Twitter briefly took over a parody account and gave it to the school it mocked

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SUNY Geneseo, a liberal arts college in upstate New York, just wanted the parody Twitter account @SUNYGenseeo deactivated. Instead, Twitter handed over the keys to the unofficial account created by a student, a school representative says, giving the school access to delete most of sophomore Isaiah Kelly’s tweets, as first reported by Business Insider.

While a Twitter spokesperson admits the company made a “mistake” in how it handled the situation, it didn’t elaborate on why it chose to take the action it did, or whether it was common practice to give account access to a third party when impersonation is involved.

“We made a mistake and should have suspended @SUNYGenseeo for impersonation,” Twitter spokesperson Aly Pavela writes in an emailed statement to The Verge. “We’ve now done this.”

Pavela links to Twitter’s policy on impersonation, which states that accounts “portraying another person in a confusing or deceptive manner may be permanently suspended.” Its policy for trademark violations contains similar language, but no part of the policies suggest that ownership or access to a Twitter account would be transferred to someone else for any reason.

Kelly, the student who started the SUNYGenseeo account (note the misspelling) in January, intended it to be a joke among fellow students, he tells The Verge over Twitter. “Yeah, it was completely intended to be goofing on the school, just poke fun at some situations we’re all dealing with on campus,” Kelly says.

Kelly says he thinks both Twitter and the school overstepped; Twitter when it handed over access to the account and SUNY Geneseo when they deleted the tweets. “Having an inconsistent policy for a massive online platform is a pretty terrible look in my opinion,” he adds.

The account mostly made fun of the school and some of its official tweets, he says. But one particular tweet got the attention of the school, when the parody account suggested that instead of closing the library for asbestos removal, SUNY Geneseo would be handing out masks with the school logo on them. It was that tweet that prompted the school to complain to Twitter, says the school’s interim chief communications officer David Irwin.

“We don’t like misleading information on any of our channels, and this account clearly did that,” he tells The Verge. “We were just trying to find ways to stop that from happening.” Irwin added that the school viewed the fake account as misusing SUNY Geneseo’s intellectual property. “It used our logo and our wordmark.” The school filed a complaint with Twitter on January 13th, Irwin says.

On January 26th, Kelly noticed he was locked out of the account and all but one of its tweets had been deleted. At first, he thought the school had accessed his student email linked to the Twitter handle, but it turned out Twitter had given the school direct access. Irwin tells us the school never accessed Kelly’s student email, adding it would take something like a subpoena or court order for the school to access a student’s email account.

Kelly says he met with Betsy Harris from SUNY Geneseo’s communications department on Friday, but said no one from the school administration has been in touch since. Irwin says he doesn’t believe there are any plans to take disciplinary action against Kelly.

“I think to me, the overarching story on this is the social media sphere we’re in right now,” Kelly said. “It’s such a pervasive presence in our society. People can send out information to a lot of people in a very short amount of time, whether accurate or not. That’s something we need to continue to come to grips with as a society.”

Twitter has not been in touch with him at all, Kelly says. “I would assume because Twitter said it was a mistake maybe they’d reach out to me and unsuspend the account, but I haven’t been in contact with anyone from Twitter,” he says.

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