There are many ways in which professionals and companies are being harmed online and on social media. One increasingly common form of online harassment is impersonation of the person (or company) that the harasser is intending to harm through the creation of fake public personas on social media platforms or websites.
Impersonations, or impostor accounts as they are known on Facebook, are generally prohibited by the major online and social media players like Google, Twitter and Facebook.
Unlike with standard internet defamation, removal of online impersonations can generally be accomplished without a court order.
Despite its relative lack of success, impersonations are fairly common on Google+. This includes people creating impersonating accounts in order to publish false Google reviews, or alternatively to start a blog (through Google’s blog-publishing service, Blogger) about or in the name of the person being targeted.
Google+’s User Conduct and Content Policy prohibits impersonations, specifically the use of Google+ “to mislead or confuse users by pretending to be someone else or pretending to represent an organization you do not represent.” Thus, in response to a legitimate impersonation report about a Google+ account that is deceiving other users as to the user’s true identity, Google is typically willing to suspend the offending Google+ account.
Affected persons can report an impersonation—effectively a removal request—through Google+’s online form. In addition to providing basic information and the URL of the offending Google+ profile, the reporting party must also provide a copy of his or her valid government-issued photo ID (e.g. a driver’s license) and also any information describing the impersonation.
This last section is key, as it represents the person’s chance to explain how he or she is being impersonated and why the impersonation is in violation of Google’s policies. In other words, this is the person’s opportunity to make a case for removal of the profile about them.
Impersonated persons can also report an impersonation on YouTube.
The reporting process is, unsurprisingly, akin to that of the one for Google+, in which the reporting party is asked to provide similar information, including an explanation of how the YouTube channel is deceiving the public as to the YouTube channel owner’s identity.
A successful impersonation request can result in both suspension of the offending channel and also deletion of the channel’s posted videos.
Twitter is arguably the most common forum for impersonation, given the ease with which someone can create an account in another’s name, coupled with the public nature of most accounts.
While Twitter does allow for parody and other similar accounts—which are fairly common—Twitter prohibits accounts that portray “another person in a confusing or deceptive manner.” Such accounts are subject to a permanent suspension of the account.
Twitter impersonation policy violations can be reported through its online form, or directly through the offending accounts in question. The latter involves clicking the “gear” icon on the account’s profile, selecting “Report” and then indicating “They’re being abusive or harmful” and choosing “Pretending to be me or someone else.”
Shortly after, Twitter will email the person submitting the report about next steps. For example, if someone were to submit a report on another’s behalf (such as an attorney), Twitter will ask for proof that the submitting party is authorized to represent the person being impersonated (e.g. a document showing authorization, plus the submitting party’s ID and business card).
Finally, Facebook similarly prohibits “impostor accounts,” as we touched on a couple years ago on our blog.
Facebook offers an online form for people without a Facebook account, but otherwise asks Facebook users to report imposter accounts through the specific offending profile itself (and Facebook will ask for similar information as the other sites).
Each of the described online forms and other processes for reporting impersonation violations are intended to put a stop to legitimate deceiving/misleading online impersonations.
Companies seeking to put an end to similar behavior can sometimes use the same reporting mechanisms described above. Of course, companies have even better arguments for removal if they can demonstrate trademark violations, as we have discussed previously regarding Facebook and others.