This weekend I awoke to discover an odd tweet. It read: “Cale Guthrie Weissman, Incompetent Journalist or Complicit in Fraud?” Hmm, I thought, that’s a bizarre question to be asking Cale Guthrie Weissman himself.
I clicked the tweet to discover an entire account using my name and likeness, all the while sending tweets besmirching my journalistic honour.
This account, whose Twitter handle switched the “L” in my name to an uppercase “i” (a common trick for parody accounts, I’ve learned), also posted pictures of me, all of which sourced from different personal social media accounts.
To add insult to injury, it notified past and current employers the question about whether or not I was a fraud.
This account’s sole intention was to harass and impersonate me, albeit in a somewhat bumbling and humorous way.
I reported the account immediately.
Twitter, in its automated form, asked what sorts of abuse I was facing. I deemed it harassment and impersonation. The form then asked if it used my pictures, how the account claimed to be me, and for each of these instances required that I submit a URL of tweets perpetrating these allegations.
Once filled out, I received an automated response saying Twitter needed proof of my identity. Using another of its automated forms, I snapped a picture of my driver’s licence and uploaded it to Twitter. I then sent a series of tweets, linking to Twitter Support, letting them know what had transpired.
Then I waited, expecting the abusive account to go away somewhat promptly.
After 48 hours of checking and re-checking, this afternoon the account seems to have finally disappeared.
While I can’t say with 100% certainty who is behind this campaign, I have a hunch. The impersonating account links to a shoddily-made webpage, which then links to an article I wrote for my last employer, the tech blog Pando.
I won’t go into the granular details of my original post (which was published in June 2013), it was about a suspicious Hong Kong-based Indiegogo campaign I had uncovered over a year and a half ago. The people behind this Indiegogo claimed to be building a cheap smartphone and they needed $US50,000 to build it. An anonymous tipster had emailed me saying the technology this campaign said it used seemed suspicious. The tipster believed that this Indiegogo account was trying to raise money for a product it never intended to build.
After hours of research into this smartphone technology and interviews with the people hawking it, I honestly wasn’t sure. The man behind this smartphone campaign relayed to me his own myriad personal sagas. He, in fact, said he was the victim of fraud, and not the other way around. The only way to be definitive about this story was to fly overseas and meet these people myself. It was all very confusing, and I didn’t have the means to do such an investigation. So I wrote my findings (with no hard conclusions), as a way to illustrate the pitfalls of crowdfunding. Anyone can claim to do anything and whether or not that’s true they can still cash in.
Once published, the man behind Indiegogo campaign was outraged. He said what I wrote was libelous (it wasn’t). The tipster was also angry because there was no hard proof of the fraud. After a week of angry emails and comments they quieted down and I thought I’d never hear from them again. A year later, an Australian journalist contacted me informing me that this same Indiegogo man had launched another campaign claiming to know how to find the disappeared Malaysia airline plane. He needed $US5 million to do so. (Ironically enough, Pando covered this Indiegogo campaign as well.)
Then last week I received a series of emails asking the original Pando post to be taken down. And now, I have an abusive Twitter account claiming to be me and also calling me a fraud, and it links to the original article.
This all seems connected.
The first step toward ending this mess is shutting down the impersonating account.
That took far too long, with little to no formal response from Twitter.
Twitter has a history of problems with its abuse reporting. For example, last summer Robin Williams’ daughter Zelda was forced to delete her account after endless Twitter trolls began posting heinous remarks a mere hours after her father’s suicide was announced.
Additionally, the GamerGate movement has led many Twitter activists to become fearful for their life, without very much institutional support from Twitter. In fact, many in the throes of the GamerGate “debate” found themselves the targets of anonymous and endless Twitter abuse. Almost systematically, accounts would materialise hurling insults or even threatening bodily harm to any online critics.
Women have received the brunt of the abuse. One of the most extreme examples was game developer Brianna Wu, who last October was forced to flee her house after receiving numerous death threats. During this ordeal, Wu discovered fake Twitter accounts popping up purporting to be her. Twitter’s response to Wu’s and other online activists’ pleas was slow and ineffective.
In short, it’s really easy to make a trolling or abusive account; It’s much harder to take it down.
My experience is nothing comparable with the abuse others have experienced. But it does show the lackadaisical timeline Twitter takes when real threats are reported. Business Insider UK’s founding editor Jim Edwards came to the same conclusion about Twitter when he wrote an article about GamerGate.
Last December Twitter did make changes to the way it reported abuse, making it easier for users to report offensive or abusive tweets. All the same, the company has yet to tackle the real problem: timely moderation.
I am not scared for my life or in fear of being doxxed. In fact, I find this all to be kind of funny. Yet I’m still creeped out that someone was culling personal pictures of me and posting them on an account claiming to be me. It’s frightening that this account continued to do so for days, despite the numerous attempts I made to stop it. This makes me fearful that the way Twitter handled my case — impersonally, slow, and utterly absent — could be damaging to those in more dire situations.
If it takes Twitter over 24 hours to take down an account that uses my personage and name, how long will it take for one that is just an anonymous egg?
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