BBC Takes Back Control of Rogue Twitter Account (Lessons for Brands)

Yesterday I wrote about Twitter name squatting and included a recent example where a rogue person had registered the name BBC on Twitter.

Earlier today Twitter Inc handed the account to the real BBC, after a BBC staff member complained to Twitter Inc. It’s been cleared of all previous tweets and all 7,684 followers.

It’s now impossible to follow the original links and see what happened. So here are some screenshots to illustrate my point about the importance of brand control. All were taken on 28th January 2009 just after 5PM.

Message to fake BBC Twitter account

The screenshot above shows an @ message sent to the BBC Twitter account.

Reply from fake BBC Twitter account

The user @sputnik101 was surprised to see this reply from the BBC Twitter account. Like many people, including me, he was unaware that the BBC did not have control over the account. In that sense, like many others, he’d be duped into thinking he was following the real BBC. It’s generally expected that large corporations will protect their trademarks and copyrights to prevent this happening.

First available tweet from fake BBC Twitter account

I tried to see how long the BBC account had been in third party control. Above is the earliest tweet I found – from 9th October 2008.

Some replies to fake BBC Twitter account

As far as I could see the message to @sputnik101 was the only @ reply from the impostor posing as the BBC. But many other people sent @ messages to the account about many different topics. You can see just one page of search results above.

We don’t know if the rogue posing as the BBC sent any private direct messages to any of his or her thousands of followers, in the four months he or she had control over the account. It would have been possible.

BBC take control of Twitter account

Today the real BBC have control. So do head over and read what they’re posting from the new look, genuine @bbc. If you’re on Twitter you can follow them too.

This BBC story is an excellent example of the need to control your brand name on Twitter. If someone has your brand name, particularly if it’s a trademark, you should complain to Twitter Inc by sending a message to @crystal in user support.

If your name or brand name is still available, then register a Twitter account today to prevent somebody else taking it.

It’s also worth using usernamecheck.com to check the availability of your name on a variety of other popular sites.

At Native our purpose is to advise companies on good use of online and social media. This is advice we give to all our clients. As such, the BBC story is given here purely as an illustrative example. I’m not going to labour this point – there are many other examples of Twitter squatting but I won’t be attempting to catalogue them all.

I do believe that Twitter squatting could lead to examples of phishing and other nastiness if companies are lax about this. Unfortunately the onus is largely on them to monitor this. (If you’re concerned about this or you want more information, call us.)

In this example, on the surface it would appear that the rogue was attempting to provide a useful service – by pulling in the legitimate RSS feed from BBC News. But it would be easy to do this for other purposes – including phishing – to give an appearance of authenticity to an account. The legitimate feed could easily be combined with a feed from elsewhere (using an RSS aggregation service such as Yahoo Pipes).

BBC Impostor Fools 7,684 People (Control Your Twitter Name, Even if You’re a Twitter Sceptic)

[ UPDATE 29/01/09: Some of the links here no longer work because the real BBC have taken control of the rogue Twitter account. Read this post for screenshots and updated info. ]

Fake BBC Twitter account

There’s enough hype saying you need to use Twitter. Just as TV presenter Phillip Schofield and other celebrities are discovering, there are few barriers to investigation. If you’re curious then just sign up, post a couple of tweets, start following a few people and see what happens.

What I will say is, whether you care about Twitter or not, you must protect your name or your brand.

Domain name squatting has been happening for years. Twitter is starting to tip and a similar thing has been happening there. Lots of people are reserving other people’s names, whether for pranks, experimentation, promotion of other projects, revenge, financial gain or reasons known only to them.

For instance, in December it took several days before we were sure that the Twitter account for Rowan Williams, the Archbishop of Canterbury, was being run by an impostor. The poor spelling and writing style had me suspicious – but he or she still managed to gather a couple of hundred followers and dispense some tweets of pithy wisdom. It was mostly good-natured, but the risk of damage to the Archbishop was still there. (The account has been taken over now and is dormant.)

Again, back in December, tech blogger Mike Butcher of Techcrunch UK admitted to stealing the account name of Andy Burnham, the UK Culture Secretary after a grievance involving Burnham’s opinions on net regulation. (I happen to agree that Burnham’s opinions were misguided, but I’m illustrating another point.) That one’s been suspended by Twitter Inc now. If Burnham had been quick to reserve his own name, it wouldn’t have happened.

(Incidentally, there are very few real politicians registered on Twitter, let alone actively using it. In Wales, we’ve seen the Plaid Cymru AM Bethan Jenkins and the Lib Dem candidate Alison Goldsworthy.)

This is not confined to individuals, it includes companies and brands as well. Lots of well known brands are taken by fakes.

Now most recently and amazingly, the name BBC on Twitter is being run by a third party, who have made no explicit indication that it’s unofficial. The fact they are pulling in a useful feed of current BBC news stories adds weight to the deception.

Look at my screenshot above. The account has 7,684 followers. This is very dangerous indeed for the BBC’s reputation.

Normally, only an eagle-eyed user would notice, with suspicion, that the only people they’re following back are Sky Sports, Manchester United football team and something called Funny Times. Or would click the profile link to discover the following disclaimer:

The news published on http://www.twitter.com/BBC is syndicated content taken directly from the BBC News website vie their public RSS feed found here. The account is not operated by the BBC but is offered for your convenience so that you may receive the latest news stories from the BBC website whilst using the Twitter Service.

Now though, someone called @sputnik101 discovered this when he complained to the BBC account about their broadcast policy on the DEC charity appeal for Gaza.

He then received a surprising and somewhat inappropriate reply. Here’s more on that story.

As you can see from the comments, somebody at the BBC has finally had the sense to complain to Twitter Inc to ask for the account to be suspended or handed over.

Here at Native, we like Twitter as a communication platform – and have got a lot of benefit from it in terms of contacts, information, useful links and smart conversation. Fortunately the culture of Twitter engenders authenticity and the confirmation of an account being fake, once known, can be spread very rapidly. But now that newer people are joining and taking time to learn how it works, the potential for deception is huge.

If you don’t fancy using it, make sure nobody uses it on your behalf.

If following this advice means registering for Twitter and – at least for now – leaving the account idle with a brief explanation, so be it. Here’s an example.