This time last year, people were reporting that author and known technophobe Cormac McCarthy was on Twitter. Last month, both Philip Roth and John le Carrè had apparently joined the microblogging service.
None of these were real (though Margaret Atwood, Jack Dorsey the co-founder of Twitter and, more embarrassingly, the New York Times public editor Margaret Sullivan were taken in by the hoaxes.)
The McCarthy account was created by unpublished novelist Michael Crossan, the Roth account by known Twitter hoaxer Tommaso De Benedetti. The le Carrè feed was quickly debunked and remains unclaimed, though De Benedetti previously faked an interview with that author as well with as Roth (his past exploits seem to hint that John Grisham and Toni Morrison hoax Twitter accounts may follow in 2013.)
Usually, enough people report the accounts (including the authors' own representatives) for them to be suspended, but not before a lot of readers and journalists look extremely silly for believing that they're real, and for reporting their often controversial tweets as quotes. De Benedetti, who has also impersonated politicians and foreign governments on Twitter, argues that he is attempting to show how gullible the media are when it comes to the micro blogging service.
Update: Today "le Carrè" tweeted (in poor English) that JK Rowling had died. See point 3 in the slideshow below.
Many famous authors aren't on Twitter and probably never will be - particularly those skeptical of social media, of which there are many. These are, after all, people who choose to make money sitting alone in a room. This, however, means that we can probably expect this tiresome trend to continue through 2013, with many more fake accounts likely fool people. Our advice? Always start skeptical until the blue tick appears (though even that isn't necessarily a guarantee.)
It's really not difficult to create a Twitter account that appears to be genuine to the casual observer. In the interests of helping you spot the real from the fake, here's how to create a Twitter hoax of your very own:
The author's name may have gone, so choose something close to it, that sounds like it's trying to assert authenticity. With Philip Roth's fake account, Tommaso De Benedetti went with @PhilipRothOffic. Sometimes hoaxers will use little-known middle initials, or @real(FAMOUSNAME). Then say it's the "Official Twitter Account" or "Yes, this is really me" in the bio. An official bio photo, stolen from the author's webpage or Wikipedia, can also help throw people off the scent.
Targeting influential and trusted tweeters is the fastest way to get word out about this new "big name" on Twitter before being found out. Also, a mention from them might suggest an endorsement that they "know" the fake account is real. Many media have been criticized for a desire to "post first, correct later" - these hoax accounts play into that trend. Also, some famous names already on Twitter may not realize that hoax accounts even exist. Margaret Atwood encouraged her many thousands of followers to welcome Cormac McCarthy to the service, without asking if the account was fake.
If it seems like the person is on Twitter for a reason, and want to comment on current affairs, it encourages the conversation to move away from the account itself and towards the person's apparent opinions on it. Also, that will encourage retweets, which will likely spread much faster than any correction about the veracity of the account. UPDATE: On January 2nd, "John le Carrè" tweeted: A terrible news. My publisher phones me announcing that J.K. Rowling dies by accident. Few minutes ago. No words! It had been RT'd by more than 30 people within half an hour of the tweet.
I don't care, "let the doubters doubt" is nicely ambiguous, and keeps people believing a little longer, until the account is suspended. (Image via Galleycat's Storify page)