Rapid City Area Schools in South Dakota made the local TV news last week when a social media account posing as the district surfaced.
No one in the district considered the account particularly serious, according to Katy Urban, the district’s public information manager. Its absurd content included a notice that one school would be closed because a feral skunk had gotten loose and the building would have to be burned down.
“We figured our parents would know that’s not the case,” Urban said. “We didn’t see any fallout.”
This incident was far from an anomaly, though. Similar cases have popped up across the country in recent years—fake district accounts in California, Arkansas, Minnesota and Ohio, and fake superintendent accounts in New Jersey, Massachusetts and Delaware, among others.
Representatives of several districts with experience dealing with fake accounts offered some tips for dealing with them.
Keep your eyes and ears open.
Last week’s social media incident wasn’t even the first one to hit Rapid City Area Schools. Katy Urban, the district’s public information manager, first caught wind of a fake Twitter account posing as the district from a Snapchat screenshot post sent to her a year ago by one of her daughter’s friends, a high school student.
The fake account had the district’s logo and an official-looking announcement that the next day of school had been called off.
“I was fortunate that I found out rather early,” Urban said.
Derby Public Schools in Kansas had an even easier time detecting a fake district account in 2018—the fake account tagged the real one in a post, according to Katie Carlson, the district’s director of communications.
“It was shared pretty quickly among our student population on Twitter and our response was provided directly to the account debunking the claim within 5 minutes,” Carlson said.
Build trust with parents and students early.
Upon hearing of the fake post, Urban took to all of the district’s communication platforms to assure parents that snow day updates would come, as always, on all of the district’s channels, not just Twitter.
“I feel like our parents are almost trained to know where legitimate news comes from our district. They know what happens when there’s any emergency or a school closure. They have gotten used to consistently getting used to getting phone calls from our office,” Urban said. “I think that’s paid dividends, being consistent about how we communicate.”
Have a plan for how to respond when a fake account surfaces.
Here’s how Carlson and her team sprung into action when they detected a fake account:
- They shared a clarification message on the district’s actual Twitter and Facebook pages.
- They immediately sent the fake tweet to members of the Board of Education and district leaders so they could avoid sharing the wrong account.
- They used the Twitter report function to alert the social media platform that the account was an impersonator. “The quicker the claim is made and processed by Twitter, the quicker the account/false claim comes down,” Carlson said.
- They alerted local media outlets to the fake account, in case any of them were fooled and decided to retweet it.
Accept that the culprit might never be found.
Urban said last year the district tried to find the account that she had seen on a Snapchat screenshot on her daughter’s friend’s phone, but to no avail. “In some ways, all you can do is respond in these certain situations,” Urban said.
A version of this news article first appeared in the Digital Education blog.