Online Impersonation: It’s Quick and Easy to Commit a Felony on Facebook
Aaron Ochs is the author of “Defamers: How Fake News Terrorized a Community & Those Who Dared to Fight It,” a nonfiction uncovering the defamatory, deceptive and criminal practices of online tabloid CalCoastNews.
In San Luis Obispo County, California, a man named David William Platek was charged with felony identity theft for impersonation. He reportedly created an account to impersonate controversial local figure Kevin P. Rice and posted false statements about him intending to damage the figure’s reputation. Platek reportedly registered the account in the figure’s name, copied the figure’s profile photo over to the fake account and started posting.
If Platek is found guilty and his alleged online impersonation are determined to be felonious, then the floodgates will and should open for extensive criminal prosecution.
California law states that “false impersonation” is a crime when the offender “personates” someone falsely in their public or private capacity and perform “any other act that might cause the person you are impersonating to become liable to a lawsuit or prosecution or become obligated to pay money, or which might cause you to get some benefit from impersonating him/her” (Penal Code 529).
When it comes to “personating” someone online, it’s ridiculously and unfortunately easy to do. To register an account on Facebook, you can use any name you want, any email address you like, password, a random birthday, random gender, and you’re done. According to Facebook, signing up for an account is “quick and easy.” And once you verify the email address you’ve provided, you’re a few clicks and keystrokes away from undermining someone’s reputation.
According to website Brands on Digital, Fake account profile are likely to have the following:
- Their profile Image uses a stock image
- They haven’t posted any photos
- No friends, lack of friends and friends in common
- Lack of activity on their wall
- Cover photos doesn’t add up with profile photo
- Their post activity is non coherent or written in bad English
In Rice’s case, someone pretending to be him by using his profile photo admitted to being a sex offender. But the fake profile had no photos posted, no friends listed, no activity and the account was registered shortly before the libelous allegations were made.
But what if a person uses someone’s likeness to defame someone else? I believe that would also be illegal under the same penal code that District Attorney Dan Dow cited in Rice’s case. The person being impersonated could be the recipient of a defamation lawsuit.
Let’s use Rice himself as an example.
In 2017, an anonymous account named “Patrick Rich” appeared on The Tribune’s website, claiming to “work” for the San Luis Obispo County Progressives. Fortunately for “Rich” here, no one named Patrick Rich lives in San Luis Obispo County. However, the allegations made by this account are directly linked to Rice.
Aside from deploying similar rhetorical patterns to “Rich,” Rice has also been extremely prolific in equating liberalism to fascist “hate.” But what fascinated me the most about Rich’s comments were oddly specific allegations he made about the late Bill Denneen, a well-known local environmentalist.
The allegation was originally cited by Rice in 2012 on CalCoastNews:
Rice is known for aggressively targeting and harassing his political adversaries, especially those who supported the prohibition of off-roading vehicles on the Oceano Dunes. Denneen was an avid critic of Oceano Dunes off-roading. For nearly a decade, Rice has engaged in efforts to undermine and sabotage the reputations of individuals supporting a ban on off-roading vehicles through surreptitious and tortious means. Rice even went as far as to “impersonate” an organization belonging to a critic of Oceano Dunes off-roading and unsuccessfully sued that critic for trademark infringement.
In 2017, I reached out to Denneen and California State Parks about his allegations. There was one reported incident when Denneen didn’t clear a field trip with State Parks, but no one could corroborate Rice’s allegations of Deneen’s various “illegal hikes” with dogs frequently in tow.
It was more likely than not that Rice was making libelous allegations as “Patrick Rich.”
Given the charges filed against Rice’s alleged impersonator, if “Patrick Rich” were a real person and Denneen filed legal action against him on mistaken identity, Kevin P. Rice would be charged with a felony.
The Tribune has become a regular stomping grounds for fake accounts like “Patrick Rich.” There’s no real way to know who they are, but circumstantial evidence provides some interesting clues.
It’s easy to spot “Steve Edwards,” a fake Facebook account that’s clocked over 400 comments on The Tribune with comments about “whacky” Progressives being responsible for every headline-generating crime committed in the county. When they’re not accusing people they disagree with of substance abuse, “Edwards” has also made lengthy political pronouncements, urging readers to vote pursuant to their political agenda.
“Shame on the whacky [sic] SLO Progressives, and not one liberal leader in this area denounced the actions by David William Platek as he impersonated a local conservative activist. Why the silence?” wrote the account, weighing ironically on Rice’s online impersonation case. “People like Heidi Harmon, Adam Hill and Caren Ray Rossum talk a big game about civil discourse, but they sit silently as their followers commit identity theft and defame people who they disagree with.”
There’s no indication as to the true identity behind “Edwards.” “Edwards” has no profile photo, friends or identifiable information in their profile. If we use the fake account criteria above, “Edwards” checks all the boxes.
On CalCoastNews, similar comments accusing the “whacky” [sic] progressives of complicity by silence appeared under the nickname “Mjd”:
“Shame on the whacky left, and it is clear that people like David William Platek have the support of corrupt politicians like Heidi Harmon, Adam Hill & Caren Ray Rossum,” writes “Mjd.” They added, “If the left really believed in integrity and civil discourse, their leadership would have denounced the despicable actions of people like Mr. Platek, but all we have seen is their silence.”
Between “Edwards” and “Mjd,” this account has posted nearly 400 times this year between CalCoastNews and The Tribune. Who has that much time on their hands?
And why are these fake accounts always closely linked to CalCoastNews somehow?
Speaking of which, I am currently seeking a criminal investigation into CalCoastNews co-founder Karen Velie for impersonating a man named Peter Gerold and using that account to personally harass me with libelous allegations on the New Times website.
Velie has exclusively and falsely accused me of “wanting” to throw bleach in her daughter’s eyes and “admitting” to it in court. See the similarities? The fact her own evidence against me showed I never wrote anything like that makes her allegations unique to her delusional state of mind.
For years, I was the recipient of harassment from anonymous accounts associated with Velie and/or her daughter. I documented it. Some of those accounts attempting to interact with me impersonated real people with no known associated with CalCoastNews or the Central Coast. “Gerold” claimed to be a retired law enforcement officer residing in Cambria, but the real Gerold is a Cape Coral, Florida resident with no known association with the Central Coast. In 2016, I received harassing messages from someone claiming to be a San Luis Obispo County government employee residing in Morro Bay named “Gary Russell.” The account continuously accused me of being a “paid shill” for District 3 Supervisor Adam Hill, the same false allegation Velie has parroted about me for years. The real Gary Russell is an Australian animator that never set foot in Morro Bay. Like “Russell,” the “Gerold” account accused me of being — you guessed it — a “paid shill.”
Curiously, right after I published a column about her misconduct and touched on her fake account problem on the New Times website, Velie falsely claimed that I accused Rice of being a sex offender. She also implied I was colluding with the alleged suspect and targeted Rice because he “expose[s] the missteps of a local group of Democratic public officials.” She accused me of being a “troll” that spread misinformation. I don’t think there are any coincidences.
But what makes this situation so unfortunate is how easy it is to create a fake account to target someone and not be held accountable — of course, unless you’re a close political ally with the District Attorney.
Facebook is also culpable here. Despite Facebook’s claim that they’ve removed millions of fake accounts, they’ve steadfastly refused to remove accounts that have no activity on their profile, have profile photos that are copied from somewhere else on the Internet and strictly engage in political propaganda not dissimilar to Russian bot accounts involved in meddling in our 2016 presidential election. In 2016, when I filed California Fair Political Practices Commission complaint against anonymous accounts that bragged about spending “thousands” in political advertising to unseat Supervisor Hill, Facebook reportedly refused to cooperate with state authorities.
If you want to know how easy it is to create a fake Facebook account and impersonate people, ask the most psychotic hypocrites that are crying foul.