Impersonating Someone On The Internet: Legal or Illegal?

Picture of an Elvis impersonator to accompany a blog post about impersonating someone on the Internet
Impersonating someone on the Internet: Is it perfectly legal to set up a Twitter or Facebook account using another person’s name? Or, can doing so land you on the losing side of a lawsuit? What about parody? Is it legal to pretend to be someone else, on social media, for satirical purposes?

We’ll answer these questions below and explore the legal intersection of libel, humor, and impersonating someone on the Internet.

First Things First: Parody, Satire and Defamation: What is the Difference?

I won’t bore you with a diatribe on the finer points of satire versus parody; suffice it to say that works of both satire and parody are meant to be witty – if not poignant – commentaries on issues of public concern.

Defamation, on the other hand, is a free speech boundary that protects a person or company from harmful, malicious, negligent lies.

In the United States, satire and parody are acceptable, but defamation is not.

Is it legal to Parody a private citizen By Co-Opting Their Name On Social Media?

Is it legal to make a fake Twitter or Facebook account using another person’s name, with the purpose of humiliating them?

It’s not an easy question to answer.  A lot depends on the circumstances. The chances of being sued do skyrocket, however, if the posts under review fall into one of the four categories.

Harassment

Threatening to harm or hurt someone is almost never OK — or legal. If genuinely threatening content is published on a fake Twitter or Facebook account,  authorities will sniff out the people behind it hold them accountable.

Defamation

Maliciously spreading false statements of fact about another person or business is against the law — in every corner of the United States and beyond. But in order for a statement to be legally defamatory, the defendant, at the very least, has to act negligently and cause harm to befall the victim.

Impersonation

Impersonating a law enforcement official, or other type of public servant, in a professional capacity, is illegal. Getting caught means serious ramifications — unless, of course, the content is clearly a work of satire or parody.

False Light

In some states, impersonating someone on a social media account or email could invite false light charges – especially since a U.S. court, in the not too distant past, ruled that “everyone is famous on Facebook.” While the public figure distinction may work against average Janes and Joes in IP lawsuits, the status could help in certain false light and defamation lawsuits.

Do You Have A Legal Question About Impersonating Someone On The Internet?

Are you dealing with an impersonation situation? Considering legal action? If yes, get in touch with Kelly Warner Law. We handle all manners of online libel and impersonation litigation.

The perfect legal solution may not be as costly or long as you think. Give us a call today to start weighing your options.

Email Impersonation Case Study

In 2011, Australian Stephen Kirkham gained access to co-worker Cosimo Tassone’s email account. From it, Kirkham allegedly sent a message to Tassone’s contacts. The email read:

“Hello people, just a note to say that I am a homosexual and I am looking for like-minded people to share time with.”

As a result, Tassone “suffered personal hurt and distress” and couldn’t work for a year. To make up for the lost income and perceived blow to his reputation, Tassone sued for defamation of character.

Both parties fought hard, but in the end the Australian court sided with Tassone, and the plaintiff walked away with a cool $100,000. The judge ruled that even though calling someone gay is not defamatory, the email heavily insinuated that “the plaintiff is promiscuous, is of loose moral character and is seeking to solicit sexual relationships with people he does not otherwise know.”

Interestingly (or perhaps tellingly), Kirkham supposedly fessed up to the prank, dismissing it as a harmless “bad joke.” But when the lawsuit landed, Kirkham, allegedly, changed his tune and blamed the “bad joke” on another co-worker.

Defamation or Impersonation?

In Tassone v. Kirkham, the plaintiff won on a defamation charge in an Australian court (and there’s a decent chance he would have won a defamation charge in a U.S. court, too – depending on the jurisdiction).

In theory, however, in a U.S. court, Tassone could have also pursued impersonation and false light charges (again, depending on the jurisdiction). Moreover, if the “impersonating” was done on work hours and work equipment, business owners would be justified in terminating the perpetrator if an employment manual forbids using company resources for personal use.

Twitter Impersonation Defamation Case Study

The Players

In 2010, Joseph Cassiere worked at the California branch of The Agency Group, Ltd. – the self-styled “world’s leading independent talent booking agency”. David Shapiro – a recent “30 under 30” Billboard Magazine “one to watch” recipient — also worked for the firm.

Along Came A Fake Twitter Account

According to a recent defamation lawsuit filing, soon after Cassiere started with The Agency Group, a fake Twitter account popped up called @QuotesOfJJ; the header section featured a picture of Joseph Cassiere; the account followed other music industry professionals.

So what was so bad about the fake Twitter account? Well, the tweets were puerile and made it seem like Cassiere was a “foolish, inept and sexually perverted” guy who “lewdly” sought “the opportunity to promiscuously and publicly find sources of ejaculation.”

Apparently, the account became infamous in the industry, and eventually Joseph Cassiere informed superiors that he wouldn’t be working in the office anymore if the fake Twitter account wasn’t killed.

It eventually was, but, as Cassiere explained in his lawsuit, “the damage was already done.”

Fired For A Bad Reputation – Defamation, Cyberbullying, False Light Lawsuit

In 2013, Cassiere thought he was in line for a raise, but got fired instead. The Agency Group executives explained that his “perception and credibility was not good,” and that the company had a “general loss of confidence in his ability as an agent.”

So, Cassiere decided to file a lawsuit. In addition to defamation and false light, the talent booker also evoked a rarely used 2011 California cyberbullying law.

Is There Proof That The Defendant Is The Person Behind The Fake Twitter Account?

A noteworthy aspect of this case is the lack of definitive proof that Shapiro is the person behind the fake Twitter account. To make matters more interesting, Shapiro denies being the anonymous impersonation defamation ne’er do well. So, in order for the case to move forward, Cassiere will have to definitively convince a judge that Shapiro is, indeed, the culprit. In his initial filing, Cassiere argues for Shapiro’s authorship thusly:

  1. The fake Twitter account mentions things that only Shapiro would know;
  2. Shapiro’s mention of @QuotesOfJJ on his own personal Twitter account is evidence that he is aware – and probably the author of – the fake account;
  3. The removal of the fake Twitter account happened after Cassiere complained to Shapiro (and presumably other superiors) – and nobody else — about it.

At this point, it’s anyone’s game and will depend largely on the quality of the lawyering. Issues of whether or not the things discussed on the fake Twitter account were a matter of public concern will definitely come into play. Also, the judge may have to weigh whether or not a “reasonable person” would be able to figure out that the account was a parody of satire. Heck, can it even be considered parody or satire since Cassiere is not a well-known public figure and the topics tweeted about were private things, not matters of public concern?

Talk with an attorney about your legal issue involving impersonating someone on the Internet.

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