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Someone hijacked a former NFL player’s Twitter account to troll Pakistan

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A fake journalist with a verified account

At a glance, Nate Hendrick seemed like a typical Twitter user. His bio listed him as “traveller by profession, journalist by passion,” working as Rossiyskaya Gazeta’s foreign correspondent in South Asia. With nearly 10,000 followers, he seemed comfortable with the form, blasting out observations and occasionally stinging criticisms of the local political scene. The only odd point was Hendrick’s screen name, @NateBussey59, but with Twitter’s verified check mark in place, there was no reason to be suspicious.

In fact, there was no Nate Hendrick. A month earlier, that account belonged to Nate Bussey, a former NFL linebacker and rightful owner of that verified check mark. But some time in early July, Bussey lost control of the account and Hendrick took over. Over the course of the last week, the account offered an ostensibly Western perspective on Pakistani politics until it was finally deactivated Monday night. For anyone who saw Hendrick on their feed, his tweets looked like harsh criticism of current prime minister Nawaz Sharif, from a seemingly horrified Western observer.

Google caches show that the real Nate Bussey was in control of the account as recently as June. Before Hendrick took over, the profile photo showed Bussey in his Saints uniform, with his bio listing the player’s publicist and representatives. After the takeover, all those tweets were deleted, and Hendrick added a new photo and a new identity as a foreign correspondent. When Hendrick’s first tweets appeared on July 2nd, at least one bewildered Bussey follower reported the account, but the complaint seems to have had little effect.

Over the next eight days, Hendrick tweeted more than 50 times on issues ranging from Iran’s Kashmir policy to CNN, adopting the tone of a bemused but naive observer with ties to Russia. He would comment on Pakistani landscapes and food, interspersed with criticism of Sharif’s role in the unfolding Panama Papers inquiry. One Twitter poll asked Pakistanis whether they preferred Vladimir Putin or Donald Trump; 91 percent of respondents sided with Putin.

Hendrick knew which Twitter accounts to court, eventually earning quote-tweets from Pakistani musicians like Salman Ahmad and Osama Com Laude that expanded his audience even further. It was a successful strategy, earning the account 3,000 new followers over the course of his run.

But Hendrick himself seems to have been a complete fabrication. The person in Hendrick’s initial profile photo was a fake, identified on Twitter as a marketing specialist from South Carolina and eventually called out in The Daily Pakistan. Once that story broke, Hendrick swapped the photo, borrowing the face of an American student named Sabin Selimi, currently studying at University College London.

His newspaper job was also fake. Rossiyskaya Gazeta has no foreign correspondent assigned to South Asia, and when reached by The Verge, the newspaper said they’d never heard of the reporter. “We have never published this author before,” the paper said in a statement. “Nate Hendrick has no relation to the newspaper Rossiyskaya Gazeta.”

Despite the irregularities, Hendrick seems to have made a legitimate impact on many conversations about Pakistani politics, an impressive achievement for an account that was effectively starting from scratch. One tweet, responding to a tweet by the prime minister’s daughter concerning the upcoming Panama Papers inquiry, was retweeted more than 1,700 times, including by a number of local journalists. “Amazed at the way Pakistani leaders think going to answer questions regarding corruption is an achievement,” Hendrick tweeted. “Here in the west, leaders usually resign before commissions, but in Pakistan it’s totally the opposite.”

When the tweets first arrived, many took the verified check mark as proof of the account’s legitimacy. “Everyone in Pakistan considered it to be a genuine account,” one Pakistani student observed. “His account is verified so the hacker took advantage of it.”

Political Twitter hacks have grown more common as the service has become central to activists around the world. In June, Access Now reported on a new technique called the DoubleSwitch attack, used by attackers to take over targeted screen names with impostor accounts. But it’s still rare for those attacks to target Twitter’s verification system, much less importing verified users from across the world.

Twitter does not comment on individual accounts, and declined to break from that policy in this case. Reached by The Verge, a company representative referred us to the service’s page on account security.

It’s still unclear who was responsible for the takeover, whether it was someone involved in Pakistani politics, a foreign state actor, or simply a troll looking to sow confusion. Reached by The Verge on Monday, the real Bussey was still unaware of the hijacking. “The only person who has access to my Twitter account is my publicist,” he said, “and that’s not her.” Asked if he ever expected to play a role in Pakistani politics, Bussey replied, “not in a million years.”