Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Social Media Credential Fraud

If you are reading this blog post there is a good possibility you have heard of the following social media terms: Tweet, To Friend, Un-Friend, To Follow, To Un-Follow, etc...However, have you ever heard of "Social Media Credential Fraud"? Is "Social Media Credential Fraud" a mythical term or is it a new type of fraud that is being perpetuated by some social media users who are trying to be someone whom they are not? Popular. Seen as an expert. Or both.

I discussed this topic while being part of a panel at LegalTech New York 2011 that covered social media branding and ethical issues. During the session, I posed the following hypothetical: Is it unethical for a Twitter user who utilizes a Twitter account for commercial purposes to intentionally follow someone on Twitter, only to stop following that person once a follow back has been received for the specific purpose of inflating one's follower numbers? Is this practice just 1) Bad Manners; or 2) Mere Puffery; or 3) Misleading and/or deceptive under the FTC Advertising Guidelines and/or a Lawyer's Code of Professional Responsibility (if the Twitter user is also a lawyer)?

For example, what if a Twitter user followed 100,000 people, and 50,000 of those people followed the Twitter user back based upon the initial follow. Then the Twitter user systematically un-followed 95,000 of those people so his following to follower number has a ratio of 1:10. After achieving a celebrity like Twitter following to follower ratio, the Twitter user then advertises that he is an expert in his profession and as part of his sales pitch points to his Twitter following to follower ratio or advertises he has a certain number of Twitter followers. Is this practice ethical or is it legal?

This scenario sounds like it could be something that happened in the movie Mean Girls. Unfortunately, it is a behavior that some Twitter users engage in. The FTC Dot Com Disclosures: Information About Advertising states, "The FTC Act's prohibition on unfair or deceptive acts or practices broadly covers advertising claims, marketing and promotional activities, and sales practices in general. The FTC's Advertising and Marketing Guidance states, "under the law, claims in advertisements must be truthful, cannot be deceptive or unfair, and must be evidence-based. For some specialized products or services, additional rules may apply." Since a Twitter account may be considered an advertising platform, the FTC's Dot Com Disclosures may apply to your Tweets.

In the legal profession, lawyers must follow their jurisdiction's Code of Professional Responsibility. For example, Rule 7.1 of New York's Rules of Professional Conduct State: "(a) A lawyer or law firm shall not use or disseminate or participate in the use or dissemination of any advertisement that: (1) contains statements or claims that are false, deceptive or misleading; or (2) violates a Rule." Therefore, a lawyer's Twitter account may be perceived as an advertisement even if it is only used for personal purposes. What if the Twitter account is utilized for both commercial and personal activities? Social Media has blurred the lines between what some people may see as personal and what others may interpret as your professional message. Therefore, it is imperative to understand that your social media activity may have both ethical and legal consequences.

The bottom line is that reputation building and expertise takes years to achieve and that short cuts in the long run will fail. In the 1987 hit movie, "Can't Buy Me Love" Ronald Miller, an unpopular kid in high school paid the most popular girl in high school Cindy Mancini $1,000 to pretend that she was his girlfriend for a month. Ronald's hypothesis was that if Cindy was his girlfriend he would become popular. Overnight, Ronald went from "totally geek" to "totally sheik". However, his new found popularity was short-lived because as soon as the rest of the school found out that he had to pay Cindy to pretend to be his girlfriend (analogous on Twitter to paying a service to obtain followers on your behalf or following tens of thousands of people and then un-following them once you receive a follow back) Ronald's brand was destroyed. Ronald learned in high school that there are no short cuts in reputation building.

The bottom line is acting like a "Social Media Ronald Miller" will not succeed in the long run. While utilizing social media one must understand there are ethical and legal ramifications of what you post and how you utilize each platform.

To learn more about social media legal, branding, and ethical issues you may contact me at

Copyright 2011 by the Law Office of Bradley S. Shear, LLC. All rights reserved.