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How Rep. Dean Heller (R-NV) Got Pwned on Twitter [UPDATED]

BY Micah L. Sifry | Thursday, June 11 2009

At least one author of the "Best Congressional Tweets of the Week" (as picked last Sunday by The Washingtonian) isn't actually a real Member of Congress. So if you are one of the 645 people who have been following the account of @deanheller, thinking that you were communing with the Republican congressman from Nevada's second district, think again.

In fact, until Monday, you've been following "Anon Guy," a Nevada blogger who decided earlier this week to come clean (sort of, since we don't yet know who s/he is), and admit that he or she had been successfully impersonating his representative, Congressman Dean Heller, on Twitter for the last five months. That's the story Anon Guy tells in a highly entertaining series of blog posts that describe how he started the account on a lark last December 28, how being picked up by the aggregator Tweet Congress led to a healthy jump in followers, including "an entire civics class from a Nebraska continuation high school," activist conservatives jumping on the Twitter bandwagon, and a smattering of fellow Congressmen, and how the local media started to report on "@deanheller" and his supposed presence on Twitter.

It all adds up to a cautionary tale of what happens when people rush to embrace a new technology without bothering to ask the most basic of questions, like "How do I know this person for real?" And it's a bit of a black eye both for gullible politicos, who probably thought that @deanheller was the real Congressman, as well as for Twitter itself, which is only now starting to offer verified accounts for its more prominent users.

Here's some proof that Anon Guy was in fact managing @deanheller until two days ago. Here's a link to a Google cache of http://www.twitter.com/deanheller from June 4th, and a screenshot:

And here's the current @deanheller page. Note that he's gone from 640 followers to just 198, while the number of people he's following has jumped from 26 to 325.

Anon Guy says he knew that some day he would get found out. He suspects the downfall may have started when someone in Senator John Ensign's office direct-messaged, on May 19, "Is this Congressman Heller, or someone else behind this account? -Staff"

Anon Guy's answer was brilliant: "What to do? I could always lie and respond with a 'Yes, and say hi to John for me' or just ignore it and hope it wouldn't go anywhere. But then I thought, 'Why not do what politicians always do so well.' So I answered the question by not really answering the question. I wrote something along the lines of 'Just getting our Twitter feet wet. Still have a ways to go to match the Senator, though.'"

By the way, Anon Guy's ability to produce this message from @johnensign, which could only have been received by the person managing the @deanheller account, convinces me with 99.9% certainty, that this isn't a hoax and Congressman Heller clearly got pwned. He also provided me with several Twitter confirmation messages received by the @deanheller account as other users decided to follow it. It's also worth noting that Anon Guy didn't really abuse the account: the tweets posted in Heller's name--like an announcement about summer internship opportunities or a press release opposing EFCA--seem to mirror the Congressman's voice and concerns.

But no matter. "The end came surprisingly swift and without notice," Anon Guy blogs. "I always figured I'd receive a direct message from someone in Heller's camp asking what was going on, or a notice from Twitter itself, and then turn over the account in good standing. The big question was when that would actually occur. But the account just disappeared and reappeared in its new official form Monday."

I suppose this was bound to happen--and for all we know this sort of incident is directly connected to Twitter's recent announcement that it would begin providing "verified accounts" to some high-profile identities: "public officials, public agencies, famous artists, athletes, and other well known individuals at risk of impersonation."

Caveat emptor. And thanks to Anon Guy (who for the last two years has also provided a highly useful public service by collecting and posting all the emails sent out by the various presidential candidates) for sharing his tale.

UPDATE: Anon Guy says he's a he. We've narrowed the field by 50%! And he adds this footnote to the story: "Something kind of funny, in my first post I mentioned how one of our other congresspersons, Shelly Berkley, still hadn't registered her name with Twitter either. After I posted that I figured some squatter might jump on it, so I went in and took the name. I then emailed Berkley, through her campaign site, and briefly told her the Heller story and said I had just taken her name so if she wanted it just let me know and I'd give her the password and username. Still haven't heard back."

Bonus graphic: Rep. Dean Heller's track on TweetCongress: