Politics & Government

This North Carolina city can't get Twitter to delete an imposter

How Russian Bots and Trolls Invade Our Lives - and Elections

How do bots and trolls work to infiltrate social media platforms and influence U.S. elections? We take a closer look at these insidious online pests to explain how they work.
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How do bots and trolls work to infiltrate social media platforms and influence U.S. elections? We take a closer look at these insidious online pests to explain how they work.

The City of Greensboro's Twitter account @greensborocity warns citizens about impending storms or approaching tornadoes, touts the city's parks and recreation department and museums, retweets community partners and, sometimes, peppers its feed with funny, apolitical gifs.

It has tweeted more than 22,700 times and has more than 46,200 followers.

Greensborocity twitter account
A screenshot of the official City of Greensboro Twitter account. Screen shot

A different account calling itself @greensboro_nc uses a photo of the Greensboro skyline taken from inside NewBridge Bank Park during a Greensboro Grasshoppers baseball game as its header and bio photo. It has pinned a tweet showing a historical marker of the Guilford Courthouse as its top tweet. It has gotten follows from advocacy groups, journalists and politicians, including accounts associated with both of North Carolina's U.S. senators — and it routinely retweets conservative lawmakers and stories from right-wing outlets.

It has tweeted more than 1 million times and has more than 256,000 followers.

Greensboro_NC twitter account
A screen shot of the @Greenboro_NC Twitter account. The account is not the official site of the City of Greensboro, but has many more followers than the official Greensboro account @greensborocity. Screen shot

Despite multiple attempts by the City of Greensboro to get Twitter to disable it, the more popular account — which includes a disclaimer in its bio that it is "(Not The Government)" — remains.

"I don't want people to think that's what the city of Greensboro municipal account would behave like," said Jake Keys, who has run the @GreensboroCity account for six years. "It's unfortunate. I would really love to have that gone or dismissed. It can be confusing."

Twitter didn't respond to questions for this story. Its "impersonation policy" says accounts will not be removed if "the user shares your name but has no other commonalities" or if "the profile clearly states it is not affiliated with or connected to any similarly-named individuals."

"Accounts with similar usernames or that are similar in appearance (e.g. the same avatar image) are not automatically in violation of the impersonation policy. In order to be impersonation, the account must also portray another person in a misleading or deceptive manner," per the Twitter policy.

Greensboro is not the only North Carolina city or state feed with a lookalike.

@_North_Carolina, which shows a picture of a sign welcoming visitors to North Carolina, has more than 57,200 followers. Accounts tied to Sens. Richard Burr and Thom Tillis follow that account as well. The state does not appear to have an official account.

Burr, Tillis follow alternative North Carolina account
U.S. Senators Richard Burr and Thom Tillis are among many who follow a fake North Carolina account. Screen shot

As of Tuesday, Durham, Charlotte, Winston-Salem, Wilmington, Fayetteville, Asheville, Greenville and High Point all had similar-looking accounts, but those were much less active and with fewer followers than Greensboro. All of the accounts include a link back to @Greensboro_NC in their bios. After a reporter's Twitter communication with the owner of the Greensboro account, all those city accounts were disabled by Wednesday.

"Bullies win. All nc city accounts are deactivated. Except this one of course. Happy?" the @greensboro_nc account said in a direct message.

The Greensboro and North Carolina accounts remain active, as does an @US_UnitedStates account with more than 87,400 followers.

In a conversation on Twitter, the person controlling the account — he or she did not respond to attempts to learn his or her name — asked why anyone would care about the name of the Twitter account.

"What handle would you recommend that I should have tried to sign up with instead?" the person asked. He or she did say they are based in North Carolina.

When asked if the account had always tweeted about conservative or right-wing issues and why the account was created, the account responded: "No before the nanny state regulations I had other plans. It’s mine so I tweet what I want. Y’all right leaning I call it tweeting whatever the hell I want or free speech."

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Social media networks Twitter and Facebook are fighting an uphill battle with fake accounts. Some of the activity is powered by real people, others by robotic networks, known as bots. Some accounts are described as "cyborgs" — meaning they look like they are run by a human or perhaps they are part human and part bot.

The Greensboro account did not answer a question about how it operates.

“It’s a cat-and-mouse game. They are trying to fight the bots all the time. But at the same time, the botmakers are trying to find new ways to get around these preventive mechanisms,” said Janne Pirttilahti, vice president of F-Secure, a Helsinki, Finland, cybersecurity company with offices in 20 nations around the world, according to a recent McClatchy report.

Brian Murphy: 202.383.6089; Twitter: @MurphinDC