Technology

Twitter Impersonators Take Public Officials' Image

Satirical accounts for politicians and public officials are almost as numerous as their real-life counterparts.
by | July 2012

This May, The Huffington Post thought it had seized on a breaking news story straight from the source: The Twitter account @GovBevPerdue tweeted the above challenge to a fellow Southern state after the North Carolina governor said days earlier that her state's passing of a ban on same-sex marriage made it "look like Mississippi."

@GovBevPerdue then appeared to issue an apology on Twitter to Mississippi Gov. Phil Bryant for the comment and promised to "send [him] some Bojangles Bo-Berry biscuits to make amends." The Huffington Post ran with the story.

The article took off, garnering dozens of comments on one of the world's largest online news sites. The only problem: @GovBevPerdue isn't actually the governor's account. A quick visit to the governor's official home page clearly shows that the governor's official Twitter handle is @ncgovoffice.

The real Gov. Perdue's office saw the tweet, and the real Bev Perdue clarified her position during a news conference the same day (she and Bryant had talked earlier, but she hadn't formally taken back her statement). The Huffington Post modified the original story and admitted its mistake. Meanwhile, the fictional governor chided HuffPo and other media outlets for falling for its ruse, adding a metaelement to the ordeal.

Perhaps that's just the new peril of the Twittersphere, where satirical accounts for politicians and public officials are almost as numerous as their real-life counterparts. Perdue's office had previously contacted Twitter to complain about the parody account, says Christine Mackey, the governor's press secretary. @Gov-BevPerdue was briefly discontinued, but returned with a clear "parody" disclaimer. Mackey declined to comment on why the governor's office hadn't "verified" the real account, which sticks a bright blue check mark on the profile pages of well-known users. (Tweets for comment were not returned by the satirical account's anonymous author.)

Twitter's policy is that parody accounts are permitted as long as they are clearly identified. Some parodies have become cultural touchstones: A satire of Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel (then running for the position) garnered widespread media attention and tens of thousands of followers as it chronicled the escapades of Emanuel and his friends, including a caricature of Obama campaign manager David Axelrod reimagined as a duck (named Quaxelrod). The persona adopted the profanity-laced verbiage that's reportedly a hallmark of Emanuel's behind closed doors. Because of that, most of its tweets would be inappropriate to print. Emanuel jokingly offered a $5,000 reward for the author to reveal himself; the satirist turned out to be a journalism professor. The two shared a laugh on a Chicago radio show after the account was retired when the real Emanuel became the city's mayor.

The author of @ElBloombito, which mimics New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg's sometimes stilted Spanish when communicating with his Hispanic constituents, earned a profile in The New York Times. The parody was born as Bloomberg took to the airwaves before Hurricane Irene last year, trying to warn the city's residents about potential dangers. @ElBloombito: "Hola Newo Yorko! El stormo grande is mucho dangeroso!" read the first tweet. The account, authored by a New York mother and blogger, has lived on and is now nearly 30,000 followers strong. To his credit, Bloomberg seems to have taken the lighthearted jabbing in stride. He replied to it (on Twitter) after the storm subsided with a link to a viral video of one of his misadventures with the language.

Officials of all types have attracted the attention of Internet comedians. Parody accounts have been created for a New York state senator, a Los Angeles city councilman, a former U.S. chief information officer and many others. While most are harmless fun, the experience endured by Perdue's office shows that they can be a headache. Some states are looking to protect themselves by creating online registries of official social media accounts, says Charles Robb, senior policy analyst for the National Association of State Chief Information Officers. "It's definitely an issue," Robb says. "Governments are definitely thinking about it."

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