Fatema Tabasum

Fellow, Dismislab
Spreading fake for fun: trap of deceptive parody accounts

Spreading fake for fun: trap of deceptive parody accounts

Fatema Tabasum

Fellow, Dismislab

On March 5, 2024, popular apps like Facebook, Instagram, WhatsApp, Messenger, and Threads experienced a widespread outage due to an error in Meta Server. Meanwhile, various media outlets reported that Meta co-founder Mark Zuckerberg had expressed optimism on ‘X’ (formerly Twitter), reassuring users with a tweet: “Chill guys. Wait few minutes everything will be solved.” Numerous other mainstream media continued to carry similar news stories (1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11). It was later revealed that this tweet was not Zuckerberg’s; This was, in fact, posted from a parody account disguised as Mark Zuckerberg! This is not the first time that parody accounts have been found fooling not only the common users but also the media.

A blue tick mark, also known as a verified mark on social media, was once a sure sign that it was the account of the beholder individual or organization. But after buying Twitter in October 2022, Elon Musk, the current owner launched a system to get this blue tick mark in exchange for money. Since then anyone can verify their X account with any name. But of course, it is subject to conditions: If you open an account in someone else’s name, you must add ‘Parody’ to the user name.

Despite the relatively little effort required, many individuals, from media professionals to everyday users, have fallen prey to parody accounts. Due to tweets from parody accounts, at least nine (1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9) instances of false information spreading on mainstream media were recorded in Bangladesh alone in 2023. Factcheck reports were also published on each of them. Most of these incidents involved false information about cricketers.

Some parodies that misguided

Cricket personalities are the ones most targeted in such fraud traps of parody accounts. In January last year, a headline “Babar Azam again in sex scandal” – was widely spread from mainstream media to social media (1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10). But later it was found that the claim was entirely fabricated. Each news was sourced from a tweet by a user named ‘Dr Nimo Yadav’. Like a ‘crazy horse’, the news continued spreading all over social and mass media. Dr Nimo Yadav himself had to remove the tweet. Fox Cricket made headlines based on his fake tweet and posted. Nimo reposted the Fox Cricket’s tweet saying, “Delete this tweet, “bf in team for sexting” story is false, I did this in a satirical way.” In fact, this account is made under a pseudonym to tweet satire or parody posts. The account bio clearly mentions: Parody account, Athlete, Research analyst, Ex- Ranji Player, fact-checker, and IIT KGP. Even so, from all the mainstream media, to ordinary users, were misled by his tweets.

Indian Muslim cricketer dedicated the victory against Pakistan to Israel, screenshots purportedly showing Indian cricketer Mohammad Siraj dedicating victory over Pakistan to Israel began circulating on social media (1, 2, 3, 4) after the Cricket World Cup final last year. The tweet can also be traced to an X account opened in Siraj’s name. But in the bio of that account, it was mentioned: “Indian Cricketer || Parody”– a detail that went unnoticed by many. According to a Rumor Scanner report, the handle was named after cricketer Rashid Khan for some time. As of now, the same account is called Dogu Ji.

Australian cricketer Travis Head’s tweet dedicating the World Cup win to Palestine– such a claim was seen spreading on the internet last year after Australia won the ODI World Cup. The tweet was also found on an X account opened in the name of Australia co-captain Travis Head. The account was originally a Parody X account– which was already written in the bio. No posts were found on dedicating the World Cup to Palestine on Head’s official Instagram account.

Sachin Tendulkar’s daughter, Sara Tendulkar, and her purported relationship with Indian cricketer Shubman Gill were repeatedly spread on and on 4 times by a parody account opened in Sara Tendulkar’s name.

Furthermore, a parody account with the name Forest Echo News repeatedly fooled the media with fake football news during the Euro Champions League 2016. “Craig Sainsbury”, who claimed to be one of its co-founders, said in a Twitter (now X) ‘direct message’ interview with BuzzFeed News: “It was all a joke between friends that just blew up, … We think it’s hilarious that other media have stupidly fallen for our rumors and it just goes to show that we shouldn’t trust everything the media spews at us.” 

The multifaceted parody world

As Elon Musk’s X recognizes parody accounts, the platform features verified parody accounts of numerous stars or celebrities. Parody accounts of Russian President Vladimir Putin, former US President Donald Trump, current US President Joe Biden, billionaire Bill Gates, Open AI co-founder Sam Altman, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, Queen Elizabeth II of England and current King Charles.

The owner of X himself was not left out of this list. Billionaire Elon Musk has numerous verified parody accounts (1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7). More than just one verified parody account can be found in Mark Zuckerberg’s name other than the one featured in recent reports. Interestingly, there’s even a parody account found on X in the name of Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, whose bio states: The Plaid Avenger’s updates for the Prime Minister of Bangladesh, Sheikh Hasina. (Parody account) (Fake!)

One of the first things Elon Musk did after owning X, was remove the blue checkmark from previously verified accounts; And make the policy public. However, this comes with the condition that users have to pay US$8 per month or an annual fee of US$84 for the verification mark. Many parody accounts took advantage of this opportunity. X claims they have ensured transparency regarding this dilemma, in which they add the account must mention that it is “fake” or “parody” in the account’s name or its bio. But from the pitfalls of one parody account after another, X’s condition or policy does not seem to be paying off.

Qadaruddin Shishir, editor of AFP FactCheck Bangladesh, believes that parody accounts are usually created just for fun or entertainment purposes but have also been used for commercial gain or to mislead people. He said, “Parody accounts of politicians are opened to spread political fake information in Bangladesh. In some cases, supporters open parody accounts of their favorite politicians. In many cases, accounts/pages are opened in the name of disliked parties or politicians, and contents are posted that defame that politician or party. In some other cases, parody pages/accounts using different religious identities are used to spread religious hatred.”

How to identify parody accounts

In African countries like Ghana, many parody accounts of politicians are often accused of spreading misinformation and propaganda. The country’s fact-check project  “Fact-Check Ghana” and Nigerian media outlet “Daily Trust” have outlined some ways to identify parody accounts in separate articles. Briefly, the techniques are:

  1. Genuine parody accounts will clearly state that they are “parody” in the account handle (next to the name) using parentheses or in the bio below the handle. Verified users cannot change their profile handle (@profile-handle) but can change the profile name.
  1. Parody accounts often come with fewer followers compared to the real deal. Take, for instance, a spoof of Bill Gates like @billgates2810. It might only have a handful of followers, following just a few accounts in return. Contrasting that with Bill Gates‘ actual account, which boasts a whopping 64.2 million followers while he follows 588 accounts himself. When you stumble upon media or celebrity profiles with hardly any followers or accounts they’re following, it’s a good idea to raise an eyebrow. 
  1. Genuine X accounts often have a precise introduction in the bio, including social media links. The absence of such details or the presence of unusual content may indicate a parody account.
  1. Look for spelling or grammatical errors in tweets. Do they tweet frequently, or post the same thing repeatedly? — if yes, then there is a possibility of it being a parody, fake or, fan account. Another thing that sets parody accounts apart is that they often post something funny and sarcastic. So when in doubt, it is safe to find the original account and cross-check.
  1. Parody accounts often use images sourced from other sources and may post them later than the original account. Pay attention to posting times and sources of images – whether it’s a minute or a few seconds apart, consider it.
  1. Twitter provides various verification badges and symbols to differentiate between different accounts. 

Recognize the verification badges available on the X– platform. In addition to the blue verification badge, X is implementing the use of new verification badges and symbols to differentiate between different accounts. 

  • The gold check mark indicates official business accounts verified by Twitter.
  • Gray check marks indicate that an account belongs to a government or multilateral organization and a government or multilateral official.
  • There are also “automated labels” or automated accounts. X displays automatic labels on an account to help identify it, typically when it’s run by a bot or AI. 

Qadaruddin Shishir said, “From the biggest media to the smallest online, everyone is more or less falling into the trap of parody.” According to him, “the lack of digital literacy and the competition to be the first to report the ‘hot’ news are the main reasons behind this trend.”