likelihood of a community growing around a fake presence as those that want to follow or friend a particular organisation or individual will hopefully have gravitated to the genuine presence in the first place.

Doing it this way would also give a platform for rebutting the fraudulent presence on the same social media tool as it was created – a lot easier than trying to disown a fraudulent presence from off-platform.

However it’s not feasible to be on every social network and establishing and maintaining a social network presence across multiple platforms takes time (and inclination) that some people just don’t have. Having a relatively inactive social media presence has its own drawbacks for reputation too.

Use an external site for validation

One solution is to use a trusted web presence, like an existing personal or corporate website, for authentication. For me personally this would mean that the only social network presences that could be considered genuine would be ones I linked to from my personal website.

This works because only the individual or organisation themselves have access to put content onto the trusted web presence (assuming they have one).

But this falls down because people stumbling across a social media presence will have no way of knowing that this strategy is being used. How will a Facebook user befriending an online presence know that the only “official” social media presences for a particular person or organisation are those that are linked to from elsewhere?

So for me, this works when people are coming to a social media presence from an already trusted website, but not for those discovering social media presences through search engines or social networking. And I’d guess that the latter is probably the majority of growth in traffic to social media presences once the initial rush of people already engaging with the individual or organisation is out of the way.

Neither solution is perfect by any means. It’d be really interesting to hear of any other approaches to securing identity on the key social network tools.

Some people would see this as a risk to reputation from social media, but I think it’s more of a risk to reputation from not being on social media platforms already.

I can see parallels with the domain name landgrab that preceded the use of websites as a mass-market communications tool – on that basis the solution surely is to secure your social media presence where you feel you need to be and start using it. Keep an eye on the emerging social media tools and those that approach a tipping point and ensure you’re there too.