Soccer-mad schoolboy who fooled the Twitterati

Henry Mance

He gained 20,000 Twitter followers, exchanged messages with professional soccer players and occasionally seemed a step ahead on big moves in English football.

But Samuel Rhodes was not the debonair blond journalist shown in his Twitter avatar. He was the alter ego of Sam Gardiner, a 16-year-old schoolboy from North London.

The rise and fall of Gardiner, who this month saw his Twitter account suspended, is the latest example of impersonation on social media networks.

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His Icarus-like journey began shortly after joining Twitter amid frustration that no one was taking his opinions seriously.

Chris Ratcliffe | Bloomberg | Getty Images

He devised a target of 50,000 Twitter followers and a strategy of propagating rumor.

"It was the only way to get big," Gardiner told the Financial Times in his first interview on the affair. "Everyone has opinions, not everyone has access to the transfer market."

He pretended to be a journalist, using as his first façade Dominic Jones, supposedly a soccer scout turned reporter at Goal magazine.

"At first I didn't know what I was doing – a couple of rumors, stats," he said. "I'd take a picture of (Real Madrid's stadium) the Bernabéu and say 'reporting live'."

He was rumbled in late 2012 when one of Goal's actual journalists alerted Twitter.

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In response, Gardiner changed his online name to @SamuelRhodes_ and his biography to "freelance writer" at the Daily Telegraph and the Financial Times, even though he had no connection to either newspaper.

"We can admire his chutzpah, but sadly not his journalistic efforts," an FT spokesman said.

Gardiner then started selecting gossip and spinning it as fact. He targeted the fans of troubled clubs "because they'd be the most gullible".

In November 2012, when speculation heightened that Chelsea would sack their manager Roberto Di Matteo, he claimed to know that the dismissal would happen the following day. It did.

"That got me a lot of credibility," he says.

Other predictions, such as Chelsea midfielder Juan Mata's supposed transfer to Tottenham Hotspur, proved inaccurate, but perhaps no more so than rumors published by professional soccer journalists.

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In his favor was the audience's insatiable demand for good gossip.

"Twitter in the transfer window does seem to go slightly insane," says Oliver Kay, a soccer writer at the Times.

Gardiner's tweets imitated the language of sports journalists and were focused at peak times, particularly evenings after Champions League matches.

Before tweeting a rumor, he would often send a teaser – "big news in 30 minutes". That added to his follower count, which he says peaked at about 25,000.

Gardiner interspersed his rumors with genuine titbits from newspapers to lend his Twitter account more authority.

In June, James McArthur, a soccer player with recently relegated Wigan Athletic, followed his account. That allowed Gardiner to contact him privately with an exploratory message: "Are the rumors true?"

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After a friendly exchange, Mr McArthur put Gardiner in touch with another Wigan player, Grant Holt. Gardiner spent Christmas eve in a private Twitter conversation with Mr Holt, then the subject of transfer rumors.

But Gardiner's best source remained his imagination.

As the January transfer window opened, Sam Rhodes tweeted that Mohamed Salah, "one of Europe's brightest prospects", was finalizing a £9 million ($14.8 million) move to Liverpool.

The claim was denied by Liverpool, but picked up by sports websites, including Al Jazeera's. Sam Rhodes was briefly among the most popular Twitter phrases in Egypt, Mr Salah's home country.

"I made this up in my living room!" exclaimed Gardiner, seeing his rumour echo online.

A Telegraph journalist, however, identified the account as fake, leading to its suspension.

"Almost every generation thinks that the current generation is less honest than their elders; it goes back to ancient Greece," says Jeffrey Hancock, a professor at Cornell University.

"I don't think people are lying more today. But with technology, when people chose to be dishonest they can do it at scale."

Gardiner, now 17, maintains his plan was never to make financial gain, but to build a platform for his passionate views on soccer, particularly Arsenal. "I did maybe feel a tiny bit of guilt, but not that much," he says.

He now wants to be a real journalist.

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