Twitter impersonators wreak havoc on deadline day

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The Social Network didn’t win a lot of Oscars on Sunday night, but Facebook’s abbreviated little cousin struck back at the establishment 12 hours later.

Fake Twitter accounts impersonating hockey reporters moved April Fool’s Day ahead by a month and pranked the National Hockey League’s massively over-hyped trade deadline, briefly duping both those trying so feverishly to be first with the news and those hungering to get it — and, in the process, greatly enlivening a day of sparse activity and mostly minor deals.

If it weren’t for the harshness of the lesson — namely, that social media is a minefield and consumers and disseminators alike should tread carefully — we might owe a debt of gratitude to TSNGordMiller, RealESPN—LeBrun and RealKyper—, the fakes who, by changing a character or two in the Twitter names of the actual Gord Miller (GMillerTSN), Pierre LeBrun (Real—ESPNLeBrun) and Nick Kypreos (RealKyper), set the cat among the pigeons in a big way.

They provided at least a few moments of excitement, even if based on falsehood, during the seven interminable hours of TV panellists kicking around ideas that never came to pass, and a very few that did.

They embarrassed those who were fooled, enraged those whose identities they stole, amused the casual onlookers, and got the Twitterverse buzzing with re-tweeted — or outright stolen — material that was spread without checking its veracity.

Evidently, the Damien Cox example didn’t take. You remember the Toronto Star (now also Sportsnet) columnist who broke news of former coach Pat Burns’ death in September, two months before it happened, due to an honest mistake? Oh, the copycats who leaped on the story that day and spread it without making sure it was true were duly apologetic at the time, and a little cautious for a while afterward, but that was more than five months ago.

Who’s got that long an attention span — especially when the sports networks are trying to one-up each other with ever larger armies of panellists and scoop-chasing reporters? Of course, the very idea that a false report suggesting the Vancouver Canucks had acquired Florida forward Marty Reasoner for a third-round draft pick (via fake Gord) could get everyone’s shorts in a knot is testimony to how little really was happening in the early going Monday. 

You wouldn’t think you could create this much havoc in 140-character bursts, but imagine the massive coronaries the bogus reports caused in Montreal, upon word (from fake Nick) that the Canadiens had acquired Edmonton’s Dustin Penner in exchange for the Habs’ 2010 top pick, six-foot-seven defenceman Jarred Tinordi, and this year’s first-rounder.

Not to mention the excitement the faux Pierre caused in Toronto with his report that the Maple Leafs had pried Brad Richards loose from Dallas for Clarke MacArthur, prospect Nazem Kadri and a conditional first-rounder.

It’s not like phoning your grandmother when you’re a kid, pretending to be calling from Canadian Utilities, asking if her refrigerator is running and, when she says yes, telling her she better go after it.

Nobody giggles and gives the gag away at the other end of the phone, when Twitter pulls your leg. Plausibility is the key, which is why all of the above reports got extensive play before being shot down. It’s also why one of hockey’s funniest blogs, Sean McIndoe’s Toronto-based Down Goes Brown, was able to put one over on its non-followers by urging its audience to send oft-dealt Maple Leafs forward Joffrey Lupul (himself a skilful Twitter exponent) messages congratulating him on his fictitious trade to the Islanders.

Lupul, upon receipt of said messages, must have smelled a rat, but played along with the gag by tweeting: “Long Island bound. So I hear...”

A former Philadelphia Flyer, Lupul was greatly amused when Philly scribe Tim Panaccio fell for it, and word of Lupul’s move even made it onto the official Flyers’ website. TSN also went with it, before discovering it had been taken for a ride, at which point a shirty Miller called Down Goes Brown’s prank “Internet fraud.”

All kinds of highly respected, earnest reporters were duped, if only for a matter of minutes, and a lot of effort was wasted trying to chase down the truth, revealing the mean-spirited side of the pranks, which all had one thing in common: none originated with mainstream media, but rather with those trying to make the MSM chase its own tail.

But the spate of bogus reports, re-tweets and subsequent denials made for a confusing day for fans, some of whom were not amused.

“Fake Twitter accounts and the urging of tweets about fake trades make me hate Twitter. Complete bulls—t,” wrote one Navin Vaswani.

Near deadline time, when trades actually started to happen, the middlemen were starting to hedge their bets.

From HockeyDraft.ca: “Penner to Kings reported on TSN by NON-FAKES. Unless I’m really that f’n tired.”

“Penner to LA Kings. This is real,” wrote CTV Edmonton’s Dave Mitchell.

But as Laurence Fishburne asked Keanu Reeves in The Matrix: what is real? And how can you tell?

Pierre LeBrun had to put REAL on the start of his ESPN Twitter name because someone — no doubt with only the best of intentions — had already poached ESPNLeBrun.

Many a celebrity has had to do something similar. Nick Faldo is TheSirNickFaldo, because someone got to his name first and claimed it.

A good rule of thumb is that if you call up TSNGordMiller, as I did Monday morning after seeing the tweet and noticed that he had only 48 followers, chances are it’s not the real Gordo.

TV guys, especially Toronto TV guys, let alone Toronto TV hockey guys, get 5,000 followers before they’ve even let anyone know they’re online.

The actual Bob McKenzie (TSNBobMcKenzie) has 114,000 followers. BMcKenzieTSN and TSN—BobMcKenzie? They have fooled 957 and 549 gullible followers, respectively, by attaching McKenzie’s photo to their Twitter accounts, and yes, there ought to be a law against that.

But there isn’t. So they are free to live in their parents’ basements, plotting to bring the world to its knees with their cleverness, nibbling away at the social network’s credibility — as if it cared — one little white lie at a time.

Vancouver Sun

Organizations: National Hockey League, Maple Leafs, Toronto Star Vancouver Canucks Canadiens Habs Canadian Utilities LA Kings Islanders Philadelphia Flyer TSNBobMcKenzie

Geographic location: Toronto, Florida, Montreal Edmonton Dallas Long Island Vancouver

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