Building trust with the general public is important for government agencies, and it is no easy task. Public information officers (PIOs) need to stay vigilant and ahead of the curve when it comes to social media use.
One particularly pernicious social media issue is the near-constant creation of fake accounts that impersonate well-known individuals and organizations. And government entities are not immune to this. Fake (or parody) accounts under the names of officials and agencies are ubiquitous on social media—and, intentional or not, these accounts help spread misinformation and erode public trust.
But what can be done about fake accounts? Well, impersonation is generally a violation of a social media platform’s rules, so fake accounts can be reported. However, parody, commentary, and fan accounts are allowed, so the issue can be tricky to resolve. That’s why getting your official accounts verified is one of the best things you can do to protect your organization’s online presence.
What Is Social Media Verification?
Have you ever noticed those blue checkmarks next to politicians’ or celebrities’ handles on social media? People and organizations get those blue checks when their accounts are verified. That means a platform has confirmed that they are indeed who they say they are, or the account is “official.”
The official Twitter account of the President of the United States.
As with the accounts of brands and celebrities, it’s important that the accounts of government organizations be identified as authentic. Recently, CNBC reported that dozens of fake government websites, news outlets, and associated social media accounts were created to publish pro-China propaganda in the wake of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan. Russian hackers have also been known to target U.S. government agency social accounts to spread misinformation. And with the recent creation of new platform Truth Social, many government account handles were seemingly claimed by users who don’t actually represent those organizations.
Verifying a government profile on social media can greatly reduce the potential impact of fake accounts by making it clear that yours is the official one that should be followed for reliable social media updates. Here’s how account verification benefits your organization:
Your Community Can Find (and Trust) Your Profile
Verification can help citizens find government accounts on social platforms. When searching for local government social accounts, the blue check mark will let people know that they’ve found the account they are looking for and know that the information published is trustworthy. Verification helps your organization build trust with its stakeholders in the government or otherwise.
Verified accounts help agencies distinguish themselves as authorities in comments as well. Verification makes the comments easy to find in lengthy discussions, especially in controversial discussions where the government’s position is considered important. People tend to skim over discussion threads and focus solely on comments from participants with the blue check mark.
Distinguish Yourself From Spam Accounts
As mentioned, spam accounts are ubiquitous online. In fact, in the first quarter of 2022, Facebook took action on a staggering 1.6 billion fake accounts. Cloning websites or social media accounts is an easy way for bad actors to create chaos and spread disinformation.
Even if the account isn’t overtly malicious, like parody accounts, for example, these fake profiles can create confusion and cause embarrassment for people in the public eye.
People create spam accounts for several reasons:
- Identity theft
- Spreading ransomware
- Gaining access to other accounts
By getting your accounts verified, you reduce the risk of potential confusion and make it easier for the public to find your authentic accounts. Of course, it doesn’t render fake accounts harmless—it’s still important to keep a lookout for fake accounts, including on platforms that you don’t have an official presence on. After all, you might not have an official agency account on Tiktok, but that doesn’t mean that someone hasn’t nabbed your handle on the platform… So examine all the main social media platforms on a regular basis and report any fake accounts you find.
It’s also important to realize that verification doesn’t mean that an account is impervious to hacking. If anything, an account with a blue check mark (and the legitimacy it implies) is a more attractive target for hackers. In 2020, for example, the verified accounts of Apple, Elon Musk, Bill Gates, Warren Buffet, Jeff Bezos, Joe Biden, Barack Obama, and many others were compromised and used to promote a cryptocurrency scam.
Like the accounts of many other public figures, Joe Biden's verified Twitter account was hacked in 2020 and used to promote a cryptocurrency scam.
It goes without saying that hackers can cause immense harm by hijacking the verified accounts of a government organization, so it’s important to protect accounts by:
- Limiting the number of people within the organization who have access to account login credentials
- Using strong account passwords and updating them regularly
- Enabling options like two-factor authentication (2FA) to help secure accounts
- Training employees on how to spot phishing scams like the one below
How to Achieve Social Media Verification
Generally speaking, it’s almost impossible to guarantee account verification on a social media platform. The process can be quite nebulous and even users with massive numbers of followers sometimes struggle to earn that coveted blue check mark.
However, it’s in the best interest of the social media platforms to identify and verify official government accounts, so government organizations typically don’t struggle too much to get their accounts verified. As long as you have an official account, use it regularly to publish relevant content, and follow the platform’s user guidelines, verification should be simple.
Here’s what you can do to earn your blue checkmark:
Prove Your Authenticity
To address the issue of fake accounts, federal social media accounts must be registered with the US Digital Registry. So a first crucial step for any new social media account owned by a federal agency is to have it registered here. Of course, this only applies to accounts owned by federal agencies and not to the accounts of state and local entities.
When it comes to proving your authenticity on the social media platforms themselves, there are specific requirements that a government account must meet. Twitter, for example, has specific government account prerequisites. These include:
- A relevant link to an official government URL on the Twitter profile
- Links to at least five relevant articles that reference the applicant multiple times as a government office or public service
- A verified email address with an official government domain
- Official websites or news articles published by already-verified organizations that reference the organization’s Twitter handle or registered email address
- The account must satisfy the criteria outlined in the Twitter category denoting “active” accounts
Meta offers similar guidance on how politicians and government officials can use a Facebook Page as their official presence on the social media platform. Here is more information on what the company looks at when evaluating a government account for verification.
Whatever social media platform you’re dealing with, be sure to read all documentation related to account verification. The good news is that many of them have information specifically aimed at government organizations.
Keep Your Accounts Active
As mentioned above, regular activity is crucial for verification. Even if an account is your organization’s official one, getting it verified can be difficult if it is rarely used. The social media platforms will look at how regularly you post (and how useful and relevant those posts are) when evaluating your account for verification.
Beyond that, regular activity is important for two additional reasons. First, fake accounts are less likely to hijack the online conversation if your official account is posting regularly. A largely dormant account creates an opportunity for others to swoop in and spread misinformation. If, however, you’re regularly sharing news and updates, it becomes much harder for other accounts to impersonate you or spread their misinformation.
Second, an inactive account can be an attractive target for hackers. If, for instance, your organization briefly experimented with TikTok but then abandoned the idea, someone could hack into the account and take it over for quite some time before anyone even realizes. Similarly, the public could still be commenting on old posts or sending DMs to the account without anyone in the organization noticing. So, if you decide to abandon an account, be sure to close and delete it completely. Don’t leave an account (especially a verified one) for hackers to exploit.