With 5,000 friends and 800 more on a wait list to join, the "Riverton Utah" Facebook page should be the envy of other municipalities.
But Riverton doesn’t own that page. It’s one of many look-alike pages, streams, feeds and profiles of government entities and politicians — both inadvertent and intentional — that are popping up all over social media sites, putting a burden on users to verify who is behind them.
Tips for recognizing the ‘real deal’ online
Look up the user’s profile. Legitimate organizations will include contact information and links to official sites.
View the user’s complete timeline. If posts focus on a single issue or person, it is probably bogus.
Trust your gut. Emotionally charged posts are often from posers.
That Riverton page, for example, is maintained by resident Langford Lloyd, who started it in late 2009 as a way to share regional history. The city had its own Facebook page but discontinued it in late 2011 because city leaders said they were concerned residents might see the site’s sponsored ads as an endorsement. Lloyd believes the city didn’t like the fact that an official page still provided residents a place for criticism.
"I had no intention of representing the city" when naming the page, said Lloyd. "I was just identifying what the site was going to be about, and I didn’t want it confused with other Rivertons in other states."
The page has become an unofficial spot to post city events but has not caused any problems for Riverton, said spokesman Jeff Hawker, acknowledging that look-alikes are one of the perils of social media.
"We hope people have better judgment than to think that this is Riverton city’s official website," Hawker said.
Facebook and Twitter began as a way for individuals to connect, but government entities and their leaders have recently realized they provide powerful tools to connect with the masses, said Holly Richardson, better known to Utahns by her blogger handle "Holly on the Hill." Richardson, a local social media maven, was the subject of a Twitter parody account while serving in the Utah Legislature and has since noticed accounts spoofing other politicians, including U.S. Senate candidate Dan Liljenquist, whose campaign Richardson is chairing.
The Tribune spoke to a few of the individuals behind these accounts, but all declined to be interviewed for this story. They may pretend to represent an individual, or simply use anonymity to be hyper-critical. Some are clearly not the actual person — such as congressional candidate Carl Wimmer’s mustache posting via @Wimmers_stache — but for many other pages and sites, it can be hard to tell.
"It’s become part of what I expect in the political arena," Richardson said. "Online, you probably want to verify before you trust."
A few common-sense rules can help users identify the real deal, Richardson added. Real entities will include photos and contact information in their profiles, making it easy for users to do a quick call or email check. Official pages are also likely to include links to a city, agency or candidate website.
But the best tool may be gut instinct. If a candidate tweets something outlandish, or the city page rails about a council member, take it with a grain of salt.
"Don’t get involved in highly emotionally charged discussions because chances are pretty good that you are dealing with someone who is a fake," Richardson said.
Jeff Haaga is accustomed to heated debates on his "West Jordan City" Facebook page, but that was why he started it. His page — clearly labeled "personal blog" so as not to be confused with the official "City of West Jordan" page — serves as an online gathering place where residents can debate and discuss issues impacting the city. Haaga sees the group as a watchdog on city government, more accessible than City Council meetings and easier to find than government records.
"Thousands of people meet and befriend each other online," Haaga said. "The model is out there."
And that interaction is exactly what government entities are hoping to foster by maintaining a social network presence, said West Jordan spokeswoman Kim Wells. Tweets and posts allow residents and city leaders to share questions and concerns in a convenient manner.
But users do need to be aware. Haaga’s site, while sometimes critical of city government, has never tried to pass as the official city page, but others have. Logos or photos are sometimes used without permission, Wells cautioned, and official pages may be unaware of copycats.
"New ones pop up all the time," Wells said. "With social media, we’re learning as we go because there is no precedent with any of this."
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