It's no secret that Twitter and Instagram are king now when it comes to celebrity news. With the likes of the Kardashians, Taylor Swift, and Katy Perry airing their dirty laundry (and those of their respective lovers and enemies) on social networks, it's where most of us begin our daily journey through celebsville, whether it's on the bus to work or when we're zoning out from a crappy day at the office.
In my work as an entertainment journalist I pride myself on being a stickler for perfect spelling, correct grammar, and accurate facts. So I was mortified when an editor came to me the other day and asked me to change a tweet I'd quoted in a story—because it was from a bogus celebrity account. Not good look. I started wondering just how many of the accounts that we're following on Instagram and Twitter are fakes. What exactly motivates someone to hide behind the facade of a celebrity?
Laura, a 20-year-old student, runs a Twitter account dedicated to Perrie Edwards from Little Mix (@FakePerrieLM) with 3,300 followers. She admits that it's a private space for her to express herself that her real-life friends don't know about—and she tweets in the voice of Perrie (or how she imagines Perrie would tweet).
"I relate to Perrie very much," she says. "We have a lot of similarities. Being happy and sad at the same time—I see that in Perrie, and that's me too. So it is definitely a homage to her and it is part of why she is my idol. When she and Zayn Malik broke up I took it pretty badly because I feel I 'am' her—but I got over it slowly and have come to terms with it now."
Edwards isn't Laura's first celebrity role-play account. She has been pretending to be famous celebrities on social media in 2009, beginning with Taylor Swift and then Demi Lovato. "I see it as a hobby," she explains. "Some people like to play football, but this is what I like to do in my spare time. It helps me relax and escape my real life.
"Yes, there have been a few who have mistaken my account for Perrie's but I don't do it on purpose," she adds. "I have the word 'fake' in my username and I have the fact that I'm a role-player mentioned in my bio as well. I think there is a difference between fooling people on purpose and role-playing because you might harm the real person you're claiming to be. As for role-playing it's just for fun and clearly fake but entertaining."
Some impersonator accounts are more obviously intended to fool fans. The fake Ed Sheeran account that I had accidentally quoted dida pretty good job of appearing to look like the real deal, with the same colour scheme and user photo.
The imposter @EdShreean has over 22,000 followers, many of them presumably as slapdash as me when it comes to scrolling through their timeline. On Twitter, it's easy to confuse 22,000 followers with 22 million, thanks to the way the platform displays a user's follower count.
I'm not the only journalist to get thrown off by a fake celebrity account. In July, MailOnline reported that Empire actor Derek Luke "blasted Instagram followers for criticising [his] mixed race marriage.". But Luke doesn't use Instagram. An account with 86,000 followers called @iamderekluke is currently passing itself off as the actor by posting, for example, a behind the scenes photo on The View with Whoopi Goldberg, as well as pictures of Derek with his Empire cast mates.
But it was a post from the "actor" of a photo with his wife, Sophia Luke, that caught public attention. It was captioned:
"My wife may not be Black but she is mine. And she's mine with a heart of gold. People are so quick to judge but can't even distinguish the difference of another's race. Sophia Luke is Hispanic. She's not white, she's not black, she's not Chinese, she's Hispanic. And she's mine!!"
The post has amassed over 6,500 likes to date and caused huge debate in the comment section. Naturally, Luke is not happy about it. "Someone is trying to mess with my life," he told Access Hollywood. "They've been inviting people to auditions in my name. That's crazy. They said that me and my wife had a child, and we don't yet."
Are these fake accounts easy to identify? It depends how much work has gone into them. Derek Luke's false account is incredibly well done; every photo is captioned with personalized, heartfelt messages from the actor. And when a celebrity gossip site as big as the MailOnline falls for it, you know there's a problem.
I tried to DM the fake Derek Luke account, as well as the fake Ed Sheeran, but it seems that the bigger fakes aren't up for chatting—I suppose it would blow their cover. But people who were running more explicitly labelled role-playing accounts were more open with chatting about what motivates people to pretend they're famous online.
Jennifer, 20, runs a Cheryl Fernandez-Versini account on Twitter, @Cheryl_RP. She's got around 800 followers. While her account isn't a direct copy of the X Factor judge's, it's a space where she feels she can "be" Cheryl—posting photos that she likes of the star, and interacting with people who follow her in "Cheryl's" voice.
"It's a space where I obsess about Cheryl and post pictures of her. I've been a fan of Cheryl and her band, Girls Aloud, ever since I was younger, and yes, I love Cheryl," she says. "She's made me feel better about myself. Sometimes I do a bit of roleplay with other accounts," she says. "I'd love more followers. It lets me extend my audience and it's a way for me to meet other people. It makes me feel special. It makes me feel better because honestly, I don't have a lot of people to talk to in my real life."
Dr Elle Boag, a senior lecturer in social psychology at Birmingham City University, confirms that people may be drawn to imitating a celebrity online if they feel alone or bored with their lives.
"People get lonely. It may be that they don't have a huge circle of friends, and they might feel that they're going to attract people if they pretend to be something they're not. Celebrities have a status, so by adopting that persona, they can quickly generate a positive appraisal. We, the general public, generally lead quite mundane lives. It's a form of escapism. It's an extension of fan fiction."
You can be anybody online. Why wouldn't you be a celebrity?
Laura and Jennifer aren't being malicious with their accounts, but some people, like the Derek Luke faker, are. Though his imposter Instagram isn't posting derogatory messages about him, it's certainly created a buzz around him that he never asked for.
"Other people have malicious intent," Boag explains. "It's a matter of, 'What the celebrity has, I want,'" she explains. "These are the people who are duping people.
"Some people love to lie and to manipulate others—it entertains them and makes them feel powerful. You can be anybody online. Why wouldn't you be a celebrity? You could be a 45-year-old housewife who's bored to death, but pretend to be Justin Bieber in your spare time. It's an escape."
So what are the official lines from social networks on fake celebrity accounts? When I contacted Twitter, a spokesperson explained that parody accounts are allowed, but must make it clear that they aren't the real celebrity.
"Impersonation is a violation of Twitter rules," they told us. "Twitter accounts portraying another person in a confusing or deceptive manner may be permanently suspended under the Twitter impersonation policy."
Instagram's account rules on their official help site read similarly when it comes to impersonation, but the fake Derek Luke account is still going strong. .
While social networking sites claim that they're taking imposter accounts seriously, it seems they're not as stringent as they could be. I suppose it depends how far fans are taking the love they have for their idol—while some are simply wish they could be their favorite member of Little Mix, others are going too far with messing with a celebrity's life. So it might be best to double-check next time before you press the "follow" button.