The Sarah Phillips scandal exposes Twitter’s spam, scam, and identity problem

Sarah PhillipsThis week, Deadspin brought an ESPN contributor named Sarah Phillips to our attention. The sordid story involves Phillips rising through the blogosphere and becoming something of a Web celebrity – even though her personal information was confusing at best. A handful of mismatched photos, the fact that none of her employers had ever seen her in person, and the various aliases and Internet-based business offers she brought into the mix make her a complete mystery. This is Catfish-like levels of intrigue we’re dealing with here.

Who Phillips actually is (and how many people she has working on her behalf) has yet to be determined, but one thing is for sure: she (or he or they or whatever) gamed the social Web. 

Sarah Phillips and her Twitter bait-and-switch

Before we dive in, here’s a little background on Phillips. She was a columnist for ESPN (promptly fired after the Deadspin article was published) who wrote about sports betting, and was apparently interested in starting her own comedy sports site. She contacted various popular Twitter users and Facebook Page administrators who were working on similar projects and attempted (to varying degrees of success) to swindle them out of their accounts.

She would lead the people behind well-followed handles to believe they were entering into a business deal, and then assume control over their accounts and use them to sell her brand and promote herself.

According to this screen grab, Phillips bought the @OhWonka account, which she used to contact @NotBillWalton. She briefly took control of @OhWonka and used it to pump her own interests to the handle’s 800k+ followers.

not bill walton
wonka walton

Phillips and a man named Neil or Nilesh had similarly stolen the NBA Memes Facebook Page from its originator and used it to promote their own interests. Luckily, @OhWonka’s owners were able to retain control after reading the Deadspin story that detailed Phillips’ crusade against NBA Memes. According to Deadspin, Phillips also attempted to leverage her clout with ESPN to gain access to the @_Happy_Gilmore and @FauxJohnMadden accounts.

The entire twisted tale shows how Twitter followers have become a kind of currency. The power of social networks has been increasingly obvious for awhile, but the far-reaches of this scandal and the depth at which Phillips and co. manipulated content holders and hijacked their social media property sheds some new light on its significance.

The cost and consequences of Twitter empires

The rise of the Internet celebrity is a weird and not entirely understood phenomenon. Why the collective Web latches onto one person and lets another exist in Internet anonymity is an equation we’ve yet to solve. But we’re learning a few things about how a person can propel him or herself to some sort of Internet fame, and part of that is a vast collection of followers and subscribers.

There are plenty of ways to buy them and plenty of Twitter’s most popular crowd are very likely guilty of doing this. A few years back, blogger and entrepreneur Brooks Bayne did a little backend work looking at how a variety of @ handles were suspiciously increasing their ranks.

“Here’s a few screen captures of the follower graphs from Twitterholic to show the massive trend in follower counts starting on the 11th of February, 2009:

buying followers“How did they do it? Someone is automating/scripting the creation of fake Twitter profiles and then following a select group of people.”

There are more than a few resources for buying followers – a simple “buy Twitter followers” search reveals your many options. It’s hardly even brushed under the rug that this sort of thing happens on Twitter, and that spambot and fake accounts are deeply intertwined into the service.

Using the Internet and social networks to manipulate an audience reaches way past Myspace’s origins, but Twitter has uniquely positioned itself to be taken advantage of. It’s easy to shrug the whole thing off as a just the nature of the beast, but when you realize how much weight is placed on your Twitter account and its following, it means something more.

Twitter followers do two things:

  1. It gives these people authenticity. If you have a million followers, many people become willing to trust you are an authority of some sort or worthy of their viewership.
  2. It’s giving Twitter a serious legitimacy issue. And Twitter knows it. The company is making legal attempts to curb its spam issue and try to restore some sense of reality (or virtual reality?) to the site. If some of the most popular Twitter users have paid for their followers by the thousands or hundreds of thousands, and a great many of those followers are simply spambots plaguing the site and retweeting their every tweet, then Twitter is being reduced to nothing more than the name it’s called that it so very much wants to escape: an echo chamber.

Identity and the Internet

The matter of Phillips’ relative non-physical existence also begs consideration. Here is an allegedly 22-year old woman who until earlier this week was writing for ESPN and only a small handful of people have come forward to say they’ve met her in real life.

Covers, a sports bettering Website she formerly wrote for, said they never met her. ESPN also never had any face time with Phillips, and every report surfacing about conversations with the shamed writer happened over Twitter or Gmail – and at times, whoever was behind the name “Sarah” insisted it was not her but someone else. It’s enough to make people assume there was a crew running and managing the Sarah Phillips enterprise and exploits.

It’s easier than easy to manufacture a personality and play it out online, but there are supposed to be gatekeepers that suppress them from crossing the line between amusing, anonymous blogger to well-known writer for ESPN. Because this is what happens when no one does that: someone (who exactly, we’re still uncertain) becomes more than just a Twitter handle or a blogger or a commenter; they have credence to support their existence. In every pitch Phillips made that ended in her scamming someone out of their intellectual property or money, she threw in her ties to ESPN, and each of her victims confessed that connection was a selling point.

Perhaps what the scandal most brings to mind is Internet legitimacy. Facebook also has this issue but the fact that it remains far more stubborn about real names and actual identities means it’s more difficult to exploit the site. Twitter on the other hand…

Twitter is built for anonymity. It’s the boon and bane of the site: because of this, it’s the home for mass amounts of hilarious parody or behind-closed-door accounts. We can fire off 140 characters more freely than we would on Facebook. But with the freedom of anonymity comes the gutsiness and bravado (and jackassery) that somehow eludes us when we’re more likely to be held accountable for our actions. It’s why Web sites disable anonymous commenting (for the record, we don’t).

We used to worry about losing our wallets or passports or banking statements, because that could lead to having our identities stolen. People could physically assume who we are and use it to their advantage. But now, for some, you need to worry about social network identity theft. All of the content you’ve lovingly curated or created and the audience that comes with it are valuable, and there are always people who will want to steal something valuable that isn’t theirs.