Innovative technology is inherently speedy. And right now Twitter, the social media microblogging site of choice for marketers, mavens, and all manner of multi-taskers moves along at a rapid 140 character per tweet pace. But you know what happens when you try to take in a load of information in short amount of time? You miss things. Sometimes, you miss important things.
On January 20th just after President Barack Obama took the oath of office, twitter.com experienced a slowdown as hundreds of tweets went flying through cyberspace. I was on then too when I got a "retweet" (that’s Twitter-speak for forwarding a message) telling me that I should follow an account listed as @whitehouse_gov.
I clicked over and skimmed. The background featured White House letter head and the avatar was a (blurry) presidential seal. Plenty of followers already beat me to sign up for the feed which said it was direct from the White House newsroom. I didn’t hesitate and clicked to follow. Then I followed the link to the new whitehouse.gov website to read the new blog.
What I didn’t read, just a couple of tweets down, was this:
"This is the @robotchampion, thanks for following @change_gov, I am now switching the feed to @whitehouse_gov and updating the feeds to match."
Who is @robotchampion? Turns out he’s just a young man who admitted on his own Twitter account that he "created @whitehouse_gov [because] I believe that official or not, open platforms allow us spread info and be citizens, no need for ‘approval,’" and also because he "wanted Obama news on [his]phone."
Fair enough. But even this young man could not believe the power of the Twitterati. "Within 3 hours the folks following @whitehouse_gov has doubled. Now got 3k interested peeps!" he tweeted. (On 1/26 it was up to 7,103).
Although this young man is not behind them, similar accounts popped up for the U.S. Senate, House of Representatives, and Supreme Court, each saying they delivered newsfeeds from the respective departments.
But one afternoon last Thursday, each of these accounts went from having an official avatar and "bio" to having a generic Twitter avatar and announcing they were unaffiliated with the actual department they were claiming to be.
Turns out that Twitter CEO Evan Williams stepped in to make those changes, according to his page. But in this age of open government, is Twitter going to be required to be the police of potentially "fake" accounts?
Dr. Mark Drapeau, a biological scientist, government consultant, saw this coming back in December. In an article for politicsonline.com he pointed out, "Since Barack Obama was elected many people have called for a more open, transparent government. Through my work in Washington, DC on the interaction between government and emerging social technologies, I have heard phrases like ‘government with the people,’ ‘participatory democracy,’ and ‘user-generated government’ tossed around.
Here's the key question from the standpoint of social media and transparent government: Does it matter who it is? Are readers affected differently if this person is on the Obama transition team, if they are a full-time federal employee, if they are a government contractor, or if they are a private citizen?"
Some people do think it matters. Steve Lunceford, director of Global Communications for Bearing Point Management and Technology Consultants, is one. A self-professed passionate user of Twitter, Lunceford has taken the time to compile a list of government entities that have accounts at GovTwitDirectory. He’s also determined to expose any potential unofficial accounts. Using good, old-fashioned research, Lunceford says, "We are looking for real people to follow and give the public a resource to get involved."
That is a good thing because as Computer World writer, Patrick Thibodeau, discovered that Twitter, does "proactively search for and remove spam and links to malware on our network, but we don't do the same for potential terms-of-service violations," in an email exchange with Twitter co-founder Biz Stone.
Thibodeau found that Twitter can shut down accounts for such violations if it finds them. But, Stone wrote, "shutting down accounts is not the only solution in all cases — for example, account holders may alter the profile so there is no longer any confusion."
"There have been other times when we've contacted account holders to let them know we have a policy against impersonation and had profile information changed accordingly," Stone said.
In the meantime, there are questions. Doug Cone, principal of Nullvariable Web Consulting based in Greenville, South Carolina -not knowing about the govtwit directory- took matters into his own hands. He researched the potential link from @whitehouse_gov to @robotchampion and actually called him on it. "He was very nice," Cone said, "and said he actually would like the government to step in and take control of the account themselves."
Olivier Blanchard, brand strategist and owner of The Brand Builder, remains skeptical after also digging to determine the source of the unofficial accounts. "It could be a security issue for the general public. We take it at face value that the account essentially pulls feed from the site. But anyone could do that for six months and all of a sudden one day get mad and post some false information. It would be retweeted and spread, and it would just look like a press release."
Christopher J. Dorobek, co-anchor, The Daily Debrief on Federal News Radio agrees. "Yes, there can be evil doers out there that game the system and do malicious posts posing as the White House. But we don't want to make rules because of a few evil doers, rules that might otherwise restrict the flow of information."
"There are many good people out there who may be feeding real data to people who otherwise would never see it. That information sharing can be very powerful," says Dorobek and adds, "Back in the Clinton era, somebody bought WhiteHouse.com and turned it into a porn site. Today, WhiteHouse.com is an aggregation Web site. It's the brave new world and we have to assume that people will think about where they get their information."