Twitter suspends accounts impersonating Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman and Fiona Hill
By CAT ZAKRZEWSKI | The Washington Post | Published: November 27, 2019
Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman and former National Security Council Russia expert Fiona Hill were key witnesses in the impeachment inquiry into whether President Donald Trump misused his office for personal political gain.
And some Internet users believed they had more to say on Twitter when accounts with handles matching their names popped up in the aftermath of their publicly televised testimony. The only problem: the accounts were fakes.
Twitter moved Monday night to suspend the accounts named @FionaHillPhd and @LtColVindman, the social media service confirmed, but only after they had amassed thousands of followers in the wake of the real witnesses blockbuster Capitol Hill testimony. Users were widely retweeting those handles, seemingly under the impression the real Hill and Vindman were authoring the missives.
Hill and Vindman don't actually have Twitter accounts — and their legal teams raced to set the record straight and ensure that Twitter took swift action against the false accounts.
The accounts were of particular concern because some of the tweets appeared credible in light of the witnesses real testimony. Both accounts included photos of the officials.
"The tweets were not entirely outrageous," Lee Wolosky, an attorney representing Hill, told me in an interview. "Anyone who knows Dr. Hill would know that wasn't what she would tweet. But to other observers, it was not patently implausible."
This is the first impeachment process in which social media is playing a key role. That's worrying researchers after the U.S. intelligence community identified Russian trolls and bots as spreading disinformation designed to divide the American electorate and help Trump win the 2016 election. Twitter's quick action to take down the accounts suggests social media companies may be approaching impeachment and the 2020 election differently and more aggressively.
The existence of the fake accounts "proves the basic fact that social media is easily manipulated, and we have to be really careful in analyzing what we're seeing on social media," Wolosky said.
There was at least one previous Twitter account purporting to belong to Hill, but it did not gain as many followers as quickly as @FionaHillPhd, Wolosky said. Vindman's legal representatives sent a letter two weeks ago to Twitter's general counsel warning the company about misinformation related to their client, according to a person familiar with the matter who spoke on the condition of anonymity to offer a candid assessment. There have been several other accounts impersonating the Purple Heart recipient, the person said.
Such fake social media accounts could threaten the credibility of Vindman and Hill. Both have been careful not to elaborate further publicly on the impeachment proceedings and limited their comments to their Capitol Hill testimony, which the House Intelligence Committee compelled.
It wasn't immediately clear who was behind the accounts or what their motivations were for creating them. The Hill impersonator added a note to the Twitter biography denying the account actually belonged to Hill as Wolosky and other Twitter users noted its existence. But the tweets appeared credible to some who watched Hill last week debunk claims by Trump and Republicans that Ukraine interfered in the 2016 election.
"I find it deeply concerning that members of Congress continue to propagate a debunked conspiracy theory that Ukraine was involved in the interference of our elections," the Hill impostor account said in a tweet, which has been removed from Twitter. "That is resoundingly false. The entire U.S. Intelligence community agrees that it was Russia — not Ukraine."
The Vindman account also added that it was a parody to its biography once Twitter users raised questions about its validity. Susan Hennessey, the executive editor at Lawfare, noted that many of the Vindman impersonator's tweets were mocking Rep. Devin Nunes, R-Calif., the top Republican on the House Intelligence Committee.
Wolosky said Twitter responded to his report of the fake account in about an hour and should be commended for quickly suspending it. But the incident highlights how the impeachment witnesses's lawyers have to constantly monitor for other impostors or misinformation related to their clients.
"We are carefully watching and going to respond quickly," Wolosky said.