Twitter gave SUNY Geneseo keys to student account after it complained

Twitter gave SUNY Geneseo keys to student account after it complained

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8 mins read
  • Students at a New York state school are looking for answers a ’s Twitter account mocking the school was handed over to college administrators.
  • SUNY Geneseo student Isaiah Kelly was behind Twitter account @SUNYGenseeo, which he suddenly found himself locked out of, the email associated with the account changed, and all its tweets deleted.
  • Twitter’s policy on impersonation states that an account is in violation if it “portray[s] another entity in a misleading or deceptive manner.” The punishment is the account’s suspension.
  • Twitter told Business Insider it made a “mistake,” and that “the school should not have been provided access to this account.” The company says it’s “still investigating” what led to SUNY Geneseo getting access.
  • Visit Business Insider’s homepage for more stories.

In an unprecedented move, Twitter took away a college student’s access to his parody account mocking his school and handed it over to the university’s administrators.

A SUNY Geneseo student took to Twitter this week to express his frustration after losing access to a Twitter account he made to poke fun at his school’s social media presence and communication with students. What has happened in the days since — allegations the school hacked his email, the removal of all his account’s tweets, the school’s defense of its actions, and his account’s eventual suspension — has only led to further confusion, and more questions than answers.

What we know is that, at one point, the university complained to Twitter about the account, and in response, the social media platform transferred ownership of the profile away from the student and to an administrator. When reached for comment by Business Insider, Twitter said it made a “mistake” in handing over access to the school.

The action that Twitter took against the student’s account is not something that seems to have happened before, and is not included in Twitter’s policies. The decision Twitter made — and the university’s ensuing steps — raise concerns about online censorship and the power colleges wield over their students’ social media presences.

It’s been an eventful month for SUNY Geneseo, a public school nearly 300 miles northwest of New York City. At least nine dorms on campus lost power earlier this week for nearly 24 hours, leaving affected students without central heating as temperatures hit the mid 20s.

Isaiah Kelly, a 20-year-old sophomore at SUNY Geneseo and the creator of the parody account, discovered Wednesday afternoon that he had been locked out of the account, which ran under the handle @SUNYGenseeo. He created the account earlier this month, replicating the look of SUNY Geneseo’s official Twitter account for the full effect: the same profile picture and banner, the same bio, and a handle just two letters off.

Kelly posted tweets from the account mocking the school’s Twitter announcements, including one where he joked that the school’s main library — closed this semester due to asbestos exposure — would remain open, and students would instead be provided with surgical masks. When the blackout ensued on campus, Kelly tweeted, “lol forgot to pay the power bill,” followed by a post saying the school’s president would hand out cookies “since we have nothing else to offer our students.”

To anyone briefly glancing through Twitter, it would be easy enough to confuse SUNY Geneseo’s Twitter account and Kelly’s parody account. It’s why Twitter has policies against impersonation, which include any account that not only has a similar username and appearance, but also “portray(s) another entity in a misleading or deceptive manner.” Twitter’s policy also says the punishment for violating this policy is the account’s suspension.

So Kelly was at a loss when he received an email Tuesday informing him the email address for his parody account had been changed. Not only was he locked out of his account, but he found that virtually everything from the account — his tweets, his profile photo and banner, and his bio — had been deleted. The only contents remaining was a retweeted post from the campus police.


Isaiah Kelly


Kelly told Business Insider that the email he received from Twitter to notify him that the new email associated with his account appeared to match that of a school administrator. Kelly said that his first thought was that the school, which manages his student email address, had improperly accessed his email and Twitter account and taken control of the profile. Kelly then took to his personal Twitter to claim to his followers that the school must’ve hacked into his email and obtained ownership over his Twitter. Kelly told Business Insider he has been in contact with the school about the parody account, including the administrator whose email appeared to be given access to it.

Like many administrations at higher education institutions, SUNY Geneseo has the ability to access and look through any email account associated with the schools’ .edu address, although it has previously said it has only done so in the case of an investigation or legal obligation. SUNY Geneseo uses Google’s G Suite for Education, as do many other universities, which gives administrators “access to information stored in the Google Accounts of users in that school or domain.”

SUNY Geneseo refuted Kelly’s claim in a series of tweets Thursday — and there is no evidence that the school did gain access to Kelly’s school email at any point. Kelly confirmed to Business Insider that he had no record of a login from another device, nor any recent password reset emails from Twitter, which would imply the account changed ownership without accessing his school email.

“The latest buzz on Twitter is that we hacked a student’s Twitter account and took it down because it was making fun of Geneseo,” the school posted on Twitter. “We want to be clear: We did not. Twitter determined the account violated their policy on account impersonation and turned access over to us.”

This decision to provide a person or group access to a parody or fake account made about them does not seem to be something Twitter has ever made before. It also doesn’t appear anywhere in Twitter’s policies.

Twitter later told Business Insider it had made a “mistake.”

“We’re still investigating what exactly happened here,” said Twitter spokesperson Aly Pavel. “That said, the school should not have been provided access to this account.”

By Thursday night, Kelly had gotten access back to his SUNY Geneseo parody account, only to find Twitter had enforced its impersonation policy and suspended his account.

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