A 17-year-old high school student was able to pull off a feat that’s out of reach for many ordinary Twitter users: getting a coveted blue “verified” checkmark. However, he didn’t get his own account verified, instead managing to convince Twitter to verify an account he created for a fake Republican candidate for Congress, reports CNN Business. The verification of the fictitious congressional candidate, Andrew Walz, comes on the heels of a Twitter spokesperson emphasizing that “our worst-case scenario is that we verify someone who isn’t actually the candidate.”
But that’s exactly what’s happened—and it didn’t even involve Russia’s propaganda machine or political extremists. The high schooler, who the network didn’t name due to his age, told CNN that he was bored over the December holiday period and, after learning about Russian meddling in the 2016 elections, wanted to test Twitter’s election integrity efforts.
So how did he dupe Twitter? He took 20 minutes to create a website for the imaginary candidate, then another five minutes to make a Twitter account for him. For the candidate’s picture, the teen took an image created by artificial intelligence from the website This Person Does Not Exist. Then the teen had his fake candidate listed on Ballotpedia, a website that aims to be an online encyclopedia for American political candidates.
The teen told CNN that Ballotpedia—with which Twitter partners “to utilize their expertise in identifying the official campaign Twitter accounts of candidates”—didn’t ask for any proof that Congressional candidate Andrew Walz actually existed. After that, the account for the fake Walz was verified.
Twitter gives verified status to public figures, politicians, publications, and journalists, so that its users have a better idea if the news or comment they’re reading comes from a legitimate source. The company has previously come under fire for not verifying political candidates who have not previously held public office, so in December Twitter announced it would step up its efforts to verify political candidates.
Yet the fact that Twitter was so easily duped by a teenager whose actions could so easily be reproduced by individuals looking to manipulate political discourse and the 2020 elections is concerning. When CNN approached Twitter about the verified account for the fake candidate, the company quickly removed the profile and told CNN, “The creation of a fake candidate account is in violation of our rules and the account has been permanently suspended.”