Twitter has announced it’s winding down its original verification system, which gave public figures checkmarks if they verified their identity to Twitter, on April 1. That means only accounts that pay for Twitter Blue’s subscription service will receive the blue check.
Some public figures, such as Monica Lewinsky, have noted there are already Twitter Blue accounts using their name or likeness. A journalist in Texas took the opportunity to warn others that impersonating someone else on social media is a crime in some states.
Imposter accounts on Twitter have proven costly for companies and individuals before. When Twitter Blue’s checkmark first launched in November 2022, an account posing as pharmaceutical company Eli Lilly sent the company’s stock price tumbling with a tweet about the cost of insulin.
Is it illegal in some states to impersonate someone else on social media?
- Legal codes of each U.S. state
- Kronenberger Rosenfeld, a law firm that has experience representing people in online impersonation cases
- WomensLaw.org, a project of the National Network to End Domestic Violence
Yes, it is illegal in some states to impersonate someone else on social media, if the impersonator intends to harm or defraud another person. Parody and satire accounts are not included.
WHAT WE FOUND
There are eight states with laws that explicitly forbid intentionally harming or defrauding people by impersonating another person on social media.
But an explicit provision about social media isn't necessarily required to make the activity against the law. All states have some combination of laws addressing general impersonations, identity theft, defamation and harassment that could possibly be applied to social media.
The eight states that have explicit social media impersonation laws are California, Rhode Island, Oklahoma, Texas, Washington, Louisiana, Mississippi and Wyoming.
In Oklahoma and Washington, impersonating someone on social media is a civil violation, meaning the impersonator could be sued by their victim. In Texas, it’s a felony crime punished by imprisonment of two to 10 years. In the other five states, it is a misdemeanor crime punishable by a fine of less than $1,000, a jail sentence of a year or less or both.
Generally, the laws defined an illegal social media impersonation as one intended to harm, defraud, intimidate or threaten another person, and that a third party could reasonably believe it is the actual person being impersonated. This means parody accounts, or unknowingly using the name of a real person for an account, wouldn’t be violations of the law. However, no law outlines a clear distinction between a parody and harmful account beyond believability, leaving the difference up to interpretation.
Some states have online impersonation or identity theft laws that don’t explicitly mention social media, but instead generally prohibit online impersonations. For example, New Jersey law says a person is guilty of a crime if the person “impersonates another or assumes a false identity” on an “internet website” and does so to benefit themselves or to injure or defraud another person.
Other states have laws that broadly prohibit intentionally harmful impersonations without mentioning the internet. Oregon says that a person commits criminal impersonation if they intentionally impersonate another person without their consent “in a communication to a third person” with the intent to injure the person they’re impersonating.
“Even when a state does not have a law that specifically prohibits online impersonation, other laws may be used to obtain relief,” Kronenberger Rosenfeld, a law firm that has experience representing people in online impersonation cases, says on its website. “As an example, most states have laws that prohibit others from using your name or picture for their commercial advantage. While these laws most commonly apply in the context of celebrities, they have been extended to general online impersonation. Similarly, all states prohibit a person from making intentional misrepresentations, which can also apply in the context of online impersonation.”
WomensLaw.org, a project of the National Network to End Domestic Violence, says harassment and defamation laws can be used to stop social media impersonators, depending on the impersonator’s behavior.
In addition to state laws, social media networks, including Twitter and Facebook, typically ban the practice of impersonating other people.
“You may not impersonate individuals, groups, or organizations to mislead, confuse, or deceive others, nor use a fake identity in a manner that disrupts the experience of others on Twitter,” Twitter’s policy says.
A person can report an imposter account on either website to get it deleted.
Twitter verification originally came about after a lawsuit over impersonators. Tony La Russa, then-manager of the St. Louis Cardinals, sued the company in 2009 over a fake account. The case resulted in a settlement between Twitter and La Russa.
Later in 2009, Twitter began rolling out an account verification program for public figures.
Elon Musk, Twitter’s current owner and CEO, has said on his own Twitter profile that paid verification can make it more expensive to run malicious bot farms, and that ending the public figure verification program is “about treating everyone equally” because “there shouldn’t be a different standard for celebrities.”
When VERIFY reached out to Twitter through their press email for comment, Twitter auto-replied with a poop emoji. Twitter began sending the auto-reply to press emails earlier this month.