COLUMBIA — Like many people, Darren Rovell followed Wednesday night’s breaking news about Notre Dame linebacker Manti Te’o’s fake girlfriend on what now functions as America’s national town hall – Twitter.
While scanning the popular social media website, Rovell noticed several snarky entries, or tweets, from an account purportedly run by Jadeveon Clowney, the South Carolina All-America defensive end who Te’o beat out for national awards and met at the ceremonies.
“Why would he talk trash about Manti Te’o?” Rovell wondered. “Would he really do that? Or is that just an athlete being stupid?”
Rovell’s a sports business reporter for ESPN with more than 300,000 Twitter followers, and he immediately wondered if this was really Clowney’s account.
“There was definitely some skepticism in my mind, but my eyes followed it to 45,000 followers,” said Rovell, a former victim of Twitter impersonation.
With so many followers, the “JadeveonClowny” account certainly appears legitimate. The bio makes no mention of it being a parody. Several tweets seem like a college football player could have written them, with references to the rapper Chief Keef and one entry that just reads, “TURN UP.” As of Thursday night, the account had 51,722 followers.
Some of its tweets about Te’o were reposted by respected media members on their own Twitter pages. This tweet, a play on a lyric by the rapper Jay-Z, had been re-tweeted 12,536 times as of Thursday evening: “If you having girl problems I feel bad for you son Manti Teo has 99 problems but a girl ain’t one.”
But tweets like this are a problem for Clowney’s public perception, because the account isn’t run by him. His real account is “clownejd”, and though it has 22,281 followers, it’s hard to tell if that really is Clowney. It is not verified as an official account by Twitter. It has no bio information. Clowney put “carolina_7all day” in the spot where most users list their real names. The fake account has “Jadeveon Clowny” in that spot, presumably spelled wrong on purpose.
On Wednesday night, when ESPN analyst David Pollack re-tweeted an entry from the fake Clowney account to his nearly 88,000 followers, Brittany Lane, the school’s coordinator of digital and social media, wrote to Pollack on Twitter: “That Jadeveon account is a fake. Don’t perpetuate please.” Pollack removed the fake account’s tweet and posted an apology.
Lane said Twitter’s terms of service allow parody accounts, as long as they are identified as such, but prohibit “impersonation” accounts. A Twitter representative did not respond to a request for comment, nor did the person who runs the prominent fake Clowney account.
Lane has sent several messages to the person, asking to identify the account as a parody, but received no response. When the account’s Te’o tweets spread Wednesday, Lane filed an impersonation report to Twitter, as she has done with accounts that falsely represented USC football players Connor Shaw and Marcus Lattimore, and a previous Clowney account.
Those accounts were eliminated and Lane said it’s “most likely” this one will be, too.
“That was kind of the catalyst for: All right, we don’t have a choice anymore,” Lane said of the Te’o tweets.
Instances like someone with about 6,000 followers tweeting last June as if he was Rovell, or the prominent fake Clowney account, shouldn’t be taken lightly, even if some people just use Twitter for fun.
“A lot of these guys have a lot to lose if people are putting things out there that could be perceived as coming from ESPN or coming from a respected reporter,” she said. “Considering the year Clowney is expected to have next year, it would really behoove the school to protect his brand and be proactive. Especially since it’s not clear that it’s a faux account or that it’s satire, it could be totally damaging.”