Te'o, Twitter and the Girl That Never Was

What Role Does Twitter Have in Account Verification?

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For months, Notre Dame linebacker Manti Te'o and his family fed the media a heart-wrenching story about Mr. Te'o falling for Lennay Kekua, a Stanford co-ed who survived a near-fatal car accident, only to tragically die of cancer months later.

After Deadspin exposed it all as a hoax, much was written about the veracity of sports reporting from the likes of ESPN and Sports Illustrated, but little about the technology that enabled the supposed deception to occur: Twitter.

Mr. Te'o's first interaction with "her" was via Twitter, according to the Deadspin report, and Twitter remained an important communication vehicle between the two from then on. Mr. Te'o frequently mentioned Ms. Kenua -- Twitter handle @LennayKay -- directly or by using the #LMK hashtag (for Lennay Marie Kenua) in his tweets. We now know the account was fake and created using photos from another (real) woman's Facebook account, a woman Deadspin only referred to as "Reba."

Yet, strangely, Twitter has avoided any of the fallout; a @LennayKay account is still active and, as of 2:31 p.m. eastern on Thursday, still making fun of Mr. Te'o, raising questions about Twitter's complicity in circulating deceptive messages and how social-media companies should balance openness and security on their platforms.

Twitter does allow for fake or parody Twitter accounts within certain parameters. Fake accounts are supposed to use the words "not," "fake" or "fan" in the Twitter handle, while the bio should include the words "Parody Account," "Fan Account" or similarly transparent language, according to Twitter's terms of service.

Most importantly, perhaps, the terms of service say that all accounts should not use communication to "try to deceive or mislead others about your identity." In the case of @LennayKay, that was the entire goal.

Twitter would have shut down the faux-Ms. Kenua account had it known about the ruse, but it wasn't brought to the company's attention until the story broke Wednesday afternoon. With more than 200 million active users, it's unrealistic to expect Twitter to police every account in the system.

Nor should it, necessarily. Some Twitter accounts for fictional characters or parodies of celebrities are harmless, divergent entertainment. (Just look at the dozens of aspiring comedians trying to ride Will Ferrell's coattails with their not-funny parody Will Ferrell Twitter accounts.) Overly strict rules would not only eradicate these accounts, but have a possible chilling effect on the commentary Twitter actively promotes.

And, when made aware about problematic "fake" or parody accounts, Twitter has been vigilant in enforcing its terms of service on parody accounts.

Take for instance, the Times Is On It (@NYTOnIt), a Twitter feed that pokes fun at the New York Times's overly obvious trend stories. Twitter disabled the account after the Times complained it was in violation of the Times's copyright. It was reactivated after Benjamin Kabak, the writer behind @NYTOnIt, agreed to take the Times's signature "T" out of the account's profile photo on the social commentary that Twitter actively promotes.

Te'o's story illustrates a uniquely different problem, though. If a user wants to create a "fake" Twitter account solely for nefarious purposes and there's no robust verification process to prevent them from doing so, whose onus is it stop them?

According to Twitter and others, the primary responsibility is ours.

"I don't think [Twitter] has a responsibility to [police users] in this context, necessarily, no more than the City of New York has to verify what people are saying on the street corner is the truth," Steve Rubel, exec VP-global strategy at Edelman, said. "It goes against the ethos of the internet."

Twitter declined to comment for this story, saying in an email that social network did not have a role in the story. That's hardly true, however. Like with any controversy that erupts nowadays, Twitter housed the conversation surrounding Te'o's embarrassment. Commentators of all kinds rushed to the service to spew vitriol on Mr. Te'o and Notre Dame and heap well-deserved praise on Deadspin.

Even when it's possibly facilitating someone's demise, Twitter wins.

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