Future Tense

Why Is Someone Impersonating Michael Chabon on Instagram?

American novelist Michael Chabon speaks during an interview in Jerusalem on June 18, 2017. / AFP PHOTO / MENAHEM KAHANA        (Photo credit should read MENAHEM KAHANA/AFP/Getty Images)
The real, single Michael Chabon MENAHEM KAHANA/Getty Images

The Instagram account of Pulitzer Prize–winning novelist Michael Chabon feels entirely his own, an always personal mix of selfies, family photos, and political reflections. On Wednesday, however, an unusual post appeared in his feed. It was a collage of four men to whom he bears a squinting resemblance—among them the writer Neil Gaiman and the DC Comics character Highfather. In the caption beneath, he wrote that someone had been impersonating him on the platform before slyly concluding, “This rudeness has been reported to @instagram and the goddess #Adrestia.”

Social media imitators are, of course, nothing new, though they are typically most successful when they fill a void. The actor Derek Luke fought off an Instagram impersonator in 2015 and in 2016 the actress Morena Baccarin created an account of her own after dealing with similar doppelgängers. The novelist and academic Umberto Eco, similarly, once described the disquieting experience of encountering “a woman whose eyes brimmed with gratitude as she explained how she read me all the time on Twitter and sometimes corresponded with me, reaping much intellectual benefit.” Eco, who never had a Twitter account of his own, attempted to explain that it couldn’t have been him, only to be met with bafflement.

Such accounts draft off celebrity fame, sometimes exploiting it for their own ends—as scammers pretending to be Oprah did last year—and sometimes simply basking in the attention. It’s less clear, however, what Chabon’s copycats were going for. Indeed, it’s not even clear that they knew whose identity they were stealing.

There were, as Chabon told me in a conversation conducted via Instagram direct message, at least two accounts pretending to be him, the subtly misspelled “michealchabon” and “michaelcabon.” Each had reposted a handful of recent images from his account, while also following a few hundred of his own 11 ,000 followers. Similar to the methods described in the New York Times’ recent report on fake Twitter followers, these are tactics that make it easy to generate an account that looks like a real person. Indeed, after I experimentally followed one of the fake Chabons, I found myself absentmindedly hearting some of its stolen posts as I scrolled through my feed.

It’s entirely possible, then, that the impersonators were simply looking to produce plausible-seeming fake bot accounts that could be bundled and sold to those trying to boost their follower counts. That practice has been common on the platform for years, as the Verge showed in 2014, with individual accounts going for mere cents. If this is true, Chabon’s clones may have chosen him at random, wholly unaware that they’d set out to re-create the profile of an important cultural voice.

There are, however, small suggestions that the copycats had some idea of what they were up to, whether they knew who Chabon was. While one of the fake accounts lifted part of Chabon’s own spare profile description (“El Chabon abides”), its creators added flourishes of their own: “New official page of Micheal [sic] Chabon” and “A book writer and a motivational speaker.” The other fake account similarly claimed to be to account of “A motivational speaker,Author [sic] and counselor.”

Screen capture from fake Micheal Chabon account.
One of the fake Chabon accounts, now deleted. Instagram

This was the detail that amused the real Chabon most. “Not just motivational speaker but counselor too,” he told me. “It’s almost flattering.”

Plenty of Instagram users claim to be “motivational speakers,” but the addition of that detail to the fake profiles may speak to what the scammers were going for, even if they did so less competently than crooks in a Coen Brothers film. It’s possible that in Chabon they saw a target who was popular enough to be worth imitating, but not so much so that it would be obvious what was up. In time, that might have allowed them to sell sponsored posts to gullible brands, if only his daughter hadn’t called his attention to the hoax.

Though he reported the accounts, both of which were gone by Thursday morning, Chabon was content to brush off the incident when we chatted about it, calling it “just a minor nuisance.” As he suggested, however, it wasn’t an entirely victimless crime. “I am willing to believe that it was not at all ill-intentioned,” he told me, “but in fact a whole bunch of my followers got their sweet little hearts broken when they found out that I had not in fact responded to their follow requests with request of my own to follow them back!”

That disappointment echoed through the comments of his post about the imposters. “Yep, my heart skipped a beat until I realized buddy couldn’t spell Michael correctly,” one fan wrote, while another claimed she had sent an excited message to her book club. A third wrote that while it would have been an honor, now, at least, she didn’t have to wonder why he’d followed her.

Reading through these replies, the real Chabon was not unmoved. When his followers admitted that they felt let down, he followed them back.