Fake Peter Strzok Account Highlights Twitter’s Apathy Toward Impersonators

Americans tend to think social media platforms operate under the same rules, but they don't.

There’s little that private citizens can do to protect themselves from fake or "parody" accounts on Twitter.
There’s little that private citizens can do to protect themselves from fake or “parody” accounts on Twitter. Leon Neal/Getty Images

Peter Strzok, the FBI agent recently fired for the crime of ragging on the president in a series of text messages to his mistress, joined Twitter on August 13, shortly after his dismissal was announced. But strangely, an account bearing his name has been registered on the site since May 2016.

The real Strzok has been subdued on Twitter, posting only twice: once to acknowledge his firing and to post a GoFundMe link to cover his legal defense, and once to thank the American people for their support. And he certainly has a ton of support: America’s anti-Trump digital resistance has fallen over itself to canonize Strzok, even though his posts were boring as hell. But the other Peter Strzok hasn’t been quite as reserved.

“I have been fired for expressing my personal opinion in private texts about a dictator that history will soon deem not only a Russian asset but an unhinged madman threatening the sovereignty of the United States of America,” wrote an account called @_peterstrzok on Monday afternoon.

It’s pretty clear that @_peterstrzok was not, in fact, Peter Strzok. That fact wasn’t as obvious to a ton of #resistance figures (and CNN’s top brain-genius Chris Cillizza, of course) who gleefully retweeted an unverified account shitposting against the president, spreading confusion as to who was and wasn’t a legitimate public figure. Shortly after this, the account changed its handle to @notpeterstrzok, and included in its bio that it was a “parody account.” In fact, the account was more of a direct impersonation, similar to the fake accounts that cropped up for former Attorney General Sally Yates after Trump fired her for refusing to enforce his travel ban. These accounts are different from obvious parody accounts like @hornytedcruz (commemorating his infamous brush with step-mother threesome porn online).

The fake Strzok account has now been suspended, but for several days, it remained up and posting (its tweets are still on the Internet Archive). Twitter did not respond to Observer’s questions as to what the guidelines were for parody accounts and impersonations. It’s also unclear why someone would want to impersonate Strzok, a minor official who became newsworthy simply because he decided to send some salty text messages to his mistress while having an extramarital affair. Strzok has no particular expertise or insight into the Trump administration and hasn’t done anything outright to oppose it aside from sending private texts, yet the #resistance has inexplicably given him over $400,000 to fund his legal defense.

Moira Whelan, a partner at Bluedot Strategies who served as the U.S. deputy assistant Secretary of State for Digital Strategy during the Obama administration, told Observer that impersonations happened frequently, for various reasons, during her tenure. The goal, she said, was usually to “disrupt” conversations and “push disinformation.” Usually, the accounts would have very few followers, but would be cited or used to say “look what the U.S. is saying.” The fake Strzok account operated a little differently—it ballooned quickly to several thousand followers and garnered tens of thousands of retweets, but largely spread through people quote-retweeting and not realizing the account was fake.

The State Department, Whelan said, treated impersonators “more like vandalism, like people rather than a big threat.” The accounts usually “clearly weren’t an attempt to create a true ‘parody,’ but more to mess with us.” The Strozok account was similar—it began as an impersonation, as someone trying to throw a little discord into the Twitter ecosystem and muddy the waters. The problem, Whelan said, is that most people online can’t really tell the difference between real and fake.

“You have to be a smart consumer of information…” Whelan said. “What you have is a problem of unsavvy users on the low end, to malicious intent, if you see a tweet happen and it spreads [rapidly].”

Unfortunately, Whelan said, there’s little that private citizens like Strzok can do to protect themselves from fake or “parody” accounts on Twitter. At the State Department, Whelan said they were usually able to get direct impersonations taken down, which was a common occurrence for ambassadors, generals and agency accounts operating in politicially tumultuous regions like the Middle East and Southeast Asia. Twitter’s problem in particular is that its service isn’t based on real identities. Unlike Facebook, which at least makes a cursory effort to make sure accounts are linked to a real person’s identity, Twitter is easy for someone to sign up for under a pseudonym or as an impostor.

“Americans tend to think all these platforms are the same and operate under the same rules,” Whelan said. But they’re not—and if the last few weeks have shown anything, it’s still incredibly unclear what Twitter’s rules actually are.” Fake Peter Strzok Account Highlights Twitter’s Apathy Toward Impersonators