PR Gaffe of the Month: When Fake Twitter Accounts Fail

Last Updated Aug 8, 2011 4:22 PM EDT

The oil lobby was recently outed for setting up more than 14 fake Twitter accounts, supposedly those of "regular people" who just happened to send dozens of tweets expressing unabashed support for the controversial Canadian oil sands pipeline proposed by TransCanada. The big oil propaganda machine is a typically a well-oiled operation, if you'll pardon the phrase. But this time the group -- or one person tweeting on its behalf -- stumbled by ignoring some basic social media PR rules.

The Rainforest Action Network believes the office of a former Nebraska senator working for the American Petroleum Institute set up the fake Twitter accounts. The accounts were discovered by folks following the #tarsands hashtag on Twitter who noticed an unusual spike in pro-pipeline banter that all closed with the message #tarsands the truth is out! and a link to the API's web page about oil sands. These accounts posted another round of messages that linked to the Nebraska Energy Forum, a group sponsored by API. All of the Twitter accounts that RAN listed have since been removed.

Next time Big oil -- or any company or organization for that matter -- is tempted to fling propaganda via Twitter, Facebook or any other social media tool they'd be wise to consider the following rules.

Rule No. 1: Fake Twitter accounts only work as satire
The best fake Twitter accounts are those that offer poke fun at celebs, or use a little sardonic humor to expose the failure of companies, industries or institutions.

@BPGlobalPR and @MayorEmanuel are classic examples. BP Global PR began issuing fake announcements in the wake of the BP oil disaster in the Gulf of Mexico and quickly proved it was more effective at attracting followers than the company's official Twitter account. The tricksters over at BPGlobalPR -- now more than 167,000 followers -- still throws out the occasional farcical tweet. Some recent examples.

Oh shoot! The @HealthyGulf National Day of Action was yesterday. Can't believe we missed it! Ah well back to bed.

One year ago, we thought that this terrible PR disaster would never go away. We were wrong. #StayStrongTEPCO

@MayorEmanuel began after President Obama's former chief of staff Rahm Emanuel launched his successful campaign to become Chicago's next mayor. It's the kind of fake Twitter account that you kind of wish was real.
I'm so glad I'm wearing my unicorn T-shirt under this suit. When I get down, I just think of that golden fucking horn, and I feel better.

Who thought inviting 2000 people to this last debate was a good idea? Might as well have built the fucking Thunderdome.

Rule No. 2: Inconsistent bios raise suspicion
Pro-pipeline, anti-coal mining -- whatever the issue -- folks on the other side of the debate have an eye on you. The fake Twitter accounts were exposed, in part, because of the laughable bios provided by .

Take drioddude7816, which has since been removed. The bio describes a typical Star Wars fan from Chicago who cares about the environment, is in an "intimate relationship" with his girlfriend and "owns pretty much every starwar[sic] movie, action figure." And yet, this Star Wars fan only tweets about the proposed Keystone pipeline. Curious.

Then there's the Pizza Hut manager from Omaha who pointed out to folks that if they like pizza then the obvious next step would be to "like #keystoneexl and the sweet # oilsands."

Or the loving mom of two teenage girls and four cats who only wrote about the pipeline. C'mon now, a woman with four cats and not a single kitty-obsessed tweet? Now that really is unbelievable.

Rule No. 3: Time-saving widgets are a red flag
The simultaneous posts were all sent via the Netvibes Official Widget, which allows users to post to multiple Twitter accounts at the same time, according to RAN.

Looks like someone got a little lazy.

Photo from Flickr user pickade, CC 2.0