Late last month, as protests against police brutality kicked off nationwide after the killing of George Floyd by Minneapolis police officers, a photo of a burning McDonald’s spread across Twitter. Posted in a tweet from the bogus account “@Breaking9ll” on May 28, the caption read “McDonald’s Has Fallen,” implying that the fire was the result of recent demonstrations.
Tens of thousands engaged with the tweet, but as Snopes eventually confirmed, the picture had been mislabeled: The fire in the photo actually happened back in November 2016 and had nothing to do with protests — it was the result of a grease fire.
While the burning McDonald’s was just one post’s worth of fake news amid a surge of misinformation surrounding the protests, the tweet — which was sent from a “parody” account, now suspended, that was designed to resemble the handle of popular Twitter account @Breaking911 — simultaneously illustrates two disparate tactics that help spread misinformation online: clever imposter accounts and news aggregators that cut corners.
The first and most obvious is a phony Twitter account that looks like a legit handle.
While Twitter’s display names and avatar images can be easily swapped to copycat someone, Twitter @ handles are harder to believably mimic because they’re unique to each account. However, if the targeted account has certain characters in its handle, impersonators can make their copy look legit by swapping them out for similar-looking letters or symbols. In the Breaking911 example, the imitation account’s handle was spelled with two lowercase L’s instead of the real handle’s two 1’s. In Twitter’s Helvetica Neue, a sans serif font, a lowercase letter L (l) looks pretty close to a number 1 at a glance.