As if having to sidestep scads of fake news stories on the Internet isn’t stressful enough, it’s important to remember sometimes the fabrications can come in just 140 characters.
Things are not always what they seem on Twitter. Be warned, a rash of websites allow people to generate falsified tweets for just about any account.
CNN anchor Jake Tapper got caught up in the game on March 8, when a Twitter user first accused him of tweeting that the federal government should assassinate WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, then saying Tapper deleted it.
Several users took the tweet at its word, deriding Tapper by tweeting he was "demonstrating what today's media is really about" and "screen shots are forever!"
A few hours later, Tapper took to his own Twitter account to tell his followers he hadn’t tweeted it, in case they hadn’t already guessed that. (Tapper previously had been the target of an Internet rumor that he had been recorded making a racist tirade, but it was actually an old recording of Dog the Bounty Hunter.)
Twitter and Facebook try to cut down on imposters by verifying that members of the media and public figures are who they say they are. These verified accounts are characterized by a blue checkmark by the handle.
But a recent Stanford study showed that only a quarter of students in a 2016 study even knew what the checkmark meant. (More than 30 percent of students show two different Facebook posts, one the real Fox News and one a fake Fox News account, argued in favor of the fake account because they found its graphics were more convincing.)
That’s obviously creating problems.
MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow had to tell followers on Jan. 23 that she actually hadn’t advocated assassinating President Donald Trump.
House Democrats including Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi of California and Elijah Cummings of Maryland were fooled earlier this year by contrived tweets that were from a fake account purporting to be former national security adviser Gen. Michael Flynn.
Journalists get fooled, too, as shown in December when several members of the media in December retweeted a fake account pretending to be ExxonMobil CEO and current Secretary of State Rex Tillerson.
Fox News host Bill O’Reilly has been copied by a fake Twitter account since 2015. O’Reilly’s doppelganger made major waves on Dec. 2, 2015, when it tweeted out this post allegedly about the shooter in the San Bernardino shootings happening that same day.
Fake O'Reilly tweet
Syed Rizwan Farook and Tashfeen Malik were the perpetrators killed in a shootout with police, but the troll account’s assertion caused at least some confusion online.
Copying O’Reilly’s real account details such as his mugshot, the fake profile even appeared to use his official Twitter handle of @oreillyfactor — although without his blue verification checkmark.
There was one minor difference, however: One of the lowercase "L"s was actually a capital letter "I" instead.
Twitter, fake Bill O’Reilly tweet, Dec. 2, 2015
Los Angeles Times, "Everything we know about the San Bernardino terror attack investigation so far," Dec. 14, 2015
Stanford University, "Stanford researchers find students have trouble judging the credibility of information online," Nov. 22, 2016
Daily Caller, "Prominent Journos Uncritically Retweet Fake Rex Tillerson Twitter Account," Dec. 12, 2016
Twitter, Rachel Maddow tweet, Jan. 23, 2017
Associated Press, "Chinese send fake Donald Trump tweets as jokes, Lunar New Year greetings," Jan. 26, 2017
Al-Jazeera, "Fake Donald Trump tweets filling up Chinese social media," Jan. 27, 2017
CNN, "Top House Democrats fall for fake Flynn Twitter account," Feb. 14, 2017
Democrats for a Blue America Facebook page, fake Donald Trump tweet, Feb. 14, 2017
YouTube, "Moby Isn't A Credible Source, But Neither Is Kellyanne Conway," Feb. 18, 2017
Mediaite, "Tapper Hammers ‘Alt-Reich Twitter’ for Claiming Dog the Bounty Hunter’s Racist Tirade is Him," Feb. 23, 2017
UndergroundNewsReport.com, "Obama tweet: Trump must be removed, by any means necessary," Feb. 23, 2017
Twitter, Jake Tapper tweet, March 8, 2017
Mediaite, "Once Again, Fake Story About CNN’s Jake Tapper Makes Rounds on Alt-Right Twitter," March 8, 2017
Interview with James McDaniel, UndergroundNewsReport.com creator, March 9, 2017