COLUMBIA — Like many people, Darren Rovell followed Wednesday night's breaking news about Notre Dame linebacker Manti Te'o's fake girlfriend on what now functions as America's national town hall — Twitter.
While scanning the popular social media website, Rovell noticed several snarky entries, or tweets, from an account purportedly run by Jadeveon Clowney, the South Carolina All-America defensive end who Te'o beat out for national awards and met at the ceremonies.
“Why would he talk trash about Manti Te'o?” Rovell wondered. “Would he really do that? Or is that just an athlete being stupid?”
Rovell is a sports business reporter for ESPN with more than 300,000 Twitter followers, and he immediately wondered if this was really Clowney's account.
“There was definitely some skepticism in my mind, but my eyes followed it to 45,000 followers,” said Rovell, a former victim of Twitter impersonation.
With so many followers, the “JadeveonClowny” account certainly appears legitimate. The bio makes no mention of it being a parody. Several tweets seem like a college football player could have written them, with references to the rapper Chief Keef and one entry that just reads, “TURN UP.” As of Thursday night, the account had 51,722 followers.
Some of its tweets about Te'o were reposted by respected media members on their own Twitter pages — a re-tweet, in Twitter parlance. This tweet, a play on a lyric by the rapper Jay-Z, had been re-tweeted 12,536 times as of Thursday evening: “If you having girl problems I feel bad for you son Manti Teo has 99 problems but a girl ain't one.”
But tweets like this are a problem for Clowney's public perception, because the account isn't run by him.
His real account is “clownejd”, and though it has 22,281 followers, it's hard to tell if that really is Clowney. It is not verified as an official account by Twitter. It has no bio information. Clowney put “carolina_7all day” in the spot where most users list their real names. The fake account has “Jadeveon Clowny” in that spot, presumably spelled wrong on purpose.
However the Te'o hoax concludes, the way it was perpetrated on Twitter, and Clowney's supposed response to it, highlight bigger issues about Internet identity authenticity that have been around since someone created the first chat room screen name. Social media sites like Facebook and Twitter are now where many people form online opinions of others, and where recognizable athletes like Clowney are most accessible to the public, and can build their personas.
Clowney is projected as the top overall pick in the 2014 NFL draft. He is one of the most famous athletes in USC history. In the near future, he likely will have millions of dollars, endorsement opportunities and a personal brand, which has already started to take shape, with his helmet-jarring hit against Michigan in the Outback Bowl.
So it doesn't help his reputation when someone posing as him on Twitter writes, “Manti teo should have just gone the tebow route and admitted he was a virgin,” and 2,600-plus people re-tweet it, regardless of whether they think the account is real, or if they enjoy digs at Tim Tebow.
“The problem becomes that if someone does quote it, even like the smallest online site quotes it as real, that's going to live on the Internet,” Rovell said. “And if someone is making a business decision … if it instantaneously becomes part of your Internet record, that's a problem.
“It's been going on long enough that when the fake account has more followers than the actual account, that's a problem. I think that there's no debate that this needs to be shut down right away to prevent further damage. I think Twitter needs to do some work, too. This is a great question of: How responsible are corporations for what they let you do on their message board?”
Clowney's actual Twitter account has not referenced the Te'o hoax. Clowney offers benign tweets like “Chill day for me” and “Man what kinda championship game is this” as Alabama was blowing out Notre Dame in the national title game.
USC officials haven't discussed the prominent fake account with Clowney, but they are taking steps to eliminate it. USC coach Steve Spurrier does not allow his players to tweet during the regular season. During that time, the fake account caught on, said Brittany Lane, the school's coordinator of digital and social media.
USC fights back
On Wednesday night, when ESPN analyst David Pollack re-tweeted an entry from the fake Clowney account to his nearly 88,000 followers, Lane wrote to Pollack on Twitter: “That Jadeveon account is a fake. Don't perpetuate please.” Pollack removed the fake account's tweet and posted an apology.
Lane said Twitter's terms of service allow parody accounts, as long as they are identified as such, but prohibit “impersonation” accounts. A Twitter representative did not respond to a request for comment, nor did the person who runs the prominent fake Clowney account.
Lane has sent several messages to the person, asking to identify the account as a parody, but received no response. When the account's Te'o tweets spread Wednesday, Lane filed an impersonation report to Twitter, as she has done with accounts that falsely represented USC football players Connor Shaw and Marcus Lattimore, and a previous Clowney account. Those accounts were eliminated and Lane said it is “most likely” this one will be, too.
“That was kind of the catalyst for: All right, we don't have a choice anymore,” Lane said of the Te'o tweets.
Clowney's real account being verified as official by Twitter would clear up confusion. But in most cases, Twitter does not respond to requests for verification. If “your Twitter account meets our qualifications for verification, we may reach out to you in the future,” according to the site.
Knowing people at Twitter helps. ESPN analyst Kirk Herbstreit joined Twitter before the season and was immediately verified, partly because his agent had a contact at the site. It was important for ESPN to remove any doubt that this was Herbstreit, said network spokeswoman Keri Potts, who coordinates college sports public relations.
Instances like someone with about 6,000 followers tweeting last June as if he was Rovell, or the prominent fake Clowney account, should not be taken lightly, even if some people just use Twitter for fun.
“A lot of these guys have a lot to lose if people are putting things out there that could be perceived as coming from ESPN or coming from a respected reporter,” she said. “Considering the year Clowney is expected to have next year, it would really behoove the school to protect his brand and be proactive. Especially since it's not clear that it's a faux account or that it's satire, it could be totally damaging.”
With Clowney's situation, “the Twitter verification would help probably more than anything else,” said Charles Bloom, USC's senior associate athletic director for external affairs.
USC could also list athletes' real Twitters with their bios on the athletic department website, as other prominent college sports teams do. Lane said USC officials have considered that.
“We discuss (Twitter) weekly, if not daily,” said Eric Nichols, USC's assistant athletic director for marketing. “I don't know that anyone has figured out the right way to do it, and we're all evaluating constantly to figure out what's best for the student-athlete and what's best for the program.”