Family members can use the accounts of prominent users if they have the necessary login information — which can lead to confusion for followers
Only a few weeks after his death, Herman Cain’s Twitter account grabbed people’s attention on Wednesday when it chided presumptive Democratic nominee Joe Biden’s campaign as “completely nuts.” The tweet stood out — for obvious reasons — and was ripped by many, with some saying it was “tasteless” for the former businessman and presidential candidate’s account to be sending tweets after Cain’s July 30 death at age 74.
On Thursday, Cain’s account was updated to reflect that it was being run by his “daughter team and family.” The account, which has more than 550,000 followers, also changed its display name from “Herman Cain” to “The Cain Gang.” Still, the moment invited the question: What does Twitter do with accounts when users pass away?
The social media giant’s approach changes on a case-by-case basis. Twitter has a team dedicated to working with verified accounts like Cain’s; in some instances, the company’s reps will reach out to people connected to the verified account to see how the account will be handled moving forward. At other times, Twitter may wait for family or management to reach out to them.
And according to a company rep, Twitter will deactivate the account of a deceased user when a confirmed family member or estate representative formally requests it. To remove a dead person’s account, Twitter will ask for a few documents, like a copy of the family member’s ID, a copy of the deceased’s death certificate, and information on the deceased, before completely removing it. The rep said this is to safeguard against fake or unauthorized death reports. This process is the same for both verified users and “regular” users.
Twitter does not have a policy forbidding someone from using a deceased person’s account if they have the login information, according to the company rep. In Cain’s case, his daughter, Melanie Cain Gallo, said her father’s social-media accounts will now be run by a small team that includes herself and Dan Calabrese, who ran her father’s website for nearly a decade.
“He truly valued the sharp, creative, insightful minds of his editorial team and he would not want them to stop doing what they do best! As usual, he had the best branding ideas and we see no reason to try to improve on it,” Gallo wrote on Cain’s website. “He will always be the enduring presence over everything we do here.”
There are other situations where a prominent user’s account is still active — and it’s unclear who is using it. The blue-check account for Betsy Rothstein, a former reporter for The Daily Caller who died in June after a battle with cancer, tweeted on Thursday that “everyone should know that [Herman Cain] is not the person tweeting from his account.” This was one of three tweets sent from Rothstein’s account since her death. A direct message to Rothstein’s account, asking who was now running her profile, went unanswered, and The Daily Caller declined to weigh in.
Everyone should know that @THEHermanCain is not the person tweeting from his account.
— Betsy Rothstein (@betsyscribeindc) August 13, 2020
There’s also a risk that comes with not deactivating accounts when a user dies. Most of the time, the accounts simply go dormant, but by remaining up, they run the risk of being hacked — a distinct possibility in the case of Rothstein’s Twitter page.
In 2016, the account of acclaimed New York Times journalist David Carr started sending out sexually charged tweets to his 450,000 followers 15 months after he died. Twitter ultimately had to step in and get the account under control.
The challenge of how to handle the accounts of dead celebrities isn’t unique to Twitter, either. Many estates continue using the deceased’s accounts to promote their work and new business ventures. Recently, Kobe Bryant’s family has used his Instagram account twice since his January death to promote books his company is publishing. Instagram also appears to have struggled with how to go about labeling the account — at one point, Bryant’s account included a tag on it saying “remembering,” but it has since been pulled.
The estates of dead celebrities from Michael Jackson to Elvis Presley to Frank Sinatra — some of whom passed away long before Twitter even launched — also maintain accounts to stoke nostalgic fans and promote posthumous projects.
The tweet from Cain’s account this week — and the confusion that came with it — once again highlighted how tricky it can be for social media giants to handle deceased users’ accounts.