Web satirist targets political ‘bogeyman’

Web satirist targets political ‘bogeyman’; Prankster Twitters as Alberta Finance Minister on ‘spoof site’

Edmonton Journal
Tue Jan 26 2010
Page: A3
Section: News
Byline: Trish Audette
Dateline: EDMONTON
Source: Edmonton Journal

Ted Morton, the self-described “bogeyman” of Alberta politics, has fallen victim to identity theft.

Sort of.

An anonymous Internet satirist has stolen the new finance minister’s name and face to impersonate him on the social media website Twitter.

Calling himself the MLA for “Foothills-Rocky-Satire” (Morton’s riding is Foothills-Rocky View), and painting a moustache on a picture of Morton, the prankster posts comments like, “I’m every liberal’s worst nightmare — a right-winger with a PhD.”

The comments may seem harmless enough, and they riff on Morton’s reputation as a right-wing conservative. But, a government official points out, any of the faux Morton site’s 97 followers could think they are having an online conversation with the finance minister.

When the person who launched the Twitter site MLATedMorton first started posting comments last Tuesday, it looked very much like the real Morton was behind the words.

“There was nothing in there to indicate that it was a spoof site,” said David Sands, who works for Alberta’s public affairs bureau.

After phoning Morton’s office to confirm the minister was not randomly commenting on religion, “Big Labour,” and gay rights, Sands fired off a Twitter demand that the impersonator stop using copyright materials and quit pretending to be the minister.

“The concern is somebody would be confused and misled,” Sands said.

Sands says he hasn’t gotten around to evaluating the quality of the prank. “I haven’t been able to get over my disgust, really.”

Over the weekend, Sands fell victim to a prankster using a Twitter handle so similar to his own that he has decided to stay off the website altogether.

“I’m not going to Tweet again as long as this guy’s out there,” Sands said. He has been using the website to discuss government issues since November.

“It just means a communication tool is no longer open to us.”

Media lawyer Fred Kozak said regular people do have recourse if their names and identities are used for fake Twitter accounts, depending on the nature of the impersonation.

“You can’t use a false platform of any kind to defame people,” he said. “For example, rather than saying nasty things about others directly, you (can’t) employ a fake Twitter name to do it.”

It’s sometimes difficult to track down the impersonators behind such online activities, but it is possible to pursue court orders that compel Internet service providers to release their identities.

“Most people in the public spotlight very quickly develop a thick skin …” Kozak said.

“If you take a heavy-handed approach and employ lawyers to write a cease and desist letter or threaten a lawsuit, it almost plays into the hands of the (satirist) in the first place.”

Troy Wason, a social media specialist and former communications adviser to government MLAs, suggested getting into a legal fight over Twitter could be a mistake.

“I think you almost have to laugh at it if you’re the one being satirized,” he said. “They’re looking for a reaction.”

Wason said the fake Twitter handle is the natural evolution of editorial cartoons in the newspaper — so long as they are clearly satirical and actually funny.

“I found after about 15 minutes, (the fake Morton site) was boring,” he said.

“Satire is only funny if it’s actually witty. After a bit, it stopped being witty.”

Morton’s spokesman, Bart Johnson, couldn’t say whether the minister himself finds his moustached Internet doppelganger humorous.

“He generally accepts that parody sites of public figures are pretty common.”

taudette@thejournal.canwest.com

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