It’s not what a school public relations official wants to see in their Facebook feed: A fake account representing the district suddenly appears on a popular social networking site with the official logo, branding, and all the trappings of the real deal.
Then, the imposter account is used to bully students, share violent or racist images, or announce that school is closed when, in fact, it is not. Some of these accounts have sold fake tickets to real school district events, or solicited donations that wound up in the pocket of the impersonator.
These imposter social media accounts—sometimes, but not always, created by students—can alarm parents, harm kids’ mental health, disrupt learning, and hurt a school’s relationship with its community.
And the fake accounts are more common than you might think. More than half of school district officials surveyed by the Consortium for School Networking and the National School Public Relations Association last spring said they had dealt with these mock accounts.
What makes these accounts especially problematic is that it can be difficult for the general public to tell the difference between the real ones and the fake ones, survey respondents said.
One tool that could help: Verification, in which a social media company indicates that it has investigated a particular account and found that it is used by the person or organization it is purporting to be. Platforms typically mark verified accounts to distinguish them from those that haven’t been verified. Facebook and Instagram, for instance, use a verification badge. Twitter puts a blue check mark on an account.
But getting “verified” can be a lengthy and ultimately fruitless process, survey respondents said. In fact, a quarter of respondents said their school district had applied for verification in the past two years and been rejected because they didn’t meet a platform’s benchmarks. This is an especially big problem for smaller districts with fewer followers, in part because of the criteria social media companies employ to verify their users.
School districts struggle to get fake accounts shut down
Making matters worse: Getting rid of the fake accounts can be a never-ending, thankless task. Nearly half of those surveyed—45 percent—said they had difficulty reporting problematic accounts. Some districts responding to the survey said anecdotally that dozens of these mock accounts have popped up. There’s even been backlash when districts urged parents to help mitigate the problem by monitoring their children’s online activity.
These incidents wind up costing districts time, energy, and money, communications officials say.
“It certainly takes us away from our task at hand: educating kids and making sure that they’re in the best place possible. When some issues occur, it’s our Human Resources Department that has to get involved, it’s our upper administrative level staff members, it’s school counselors,” said Amy Busby, the director of community relations for the Medina City School District in Ohio, in an audio interview posted on NSPRA’s website. Dealing with these situations can take “hours, it could be a day, it could be a matter of days, so it’s really kind of a cumbersome task,” she added.
NSPRA and CoSN reached out for information and help in tackling the problem to a handful of platforms including LinkedIn, Meta (which owns Facebook and Instagram), SnapChat, TikTok, Twitter, and YouTube. Twitter is working on a specialized verification process just for K-12 school districts, and most of the others were willing to explore the possibility of creating a similar process.
Similarly, none of those companies offer K-12 districts their own, expedited path for removing imposter accounts, or posts that harass, intimidate, or bully students, though YouTube indicated a willingness to consider creating one.
Social media companies have already come under fire for ignoring the impact of their platforms on students’ mental health. In particular, documents released last year through a whistleblower revealed that Meta conducted extensive research on the negative impact of its platforms on children’s well-being and the spread of false information, but failed to act on any of those findings.
NSPRA and CoSN have created a toolkit to help districts advocate for faster verification of their authentic accounts and quicker removal of imposters, as well as content they see as harmful to their students.
“We’re asking social media companies for their support [in] cracking down on these types of pages,” said Craig Williams, the chief communications officer for Huntsville City Schools in Alabama, in an audio interview posted to NSPRA’s site. “Unfortunately, there doesn’t seem to be a clear or easy way to remove [certain] types of inappropriate content online, especially inappropriate content involving children. … It’s extremely alarming.”