Keeping up with internet news this week, I came across a story concerning Facebook in India – they’re apparently having a crackdown on people who are using fake profiles to sell sex sites by manipulating photographs of women and using them to approach men. This resonated with me because fake social media accounts have become a huge part of my life in recent years. From teaching teenagers and dealing with bullying, to personal experiences with some nasty little fakers, time and time again I've seen quite how misery inducing impersonation accounts can be.
I think it's a far more common phenomenon than most people realise, and they can take on many forms. There are the more innocent ones - think those hastily whipped up social media accounts used to snoop on an ex without fear of identification (probably not the healthiest way to spend your time post-break-up, but generally not too threatening either). And then there are the full-on impersonation accounts. Whether it's ex friends using fake accounts to post as the other person to embarrass or attack one another, to the full-on catfish experience, it's not something that gets enough attention.
I should know - I’ve experienced more than my fair share of impersonation. A quick Facebook search for ‘Gemma Styles’ will at any time conjure up at least 50 profiles with my face on them. A small minority of these accounts on Facebook, Twitter etc. will call themselves 'role play' accounts – which apparently are allowed, certainly on Twitter, as long as they are clearly labelled as such. I don’t really understand the point of this myself, but then again I don’t like to role play as an elven queen in my local park of a Sunday afternoon either, so maybe roleplaying IRL or online isn’t really my bag.
Aside from the above, I can’t conceive of a situation where these impersonation accounts could possibly be well intentioned - and as far as I'm concerned, the aforementioned crackdown by Facebook is long overdue.
In the past, I've had people impersonating my friends or even vague acquaintances in an effort to befriend me online - presumably so they could mine my account for personal information, family photos or whatever. This goes so far beyond the concept of ‘fandom’ in my opinion - it's pure deceit. It’s worrying for me and a truly horrible experience for the person being impersonated).
Having people pretending to be me can be pretty awful too. Usually more of an irritation or embarrassment (hey guyz what’s up it’s the real me hehe lol and if u don’t believe me then that’s fine ur loss), there are other occasions when this has been genuinely distressing. One Facebook account sent to me by a friend actually featured a suicide note written by fake me and posted online for comment. I felt sick. The fact that someone would spend their leisure time trying to trick people into their weird lies is creepy enough, but to read that was horrifying; as someone who has experience dealing with mental health issues it felt particularly violating and I was really, really angry. In fact that's one of the only times I've lost my rag and actually confronted someone who's trolled me. As Darwin Deez would say: if you drop your keys I hope there’s a sewer somewhere very nearby.
I know I'm in an unusual position. It’s a family connection that apparently makes me such a magnet for these Walter Mitty characters. But although creating a fake Gemma Styles account might give someone a weird kick when they convince One Direction fans they’re legit, hopefully the harm caused to people who follow these profiles is fairly limited.
And while it might be upsetting for me, the harmful implications are clearer to see when you consider what happens when someone sets up a fake account for a person with an enormous, impressionable following. Consider the potentially sinister intentions behind the fake profiles of musicians, actors, and athletes, with young, vulnerable female fan bases. There have been multiple reported cases of perverts and even paedophiles convincing girls and young women to send naked pictures, videos etc. to the idol they have been suckered into an online ‘relationship’ with. It’s not a stretch to think they could arrange meetings. The whole idea I find pretty terrifying.
So yeah, for the most part fake online accounts are a strange annoyance. A weird modern symptom of having a relatively large online presence. But when they turn sinister, the possibilities don't bear thinking about - keep your wits about you and, as always, keep a healthy pinch of cynicism in your approach to life online.
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Follow Gemma on Twitter @GemmaAnneStyles
This article originally appeared on The Debrief.