Posted May 27, 2009 10:27 pm by with 8 comments

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new-south-wale-policeIt was only a matter of time before something like this would happen. Social media in the hands of most people is harmless. A marketing agency in New South Wales, Australia is about to enter the pantheon of social media for an ‘experiment’ it conducted. Of course, most who reach this status are put there for their contribution to moving the medium forward. The agency, Mentally Friendly (Mentally Absent might be more apropos) is being immortalized, however, for all the wrong reasons.

Over at cnet’s Technically Incorrect column we are given an outline of the activity of this group

Mentally Friendly (because mental friends really are the best) decided to set up a Twitter account in the name of the New South Wales police. Which was an interesting thing to do, save for the fact that an increasingly large number of people thought it really was written by the New South Wales police.

Well, it did feature the real police shield.

I am still scratching my head on this one. Of course, taking someone’s social media handle is not illegal. It may be immoral and unethical, but it’s not illegal. Impersonating a police officer, however, is a very serious offense. So what happens when someone (or in this case some company) impersonates an entire police force?

The New South Wales police decided to investigate this Twitter page. According to the Australian ABC News, the police contacted Twitter to ask about its impersonation policy. Which prompted Mentally Friendly to reveal itself in a blog post on the company’s site.

The company explained it “wondered what the social reaction would be if a law enforcement agency or figure of authority joined the conversation.” And it discovered that “users responded positively to the concept of an authorities (sic) presence in social media.”

One has to figure that a lot of people think about a lot of things that are interesting in their private thought world but these thoughts are not anything that should ever be acted on. I wonder what would happen if I let my 12 year daughter take our car out for a spin (which is bizarre I know so just be happy you don’t have to live with me). While it would be pretty darn interesting, I gotta believe that I would never act on it.

OK, so no one was hurt here, right? That may just have been luck. What were these people thinking? Why weren’t they thinking?

As marketers we assume responsibility. As much fun as it might be to put together some social experiments using the tools that are easily accessed by all, it doesn’t mean that you check your brains and common sense at the door. Words are powerful. We are seeing the evidence of this simple fact more and more every day as we open more and more avenues of communication. What can look innocent could turn into a nightmare very quickly. Marketers have to think things through regardless, even if they get a strong case of the “what would happen if’s”.

So what happened to these geniuses? Nothing really.

Still, it appears that the New South Wales police, once they discovered what was going on, decided simply to confiscate the site and use it themselves.

On May 20th, the site tweeted: “All tweets prior to today were not official NSW Police messages. Go to for our latest media releases in full.”

Perhaps, therefore, it is unsurprising that Mentally Friendly added in its blog post: “Big thanks to the NSW Police Force for having an outstanding sense of humor.”

It’s tempting to shrug this one off as a case of severe stupidity but it serves rather as more evidence that while social media has unimaginable upside it can also create unimaginable trouble when put in the wrong hands or just used irresponsibly. Am I the only one that sees it this way?

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  • It's actually quite surprising that we haven't heard of even more abuses like this in Twitter. I agree completely that it's wrong, but think about it…. the honor system has been the only thing preventing Twitter identity theft at this point, right?

  • Edward Stand

    I don't think the company was malicious or stupid. The account was not abused, useful information was diseminated to an appreciative public and some of the Tweets were just out and out funny.

    More than anything, this plays to Twitter's monetisation plan — charging organisations to “verify” the authenticity of particular Twitter accounts.

  • Dean


    re: “this plays to Twitter's monetisation plan — charging organisations to “verify” the authenticity of particular Twitter accounts.”

    I never thought extortion was a good business plan. “We'll make sure people don't damage or abuse your organization/brand if you pay us”

    FWIW, getting your brand handle back from Twitter is as simple as notifying them that someone else has it and you want it.

  • It seems Twitter has a real problem with stolen identities and impersonation. What they need to do is put a verified badge on any profile that may be of high profile. Myspace did this with major music accounts so people would know which was one the real was as many popped up. I think it is also on the people who are the real ones to get their people together and find a way to get the account back. CNN did this with their account and it has really paid off for them. Twitter really needs to start trying to figure out what they are going to do security wise because right now it is pretty much the wild wild west.

  • Zander

    @Edward if the police force thinks it's stupid and/or malicious, it was. It's their name/reputation that got used without their permission.

    Does Mentally Friendly also illegally sneak into sports events just to see if people enjoy their company? Do they pretend to be food critics and review restaurants to see if people like the reviews? Just because they do something that might not “hurt” people doesn't make it right.

  • That the company “wondered what the social reaction would be if a law enforcement agency or figure of authority joined the conversation” without then doing any research on the question is particularly stupid, assuming that this wasn't just after-the-fact rationalization for a publicity stunt. A quick search finds many examples of Police Departments actively using Twitter:

    Boston_Police, in particular, has made great use of Twitter, offering a nice balance of informational updates and conversation.

  • I have to agree with you, and find this type of “marketing” pretty disgraceful. The problem is that it's not just this company that's done it, and no matter how many companies we see try to “pull the wool” over consumers eyes and fail, there still seems to be another company that tries the same thing a week later.

    Consumers are calling on companies to be honest – and when reading about what social media “is”, there's the cry for honesty and transparency. When will these agencies learn that by duping consumers in social media, all that's going to happen is the large percentage of consumers that apparently find trust in the relationships developed in this space will lose that.

    (sorry… bit of a rant…)