The Times West Virginian

September 28, 2012

Twitter shuts down fake political accounts

After complaints from West Virginia Democratic officials

By Lawrence Messina
Associated Press

CHARLESTON — Twitter has shut down accounts set up in the names of West Virginia Attorney General Darrell McGraw and state Sen. Walt Helmick after Democratic Party officials complained they were fakes.

The social networking service has also suspended at least three other accounts operated by West Virginia Republicans as the general election season heats up.

The one in Helmick’s name may have sent just a few tweets and attracted 10 followers, according to a Google search. The fake McGraw account had at least 29 messages, most of which were posted in July and were negative toward McGraw and other Democrats. It attracted at least 20 followers, a Google search showed, even though the accounts were removed from Twitter.

“So Martinsburg has a victory center? Copycats I already opened an office there with taxpayer money to help me get re elected,” read one tweet from the McGraw account.

Derek Scarbro, executive director of the state Democratic party, said he alerted Twitter immediately after he and his staff noticed tweets from these accounts in early August. Scarbro said Thursday he could not recall specifics of the messages they saw, but he said they were “very salacious.”

“Most of them were very derogatory,” Scarbro said. “I quickly could tell they weren’t part of the campaigns.”

McGraw, who turns 76 in November, is seeking a sixth term. His office has its own Twitter account, and he has a Facebook page that posts both office and campaign news. Helmick, 68, is running for agriculture commissioner and his campaign has a Twitter account.

“This is the silly season and it is hard to say who was responsible,” campaign spokesman Tom Susman said of the fake account.

Twitter officials did not respond to phone calls and emails seeking comment this week. The networking service’s rules include a “Twitter Impersonation Policy” that says that “accounts pretending to be another person or entity in order to confuse or deceive can be permanently suspended.”

As Twitter plays an increasingly significant role in political campaigning, parody accounts lampooning officeholders and candidates — with the proper disclaimers — have become common. The dirty tricks that can accompany electioneering have emerged in the social media world as well.

Earlier this year, Twitter suspended a fake account targeting former Maine Gov. Angus King, who is running for the U.S. Senate. Oklahoma Gov. Mary Fallin advised her Twitter followers last week to disregard several tweets after her account was apparently hacked.

Earlier this month, Twitter suspended at least three West Virginia-based accounts run by Republicans. One is for the New Majority Fund, a political action committee formed to aid GOP House of Delegates candidates. The PAC’s chairman, Delegate Troy Andes, and executive director Roman Stauffer did not respond to requests for comment Thursday.

Stauffer also retweeted at least one of the fake McGraw tweets from his personal account, according to the Google search. That personal twitter account also has been suspended, as has the account for fellow Republican operative Greg Thomas.

Through his firm, Targeted Communication Strategies, Thomas has advised the Republican candidate for governor, Bill Maloney. Thomas also did not respond to requests for comments Thursday.

Scott Will, campaign manager for McGraw’s GOP opponent, Patrick Morrisey, said he saw a few of the tweets purporting to be from the Democrat but has no idea who set up the account. He cited the Morrisey campaign’s ongoing efforts to engage McGraw publicly, such as by seeking debates.

“When we take issue with McGraw, we do so openly and don’t hide behind a phony account,” Will said Thursday.

Helmick’s opponent, Republican Kent Leonhardt, did not immediately respond to a request for comment Thursday.