The Straits Times today (Thursday, November 4th, 2010) carried an article (‘SingTel tweets? They are fake’) about Twitter accounts that are parodies of real people and organizations. The focus in the article was on the parody of Singtel, but did mention other cases as well. I have for some time been following three ‘fake’ Twitter people, and never for one moment did I think that they were the real deal. There are a couple of reasons for this.
For one thing, one of them actually uses the word ‘Fake’ in his Twitter handle (I use the masculine pronoun only for convenience here. It could very well be a woman or a group of people). He parodies our Prime Minister, but calls himself ‘Fake_PMLee’, so that there is no confusion, and no danger of crossing legal swords with the authorities. After all, if you admit you are fake, how can anyone accuse you of deceptive intent? This person has come up with some real gems in political humour over the last few months, and actually takes on the persona of the PM. For example, he makes references to his father, to personal connections with other ministers, and to high level knowledge of national affairs. In his latest tweets, he has been poking fun at the redrawing of election boundaries. In a previous post I have made reference to the use of humour as political engagement by Singaporeans, and this is one very clever example.
Information about the user also provides clues, if it does not state outright that the account is fake. ‘ceoSteveJobs’ clearly announces himself as ‘More than meets the i. As you should expect from the most popular parody account on Twitter’. ‘SingtelPR’ information declares itself as ‘Asia’s leading blah blah blah blah blah. 100% tele-PHONY. 100% unverified’. This should tell us that most of these users actually want to be recognised as parodies, not dupe people into thinking that they are representing the actual people or organizations they are poking fun at.
Another giveaway is the tone of the tweets, which is clearly satirical. ‘Fake STcom’, for example, posted the following tweet: ‘Americans have apparently taken part in a mysterious ritual called “democracy”, which involves an intriguing process of “voting”.’ Even without the word ‘Fake’ in the handle, the irony shines through. ‘SingtelPR’, the parody version of Singtel, posted this tweet: ‘Once again, ST failed to use “telco giant” when they mention us. And I thought they were supposed to be objective. Pfft.’ The clever humour is in the content, and most Twitter users are very good at identifying this sort of humour, since it is the most common form used on Twitter.
This leads on to the next reason most people can spot the parodies from the real deals. Using social media involves learning a new language, a new way of processing information, and a new way of interacting with people and media. Just because you have mastered e-mail does not immediately qualify you as an easy immigrant into the land of social media. And even within the large social media club, there are specific social skills and knowledge sets you have to learn as you move between platforms. For example, mastering Facebook is no guarantee that you will take to Twitter. The ‘newbie’ stamp is very much upon you until you start to internalise and operationalise some of the practices and philosophies of Twitter. One such practice is irony, which is not only a delightful quality of the medium, but is also a necessity if you are to attract attention in 140 characters. Twitter users appreciate cleverly worded tweets, and if you want your tweets to be retweeted (or repeated by your followers to their followers), then you either choose your words well, or make sure you are posting some very useful links. Ironic humour is always a crowd pleaser.
The parodying of important people and organizations is by no means a uniquely Singaporean phenomenon. ‘Queen_UK’ is a fake version of one of the world’s best-known reigning monarchs, and if you want to know who ‘ceoSteveJobs’ is parodying, well, look it up on your iPhone.
The Straits Times has asked for reader opinions about what should be done about these fake accounts. My answer is this: if you have to ask this question, you are not ready for Twitter. I see the site’s ironic humour as a type of intellectual property, which needs to be protected as much as the freedom to engage in it.