Kenneth Copeland Ministries, an evangelical church run by a husband-and-wife team in Texas, is committed to spreading its gospel “from the top of the world to the bottom and all the way around.” That’s a lot of ground, so to cover it, they use the Internet.
In addition to a bunch of television shows and a popular blog, the church uses a buffet of social networks to reach its followers: Twitter, LinkedIn, YouTube, Pinterest, Instagram, GooglePlus and Facebook, where it has more than a million followers.
On Twitter, the official Kenneth Copeland account posts often to over 200,000 followers.
Digital interaction is a big part of how the church gets its message out. So when Krischena Allred took over as the church’s social media manager in the spring of 2013, she freaked out when she started spotting fake accounts in Kenneth Copeland’s name. They were on Twitter and Facebook, and there were a lot of them. Even more disturbing: The fake accounts were reaching out to followers, asking them to wire money to help pay for missionary projects or special prayers. Many fell for it.
Allred tried to hunt down the posers, but a lot of the accounts were overseas and difficult to track. Every time she got one taken down, a new one would pop up. “All my time was being spent trying to get these guys,”Allred said.
So she hired Social Impostor, a digital security company that specializes in tracking down fake accounts and getting them taken off the web.
Many ministers have to deal with social media impostors, but they aren't the only ones. Internet doppelgängers have been created to impersonate celebrities, politicians, journalists -- here's two for HuffPost Executive Editor of Impact and Innovation Jo Confino -- and even ordinary people. (When it happened to former HuffPost reporter Bianca Bosker a few years ago, she tried to unmask the fakers herself, to no avail.) While social networks like Facebook, Twitter and Instagram have policies for reporting phony accounts, getting them taken down is a slow process. Those who need help in a hurry turn to services, like Social Impostor, that do the dirty work of hunting down fakes.
Social Impostor is the brainchild of Kevin Long, a onetime PR consultant who has been tracking and eliminating fake profiles full-time since 2012. Long is based in West Lafayette, Indiana -- a bucolic city 2,000-some miles outside the Silicon Valley axis -- but he works with clients from around the world, including A-list celebrities, CEOs, brands and a cadre of popular evangelical preachers, who pay a monthly rate ranging from $300 to “several thousand,” he says, to keep him on retainer.
Hunting down an impostor account takes several steps. First, Long uses an algorithm he built to search for his clients directly in the APIs of Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and YouTube, which spits out a list of users with versions of his client's name into a single document. He also searches Skype and LinkedIn manually.
Then, Long starts weeding. He cuts out parody accounts that are clearly labeled as fake, then he cuts accounts with a different profile picture, or belonging to people with a similar name. He’s left with a list of true impostors, people who are purposely fooling their followers -- for money, attention, or just for lolz.
A post from a fake Twitter account for Donald Trump.
In 2012, Facebook reported that 83 million of its accounts were fake, a mix of duplicate accounts, bots and people posting under fake names, a practice that Facebook's been on a mission to get rid of. A rep for the social network did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Part of why Long’s business works is he’s willing to do what others don’t have the bandwidth, or the stamina, to accomplish. Continually searching for fake accounts is arduous, time-consuming work -- especially when you’re dealing with oft-imitated celebrities. Vern Abila, head of Abila Security & Investigations, a company that protects actors, musicians and CEOs, uses Social Impostor to do work he couldn't manage himself. “Some of our clients get two or three thousand fake accounts in a year,” he said. “You’re gonna get bored if you’re going after each of them." (This was certainly true for Kenneth Copeland Ministries, but after Social Impostor took over, the church's imitators were gone in short order.)
The other reason Long is particularly useful is his relationships. Even though social networks have formal procedures for reporting fake accounts, it’s notoriously difficult for victims to actually get rid of them. Rahm Emanuel once offered a $5,000 bounty to locate the man behind the flagrant Twitter spoof account @MayorEmmanuel and a host of other public figures have sued their impostors. Because Long reaches out so often, he has contacts at most of the social networks, and when he reports an account it gets taken down quickly -- which is good, because he's asking several thousand times per year.
Long keeps a running tally of the most imitated celebrities across the social web, including Justin Bieber (2,034 imitators), Pope Francis (1,820 imitators) and Beyoncé (2,379 imitators). None are his clients, though he thinks they should be.
This Twitter account isn't the real Pope Francis.
Celebrities have a lot to lose from fake accounts, Abila said. He has often spotted fake accounts endorsing products -- like no-name hair gel, or quick weight-loss programs -- that the celebrity wouldn't want to associate with. One client Abila described only as an “A-list actor" had an impersonator who used a fake Facebook account to target young women. "They're saying, 'We're making a movie and we're looking for casting -- come to the mall,'" Abila recalled. That time, he got the police involved.
Long thinks that fake accounts aren't that hard to spot -- it's just that they can be easy to fall for. “Everybody craves a secret way of getting in touch with these people and they feel great that someone of that stature would talk to them," he said. When you get a response from an account that looks like it belongs to a celebrity, it forces "common sense out the window," he added.
In other words, we'll fall for anything that indulges a fantasy. That's why we need Long.