Fake Hillary Clinton and the New Social Media Rules of Truth

Fast and loose, in fact and online.

U.S. Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY) walks through the Peppermill Restaurant & Fireside Lounge as he greets guests on January 16, 2015 in Las Vegas, Nevada.

(Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images)

On Saturday morning, Valentine’s Day, Senator Rand Paul tweeted, "Hillary Clinton's new Valentine's Day Pinterest board is worth a look. Check it out and please RT!"

As Paul advertised, the link took people to a Pinterest page purporting to belong to Clinton. Instead, it had been put together by Paul's camp. There was a "Power Couple" board, with shots of the Clintonian Mr. & Mrs., an "Inspirational Quotes" slot, and—because Paul knows what women like—a "White House remodel" board, with pictures of a heart-shaped pool and a stylish office with a desk resembling a doily. Then there was the holiday card, all in pink: Clinton's face, open-mouthed, with the words "I've Benghazing at you!" in a red heart beside her.

In presidential politics, it’s a fairly rare genuflection toward policing the truth. In 2004, a number of Vietnam War veterans turned against one of their kind. They called themselves the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth, and they ran ads, as a tax-exempt 527 group, saying that John Kerry, then a candidate for president, was “no war hero,” that he “lied to get his Bronze Star.” One spot opened with the men stating, solemnly, that they had served with Kerry. But, the New York Times reported, None of the men served with Mr. Kerry on his Swift boat.”

Swiftboating fast became a verb: a shorthand, a synonym, whose meaning was extended to cover unjust or untrue political attacks, however petty or trivial. In the next presidential election cycle, Barack Obama accused his opponent, John McCain, of engaging in “swift boat politics,” after the McCain campaign accused Obama of sexism for his use of the phrase "lipstick on a pig," claiming that Obama's comment referred to vice presidential nominee Sarah Palin. The charges and counter-charges were ugly, but allowed; it's doubtful that we’d recognize our national politics without mudslinging, misattribution, and misrepresentation. Hyperbole has become the norm—how else could the public be trusted to grasp basic political points? In television and newspaper ads, facts may seem slack, but the spirit is accurate. To someone, at least.

The world of new media is different, in barrier and also in tone. The game is getting in on the meme. The one who wins on Twitter is the fast, the fluid, the so-damn-biting that the mic gets dropped. Much has been made already of Rand Paul’s use of social media; Politico called him “the first true Twitter candidate.” In just the last weeks of January, Paul published a “secret tape” of a fake phone call between Hillary Clinton and Jeb Bush, and posted tweets (initially misspelled) showing friendship bracelets exchanged between Jeb Bush and Mitt Romney.

 

His Valentine’s-themed fake Pinterest page seemed a natural extension of that, the du jour-ness, the jumping on the trend. Swiftboating, maybe, but swiftboating is savvy branding. But Paul hit a dam in the water Sunday when Pinterest deleted Paul’s ‘parody’ account.

The fake Hillary Clinton account, a Pinterest representative said, violates the company’s acceptable use policy, which makes it impermissible to "impersonate or misrepresent your affiliation with any person or entity.”  A site like https://www.pinterest.com/fakebarackobama/ is labeled as a parody, and https://www.pinterest.com/randpaulreview “makes clear that it is administered by someone else.” But not this.

The company representative noted that Pinterest has “disabled other accounts that appear to impersonate individuals and our policies on this are nearly identical to other services.” Twitter and Facebook have similar positions on parody accounts. A spokesperson for Twitter said that the social network has disabled accounts claiming to be (or to be affiliated with) politicians, that weren’t real.

Which means that so long as Rand Paul is tweeting as Rand Paul, he can keep posting made-up letters and images of friendship bracelets, leaving it to fate or followers to determine whether he’s joking. This is an interesting modern condundrum, a hairsplitting of truth—which, we know, is already in short supply in politics. The rule seems to be: falsehood is acceptable, as long as it is uttered by a verifiable human. Possibly, social media networks should streamline their swiftboat policy.

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