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Tuesday, April 16, 2024
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Sham Gods: The Rapidly Growing World of Sports Impersonators on X

  • Shaky rules, fake insiders, and fabricated trade demands are defining the current era of X.
  • ‘We always used to make fun of the blue check marks. … Now you don’t know who is legitimate and who is not,’ says Kevin Kinkead, editor of Crossing Broad.
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Claude Dauphin cofounded a multinational commodity firm that had $244 billion in revenue in its last fiscal year. 

So, it seemed odd when his photo appeared on an X (formerly Twitter) account that “reported” in November that Titans quarterback Ryan Tannehill requested a release—especially since the French billionaire had died in 2015, at age 64. That account, using the name “Jeff Simon” claimed to have worked at ESPN when The Pat McAfee Show, which airs on ESPN, ran the Tannehill demand as actual news

“The Tannehill thing was hypothetical,” McAfee said several minutes later. 

The tweet was apparently part of a group text that caught the eye of somebody at PMS, probably a person who didn’t think to check why an alleged national reporter—one who clearly doesn’t look like he’s early in his career—had only about 1,000 followers. There are plenty of ways misinformation spreads on X, including by aggregator accounts, which Front Office Sports reported in October. And the fake news can be more harmful than amplifying a made-up trade demand.

In December, an X account impersonating ESPN reporter Adam Schefter posted that Panthers owner David Tepper was on convicted sex offender Jeffrey Epstein’s client list and that “internal discussions” were underway to remove Tepper. That lie stayed up on X for six hours and compiled more than 2 million views as ESPN feverishly tried to get hold of anyone at X to get the post taken down, a source at the network tells FOS

“This is completely false,” the real Schefter wrote under his imposter’s post. “X needs to respond to defamatory untrue statements like this.”

Elon Musk’s decision to bastardize verification badges has led these kinds of accounts to flourish. The blue check became more ubiquitous and lost some of its meaning once Musk opened it up last year to anyone willing to part with $8 a month. 

“We always used to make fun of the blue check marks, but at least we knew who was credible and who wasn’t,” says Kevin Kinkead, editor of the Philly-centric Crossing Broad sports blog. “Now you don’t know who is legitimate and who is not. You pay $8 for the blue check, you throw something up there and, if you’re good enough at doing it, how do you expect people to know [what is real]?”

Issues of the move were apparent early, as an Eli Lilly impersonator with a blue check posted that the pharmaceutical giant would offer insulin for free to everyone. Even Musk was a target as a blue check claimed Tesla used child labor to build batteries for the car company. 

Last April, journalists’ legacy blue checks were removed. In July, Twitter rebranded to X and announced a new monetization program for paid subscribers.

There are, in fact, dozens of fake Schefters on X, each using the same profile pic as the real one. (A good portion includes “fake” or “parody” in the username or in the profile, though an undiscerning eye may not catch that at first.) 

When FOS emailed X’s media relations for a comment on this story, the automated reply said, “Busy now, please check back later.” FOS has received no further response.

‘Just a Bit of a Joke’

FOS found more than 30 accounts creating entire personas that, at first glance, could appear to be actual reporters. While many of those accounts use either stock or A.I.-generated photos for profile pics, others use photos of real-life people outside of journalism.

Current X rules state that users “may not pose as an existing person, group, or organization to mislead others [by misrepresenting] their identity by using at least two elements of another identity, such as the name, image, or false claims of affiliation with another individual or organization in their profile or posts.”

But those rules leave room for the existence of an account like “Wesley Steinberg,” which—blue check mark and all—uses a picture of a Southern California attorney, purports to be an “NFL and NY Giants Insider,” and has fooled many. While that account uses another person’s photo, it isn’t impersonating the lawyer but rather an NFL insider, without claiming to work for a specific media outlet.

“At least [Steinberg] represents himself as a ‘loving Husband/Father,’ which I am,” the lawyer, who requested not to be identified, told FOS

The person behind that account declined to share with FOS their name, age, or even where they live. But the account holder did lay out how they found the image of the lawyer: “A friend sent it to me after googling ‘guy in suit,’” the user said in a direct message. 

The attorney says he has not reached out to X to flag the issue. But given that X’s workforce is 80% smaller—from cuts that wiped out, among other things, employees who responded to such complaints—since Musk purchased the company for $44 billion last year, policing seems to hardly be a priority.

The account has fooled so many there’s now a term for it: getting “Steinberg’d.” And, with the state of X’s verification, that account and others will likely continue to trick people.

One of Steinberg’s most recent tweets claimed that the Bears were going to trade the top pick in the NFL draft and that USC’s Caleb Williams, the likely No. 1 pick, has “no interest in playing in Chicago.”

That tweet was seized on by Fox Sports host and football analyst Emmanuel Acho. He took to TikTok, where the tweet was shown, for a hot take. 

“What Caleb Williams is saying is that the gravitational pull downward of the Bears is too strong for him to lift that franchise up,” Acho, a former NFL linebacker, said in a since-deleted video

That Steinberg post about Williams has garnered 10.6 million impressions and still does not have a Community Note—the main backstop on X where users submit a correction that strips monetization for false or misleading information. 

“It was just a bit of a joke between me and some friends trying to make them laugh, then it kept growing and sort of took on a life of its own,” the person behind the account said in a direct message on X. “People seemed to enjoy it so I kept going with it.”

A Bad Impression

The need for a verification system on X has its roots in a user impersonating Hall of Fame manager Tony La Russa in 2009. The account @TonyLaRussa, which was labeled as a parody, made a series of tweets that April that irked the real La Russa, who managed the White Sox at the time.

“Lost 2 out of 3, but we made it out of Chicago without one drunk driving incident,” the account posted April 19, an apparent nod to La Russa’s DUI arrest two years before, in Florida. 

La Russa sued Twitter in May 2009 for trademark infringement, misappropriation of his name and likeness, and invasion of privacy. The lawsuit shifted from San Francisco County Superior Court to federal court on June 5, 2009—a day before Twitter announced the launch of what led to its first verification system. 

“We do recognize an opportunity to improve Twitter user experience and clear up confusion beyond simply removing impersonation accounts once alerted,” Twitter wrote at the time. 

La Russa dropped the lawsuit three weeks later—and the real La Russa now has possession of @TonyLaRussa, which has been verified since 2015. 

Woj, Who?

ESPN NBA insider Adrian Wojnarowski—thanks to his Woj bombs, which regularly send the internet into a state of delirium—has been among the most impersonated on X for years. The “verified” account “@wojdespn” that had around 8,000 followers (a decent following but six million fewer than the real Woj) created a stir when it stated in January that the Los Angeles Clippers’ future home, Intuit Dome, would have a 21-plus section where fans can smoke marijuana or cigarettes. 

A Community Note was added before that account was eventually suspended, but there are still more than 350 accounts currently passing themselves off as Wojnarowski on the platform, about half using his current profile photo.

“The only thing I’d say is be careful who you follow and check out the work of the person in the past,” says Calvin Watkins, a longtime Cowboys reporter for The Dallas Morning News and the current president of the Pro Football Writers of America. “If they just started an account under an insider’s name like in the last month, it’s probably phony.”

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