Twitter Parodies, Politicians and Police Raids
For as long as there has been Twitter, there have been parody accounts. From Representative Paul Ryan to Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel to the pope, public figures often find themselves the subject of these impersonations. Most have come to accept them as an annoying but inevitable side effect of life in the public eye.
And then there’s the mayor of Peoria, Illinois.
Earlier this year, Mayor Jim Ardis discovered the Twitter account @peoriamayor, which was described as a “foul-mouthed political with a penchant for liquor, drugs and prostitutes.” Ardis contacted local police, Twitter suspended the account, and police raided the apartment of its creator, Jon Daniel, in April, seizing smartphones and computers. Daniel was investigated for "false personification of a public official." His roommate was arrested and indicted for marijuana that police discovered during their search. Now, Daniel has filed a lawsuit against the city, backed by the American Civil Liberties Union, arguing that he was a victim of a civil-rights violation.
This all has the taste of a bad joke gone too far. The account in question never attracted more than a few dozen followers. Daniels eventually even added a note to the profile to say the account was a parody. Of course, nobody wants to be made fun of online. But in this instance -- of a small, obvious parody account of the mayor of a city of just more than 100,000 people -- sending in the police seems awfully heavy handed.
The reaction to the story, however, has been even more interesting. The tale of Twitter, parodies and police has struck a nerve because it touches on a larger challenge of the digital world: ensuring authenticity, autonomy and accountability online.
The events shine the spotlight on technology companies’ struggles to create policies that protect user identity, privacy and control, while remaining platforms for free expression. On social media, Daniel has become a rallying point for freedom of speech and against excessive police force. Meanwhile, the roommate’s grandmother has started a Change.org petition for the state’s attorney to drop the criminal charges against her grandson, saying the police used faulty search warrants. The petition has more than 500 signatures.
Given the nebulous online world of hackers, trolls and anonymous users, technology companies are under a lot of pressure to help users control their identities. Twitter offers to “verify” account-holders in an effort to “establish the authenticity of identities of key individuals and brands.” Google must now respond to requests to remove results from its search engine under Europe’s “right to be forgotten.” Facebook requires a real name to create an account, a policy that recently came under fire for unfairly targeting the LGBT community by making users use their given names and not chosen ones.
Tech companies have also been inconsistent in responding to claims of harassment. A recent report from the Association for Progressive Communications’ “Take Back the Tech” campaign found that Twitter, Facebook and YouTube lacked transparency around how much abuse actually happens on the platforms and how the companies handle it. It took an online petition of more than 140,000 signatures for Twitter to add a “report abuse” button last year. More recently, after Robin Williams’s daughter was the subject of harassment on Twitter and announced she was leaving the social network, the company said it was revising its policies.
Politicians can continue to expect to be targets of parody accounts, and they should have means to address them. But let’s let tech companies put a priority on addressing serious issues of identity theft and harassment, not overreacting to thin-skinned politicians. After all, it might be a losing battle either way. For all of Ardis's pains, his efforts have had the opposite effect: There are now more than 10 fake Peoria mayors on Twitter.
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Toby Harshaw at email@example.com