In today's digital age, social media platforms allow you to create profiles to share thoughts and photos about your life. When making a new account for yourself, you can input your real name; however, if you want to keep your information somewhat private and not allow people who know your name to find you online, you might enter a different name. But is doing such a crime? That depends on why you created the account and what you do with it.
In California, there is a law that specifically prohibits a person from using another individual's name to create a social media profile. That statute is referred to as false personation, and it states that it's illegal to knowingly impersonate someone else on the Internet or through other electronic means without that individual's consent. Establishing the identity of the other person must have been credible for the conduct to be a crime. What that means is if someone else saw the account, they must have reasonably believed that the person who created it was the individual they were impersonating.
When a person opens an online account in someone else's name, for their actions to be considered illegal, they must have created the profile to do any of the following to the other person:
- Harm them,
- Intimidate them,
- Threaten them, or
- Defraud them
Let's say you already had an online profile, but you wanted to create a second one to post just your travel pictures. You want this account to seem entirely separate from your other one, so you establish it with someone else's name. The purpose of this new account isn't to cause anyone harm; therefore, your actions would not be a violation of California Penal Code 528.5.
However, suppose you were in a relationship with someone, and you shared intimate photos with each other. Let's say your significant other recently broke up with you. You're upset and hurting, and you want that person to feel as much sadness as you are. You create a social media account with their name and post some of the pictures they had shared with you.
In that scenario, setting up an online profile would be illegal because you:
- Knowingly impersonated someone else,
- Did so without their consent, and
- With the purpose of causing them harm
If you are convicted for this misdemeanor offense, you could be fined $1,000 and/or sentenced to jail for up to 1 year.
California's Revenge Porn Laws
In the hypothetical situation mentioned earlier, where you created an online profiled with your ex's name, you could also be charged under California Penal Code 647, also known as the "revenge porn" law. This statute makes it illegal to distribute explicit images or videos of other people online and can be charged as a misdemeanor that carries a prison sentence of up to 1 year.