Meet Astrid Clarke-Nicholson, Calum Fossil, Shandi Beever and Victoria Druggs. None of them exist in real life. They’ve all fronted fake Twitter accounts at one point or another, and a couple of them are still there. But their faces were created with digital imaging software, and their names are pure fiction.
One of the surprises I’ve encountered over the course of running this blog, was the discovery that some people ask for instructions on how to make a fake Twitter account. Daft as that might seem, it’s actually a very good question, with an interesting answer. There are good fake accounts, and bad fake accounts, and an unimaginable number of the bad end up getting suspended. Anyone can make a fake Twitter account. But if you’re going to invest time in it, you want to be sure the project is safe. How do you guarantee that your fake account is not going to get zapped by Twitter and/or land you in trouble?
The simple answer comes in two parts…
- Don’t breach the Terms of Service.
- Don’t disrespect real people.
We’re allowed to create Twitter accounts with fake names, and play creative, fantasy character roles for the purpose of entertainment. What we’re not allowed to do is impersonate real people, defame individuals and businesses, breach copyright and privacy law, or defraud the public. Deliberately using a fake persona to compromise other users (to cultivate intimate chat, obtain private information, perpretrate emotional scams or just make fools of them, for example), is also asking for serious trouble.
IDENTIFYING AS FAKE
So, should you specify in your bio that your Twitter account is fake? That’s a difficult one. Some sectors of the Twittersphere expect real names and identities. Others are extensively anonymous, filled with pseudonyms or aliases, and will not likely assume that usernames are real. Twitter does have a fantasy roleplaying community, whose members often add the letters “RP” to their characters’ bio text. But you have to be part of the community to know what that means, so “RP” alone is really more about being recognised by other roleplayers than informing the wider public. Ultimately, there’s no sitewide protocol that says users should state that they’re not using their real life identity.
The important issue is what you’re doing with your account, and whether it’s likely to cause any harm. In entertainment (and I say this on the proviso that you’ve created your own character), stating that the account is fake may spoil the effect. Imagine watching a TV comedy sketch show or soap opera in which each new character was forced, upon entrance, to specify: “I’m really an actor and the character I am playing is for entertainment purposes only”. The entertainment would die on its sorry posterior.
However, once you take an entertainment project into an environment that facilitates interaction with the public, you have to be a lot more careful. You’re not responsible for ensuring that every member of the public knows you’re playing a character. But you are responsible for ensuring that you don’t take advantage of anyone.
KEEP IT PUBLIC
For this reason, I highly recommend not getting involved in private conversations when running fake Twitter accounts.
There’s a reason why people opt to interact privately, rather than publicly. On Twitter, that may be because Direct Messages don’t have the same restrictive character limit as tweets. But more often, it’s because people want to say things they wouldn’t feel comfortable saying publicly. To connect on a deeper level.
If someone is approaching a fake account with that kind of motivation, they’re probably under an illusion. Chances are, if you have a fake account and someone wants to DM you on a social basis, they think your character is real. They may have creepy intentions, but if you get involved in that conversation, your creep factor is equal to theirs. Worse, really – because in playing along, you’re knowingly tricking them.
THE RIGHT SIDE OF THE LINE
When you’re running a fake Twitter account, there’s a fine line between staying in character and deliberately tricking people. Publicly, you don’t want to be constantly coming out of character to advise people that they’re tweeting a fake account. So what do you do?
One popular option for conscientious fakes is simply not to interact at all. Ignore all incoming tweets and just publish. However, this has some disadvantages. It can make the account look like a bot, and particularly if the account is quite small, might make it difficult to grow in a meaningful way. It depends on your gameplan.
Another option is to be selective in replying. Reply to people who are clearly in on the joke. Ignore people who appear to think the account is real and want to get friendly.
Or you could implement a policy for replies. Like entertainment or informational replies only – no social responses. For example, you can make your reply into a joke, or provide non-personal information, but you can’t opinionate or chat. You’re trying to avoid being considered a potential friend. To make everything impersonal.
Some say that opening a fake female account is a recipe for relentless dick pics and propositions, but it depends on how you manage the profile. Between the three of them, Victoria, Shandi and Astrid have never received a dick pic, and neither have any of them ever been propositioned – including via DM. That’s despite Shandi Beever being a spoof sex chat worker. Behave responsibly, avoid following sex pests, keep it public, stick to entertainment, and don’t claim that the character is real. It does work.
The clearest no-no in the world of fake Twitter accounts is impersonation. Twitter has a very simple rule about impersonating real people: you can’t do it. Whilst impersonation is not technically illegal, it might as well be. Unless you have their authorisation, most of what you do in the name of a third party is going to break a law. You may be inadvertently defaming them, breaching their privacy rights, infringing their copyright or trademark protection… And if you deliberately use a false identity for your own gain, or to someone else’s detriment (including the individual or business you’re impersonating), you’re guilty of fraud.
BUT LOTS OF PEOPLE IMPERSONATE CELEBRITIES…
There is a commonly-used loophole which allows people to mimic stars (and more lowly souls) online. That loophole is parody. Provided you make it clear that you’re NOT the real person, and that you’re only mimicking them for the purpose of entertainment, Twitter may (and I stress “may”) consider your account a legitimate means of artistic expression.
However, even parody is a legal minefield, and you still need to be extremely careful what you imply about a real person. Like impersonation, parody is subject to defamation, privacy, copyright and trademark laws. There are some things you may not get away with saying – even in jest.
Simply typing “Parody” into a Twitter bio doesn’t automatically give you a parody account. And it doesn’t, for example, entitle you to tweet the real person’s copyright-protected images, just because you feel like it.
This moves us into the territory of “fair use” – the legitimate re-posting of copyright protected content. Whilst many people on Twitter will tell you that all re-posting is “fair use”, the reality is a lot more complicated.
“Fair use” requires a number of mitigations. Broadly, to qualify for “fair use”, the content must be used in a new context which has its own merit, rather than simply being re-posted for its own sake. The word normally used to describe this type of context is “transformative”. Also, the content must not generate profit for the re-poster, or reduce the copyright owner’s potential to earn from the content.
So “fair use” is really about incorporating existing material into something of your own, which has its own, separate value. Not merely taking someone else’s stuff and re-posting it on your own page. Parody, if done properly, ties in with this perfectly. It takes something serious, and transforms it into a joke. But if you’re just going to copy everything a celebrity posts, as is, or generally re-post other people’s work for its own sake, don’t expect the phrase “Parody Account” to persuade Twitter you’re legit.
I know, it’s Twitter; a huge number of people don’t take any of the above into account, and they survive. Why? Because you can get away with most things on the Internet until you piss someone off. Your visibility and reach has a lot to do with it too. If you’re just a small inconsequence no one listens to, an influential person probably won’t care too much what you say about them. But if your profile gains significant stature, things are likely to change. Celebrities tend to have good consultants and lawyers, so if your Twitter account gains a high enough profile to bother them, you’d better make sure you really are 100% clean on every aspect of law and Twitter ToS.
CREATING THE PROFILE
The first step in creating the profile is to think of a name. Aside from making the odd fake Twitter profile, I create fake profiles for spoof contributions to humour blogs. In fact, all of my fake Twitter profiles were spoof blog contributors first, and I only exported them to Twitter after the characters seemed like they’d be compatible. Once I’ve chosen a character name, I Google it, surrounded by quotes (like “Victoria Druggs”), to see if anyone else is using it. If someone already has that name, I’ll think of another. One of the benefits of having a unique character name is that you get a first-past-the-post Twitter @username. That is, @VictoriaDruggs, as opposed to something like @Victoria_Druggs108. If more accounts do spring up in your chosen name, there’s little doubt that yours is the original.
Victoria Druggs was a character I first used in an old forum thread. The forum closed years ago, taking the content with it, but the thread was a spoof news item called Two Psychics Break Ranks To Help UK Sceptics. Victoria’s name came from a distortion of the old off licence brand Victoria Wine. Victoria Wine became Victoria Drugs, then Victoria Druggs, with an extra G so it would look more like a person’s name. But what about her profile picture?…
The Victoria Druggs profile pic is a digital photofit, made from the features of various different models. The advanced process first merges the top half of one face with the bottom half of another. Then the eyes are replaced, then the hair, etc. The shape of some face regions is also modified. You end up with a completely new person, who can’t be identified as a real individual. Therefore, you’re not in danger of defaming or impersonating anyone.
For the Calum Fossil avatar (also used for Explanationz, as can be seen in the old Twitter screen shot below), I started with a picture of my own face, then used the Chrome effect in the Paint Shop Pro image editor – with a Flaws value of 2. I smoothed the image to make it look more like metal than a real face (Calum Fossil’s parents are aliens who have “lasered hardcore space lords in the wanger and shit”), and I added the colouring for a sort of pseudo bronze look.
But are there any easier options? Yes. Plenty of resources on the Internet offer free-to-re-use images of people, but you need to check the licence and copyright info before you start using them. The kind of copyright status you’re ideally looking for is Public Domain, or Creative Commons Zero, as used by Pixabay and Pexels.
These copyright statuses allow unrestricted* use of images. You can use the images for any* purpose, and importantly, you can modify them to suit your needs*. If you need a free tool to crop and edit pictures, add text to them, etc, Photoscape is easy for a beginner to learn.
*“Any purpose” excludes defamatory use. Defamation would apply in certain types of image modification. More on this shortly.
And just so that I’ve actually said it, obviously, NEVER USE RANDOM PEOPLE’S SOCIAL PHOTOS FROM FACEBOOK, INSTAGRAM OR WHEREVER ELSE, FOR A FAKE TWITTER ACCOUNT. If you are thinking of doing that, seriously, just get off the Internet.
Be careful not to confuse “free to download” with “free to re-use”. The former only means you can download the image to your computer; the latter means you can re-post what you’ve downloaded. A lot of sites that charge for re-use will hook visitors in with boasts like “Free Photos”. Always read their copyright terms and ToS carefully, and always make sure you have the right to do everything you’re intending to do. Watch out for terms like “Royalty Free”, which can sound like you’re being offered free re-use rights, but which only really mean that you don’t have to pay an ongoing royalty. Purveyors of “Royalty Free” images may still charge up front for the purchase of a licence.
Also be careful to ensure that you don’t need to attribute the original source. With most Creative Commons licences, for example, it’s expressed that you MUST attribute the copyright owner. If it’s a condition of use that you must attribute, and you fail to do it, you’re just as much in breach of copyright with Creative Commons as you are with All Rights Reserved.
HOW SURE CAN I BE THAT THE PERSON IN MY FAKE PROFILE PIC WILL NOT COME AFTER ME FOR DAMAGES?
Never forget that all existing images on the Internet have to come from somewhere, and someone. They don’t just magically appear. And the real people in those images are… well, real people, with real lives, and real emotions.
Almost all sites offering images for free re-use are UGC operations. That’s User-Generated Content. In other words, random members of the public contribute the images. Have those random members of the public obtained signed model releases from the subjects in their images, stating that the picture can be used for any imaginable purpose? The answer is you don’t know. If it turns out that the person in an image never gave the uploader permission to use it, or the uploader simply stole the image, then however generous the copyright terms on the site, you’re infringing someone’s rights.
The way UGC sites minimise the potential damage from this kind of issue is to implement a No Defamation clause. For example, Pixabay states…
“Images and Videos may not be used in a way that shows identifiable persons in a disgraceful light, or to imply endorsement of products and services by decpited persons, brands, and organisations – unless permission was granted.”
Translation?… Regardless of what the copyright terms say, YOU STILL CANNOT CONNECT REAL PEOPLE WITH OBJECTIONABLE THINGS. Even in parody. A good test is to imagine your fake Twitter account getting hacked, by someone who then puts a photo of YOU on the profile. Not only does the account now associate you with everything you’ve posted – it’s also in someone else’s control. How would that make you feel. If the very thought of it makes you hyperventilate, you should NOT be using any real third party’s picture to represent that account.
If you’re using a fake ID to hide skulduggery, a look around Twirpz will give you a good idea of the consequences you can expect. You can be unmasked, and if your behaviour annoys the wrong person, you probably will be. But provided you behave responsibly and observe the ToS, there’s nothing at all wrong with using a manufactured identity on Twitter. The site can be a great vehicle for creativity. Why confine everything to reality?