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Fake Wendi Deng account casts doubt on Twitter verification

Ever since Twitter developed a system in 2009 for authenticating celebrity accounts, following a lawsuit by then-St. Louis Cardinals manager Tony La Russa over the unauthorized use of his name, the microblogging site’s blue-and-white "Verified Badge" has become an authoritative imprimatur — the surest way to tell whether an account is genuine or fake. But ...

Twitter
Twitter

Ever since Twitter developed a system in 2009 for authenticating celebrity accounts, following a lawsuit by then-St. Louis Cardinals manager Tony La Russa over the unauthorized use of his name, the microblogging site's blue-and-white "Verified Badge" has become an authoritative imprimatur -- the surest way to tell whether an account is genuine or fake.

But the system is under greater scrutiny today after the administrator of an account allegedly belonging to Wendi Deng Murdoch, which briefly received the Verified Badge after launching on Sunday, admitted that she was not, in fact, the wife of News Corp. Chairman and CEO Rupert Murdoch, who had joined Twitter right before the New Year with his own verified account. Before the revelation, news outlets had dissected Rupert and Wendi's splashy appearance on the social networking site tweet by tweet (Rupert praised Rick Santorum and Fox films, while Wendi advised her beloved Rupert on Twitter etiquette, flirted with the likes of Ricky Gervais, and overused exclamation points and smiley faces). The Guardian even quoted an anonymous News Corp. spokesman as confirming the authenticity of Wendi's account (the company has since walked back the claim).

On Tuesday, fake Wendi Deng marveled at how easy it was to fool people. "I was as surprised -- and even a little alarmed -- when I saw the Verified tick appear on the profile," the administrator reflected, adding that Twitter hadn't been in touch prior to issuing the badge and that the site "should be checking out its Verified status more carefully." The account's bio now reads, "Verifiably not @rupertmurdoch's wife. Unless you're Twitter. Or News International. SPOOF ACCOUNT." The Guardian is now reporting that a British man living in London is behind the hoax.

Ever since Twitter developed a system in 2009 for authenticating celebrity accounts, following a lawsuit by then-St. Louis Cardinals manager Tony La Russa over the unauthorized use of his name, the microblogging site’s blue-and-white "Verified Badge" has become an authoritative imprimatur — the surest way to tell whether an account is genuine or fake.

But the system is under greater scrutiny today after the administrator of an account allegedly belonging to Wendi Deng Murdoch, which briefly received the Verified Badge after launching on Sunday, admitted that she was not, in fact, the wife of News Corp. Chairman and CEO Rupert Murdoch, who had joined Twitter right before the New Year with his own verified account. Before the revelation, news outlets had dissected Rupert and Wendi’s splashy appearance on the social networking site tweet by tweet (Rupert praised Rick Santorum and Fox films, while Wendi advised her beloved Rupert on Twitter etiquette, flirted with the likes of Ricky Gervais, and overused exclamation points and smiley faces). The Guardian even quoted an anonymous News Corp. spokesman as confirming the authenticity of Wendi’s account (the company has since walked back the claim).

On Tuesday, fake Wendi Deng marveled at how easy it was to fool people. "I was as surprised — and even a little alarmed — when I saw the Verified tick appear on the profile," the administrator reflected, adding that Twitter hadn’t been in touch prior to issuing the badge and that the site "should be checking out its Verified status more carefully." The account’s bio now reads, "Verifiably not @rupertmurdoch’s wife. Unless you’re Twitter. Or News International. SPOOF ACCOUNT." The Guardian is now reporting that a British man living in London is behind the hoax.

Twitter isn’t saying much about the mishap, telling The Atlantic Wire, "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." In fact, Twitter has revealed little about how its verification process works over the years, informing the Wall Street Journal in March 2011 that "we continue to very selectively verify accounts most at risk for impersonation on a one-off basis and highly irregular basis" but refusing to elaborate (the paper noted that some celebrities have been verified after reaching a certain number of followers, while others have had their managers contact Twitter directly to verify their accounts). Twitter’s Verified Accounts page explains that the company is no longer accepting public requests for verification.

The Deng debacle has people questioning Twitter’s security and ability to expose impersonators. TechCrunch observes that while Twitter often verifies celebrities with a web presence by making sure a star’s website links to his or her Twitter account, the company, in the case of Wendi Deng’s account, appears to have "trusted the numerous media reports claiming the account’s legitimacy instead." And those media reports, in turn, only quickened when Twitter verified the account. A vicious cycle, with one howling British man in the middle of it all.

Uri Friedman is deputy managing editor at Foreign Policy. Before joining FP, he reported for the Christian Science Monitor, worked on corporate strategy for Atlantic Media, helped launch the Atlantic Wire, and covered international affairs for the site. A proud native of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, he studied European history at the University of Pennsylvania and has lived in Barcelona, Spain and Geneva, Switzerland. Twitter: @UriLF

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