‘I felt like I had committed a crime’: Confessions of a social media lead on negative press and burner accounts
This article is part of our Confessions series, in which we trade anonymity for candor to get an unvarnished look at the people, processes and problems inside the industry. More from the series →
Social media management requires navigating the constantly vigilant eyes of the digital world. The task often involves monitoring brand mentions, comments and discussions across various social media platforms, as well as handling crises if bad press surfaces. Due to social media’s fast and widespread impact, social media managers are crucial to determining a brand’s response to adverse situations, protecting its reputation and maintaining transparent communication with its audience.
However, rather than crafting authentic statements to address its audience, some organizations take an alternative approach to deal with critics, with some going as far as creating fake or “burner” accounts to respond to criticism.
In this latest installment of Digiday’s Confessions series, in which we exchange anonymity for candor, a social media supervisor details what using burner accounts for a brand is like and why he wouldn’t do it again.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Responding to critics through burner accounts made headlines this week. As a social media lead for an entertainment company, have you ever dealt with a request like that? If so, what was that like?
Yes I did. And I hope it is the last time I ever get that request. It was for a recent video game that came out not too long ago. I first thought it was odd because my CEO does not usually give into the social media storm. But because this game was highly anticipated and got negative reviews, they asked me how good I was at cleaning up a mess. I thought at the time it was a joke but he was serious.
After getting the request, what happened next?
I was flying back from TwitchCon when I was alerted that I needed to do this. I kept getting Slack messages while I was on the airplane to go on the Microsoft Teams video call and my CEO told me that I needed to fire back at the critics. I thought it was not worth it. But the company went through a round of layoffs [this year] and [I thought] if I don’t do this, I would be let go.
How did you create the burner accounts? Were the accounts already in existence, and were there any guidelines you followed as you created the accounts and started posting?
The accounts did not exist prior. I had to use the time for the rest of my flight to come up with names and bios that could not trace back to names of real life people. I was told to create three burner accounts for each platform like Reddit, X, Instagram and also a few gaming forums. For accounts with pictures, I used icons from scrapped freelance projects. After I created the template profiles of each account, I shared them with the CEO for approval and within a few minutes, the CEO said it was good to go. Once I landed and went home, the chaos began.
Managing the accounts is like managing a fast food restaurant with difficult employees. No matter what you do, you have to act quick. I asked the CEO if I can go to the office to take a few desktop screens home so I would not have to lose my anxiety or focus on looking at everything on one screen. For X, I had to make sure that none of those three accounts were responding to each other. I had one account responding to tweets on big-name outlets that panned the game, one account responding to streamers and the final one doing this to general fans.
The CEO also paid for verification checkmarks on all of the X accounts to increase visibility of them. I will say that it was much easier to manage X until they removed TweetDeck so I had to use multiple tabs. As for Reddit and Instagram, the process was similar, but I had to wait for at least a day or two to engage on the platforms or else the accounts would be flagged for spamming. I also had to purchase a VPN before attempting to engage, so that no trace of my activity would be traced back to me.
Every response I had to do for every account on each platform needed to be different and the CEO told me that [nothing] is off limits as long as I do not use any slurs, racist language or excessive swearing. I had to come up with responses in real time with no approval processes. I also could not create or generate any social posts with artificial intelligence. Everything had to be organic just to respond to people without coming off as the accounts promoted the game. Of all the platforms, I found Reddit to be [the most] challenging since I got messages from users asking me why I liked the game. Instagram was the easiest because comments on any post cannot be filtered.
Why do you think the company wanted to respond to critics with burner accounts?
I think because of the layoffs and the state of transparency in the gaming industry as a whole, the company did not want to hire a crisis communications person [to manage the negative press] after they just fired one not too long ago. I believe that it was a cost effective move to put someone like me in a position that I was not qualified to handle. It is one thing where you have to make a social media statement and move on like other companies would do. But this, to me, did nothing but put more stress on me. I initially thought that I would do this for one day and move on. Nope, the CEO wanted me to do this until the heat died down at a time when all he cared about was filling a quota of gaming sales. It was a massive distraction because I was also making graphics and social copies that are scheduled for this month to get approved at the same time.
Did you have any reservations about creating burner accounts to respond to criticism? Did you worry people might figure out what was going on?
Immediately after being asked to do this, I felt like I had committed a crime. I figured that there would be some overtime for it, but I did not expect to go past 10 p.m. at night to keep up with the pace. If I was caught, I would have wondered what it would do to my career if I would want to work for a bigger company. I was worried if I would be caught by someone I am connected with. And I was worried if I would get blacklisted from the industry. I think social media managers should not accept requests like this because you will be pressured to act on behalf of the company, to accept all the negative attention.
Is there anything that you wish your managers or supervisors understood about this practice?
I wish they understood that social media leads, managers and anyone else in that role are constantly working under pressure to deliver and maintain a company’s image. The whole time I was doing this for them, I could not help but feel that if this company were to get caught, the backlash would exceed the actual game.
Would you do it again?
It’s not something I’ll do again. And to add to your last question, I also wish they understood that not every video game is going to be a smash hit. Although the public perception is going to criticize it anyway it can, the CEO’s decision to do this should not have been made or conceptualized. All of this time and energy should have been towards how we could have fixed this [game] over fighting with random strangers, public figures and outlets online.
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