When free platforms like Twitter, Facebook or YouTube become massively popular, it presents both an opportunity and a problem. The ability to reach a large audience and connect people with content they are interested in is a boon for both individuals and organizations. But such platforms also suffer from a pervasive problem across the entire online world, which is that they have a sort of lawlessness about them – there’s little accountability or authenticity to most online content.
This was proven recently when a story made its rounds in the media about a parody Twitter account for Richmond, Va., Mayor Dwight Jones. Stories like this one published by an ABC News affiliate “revealed” the Twitter account @MayorJonesRVA as a “fake,” which is a bit of a stretch since that account’s profile page said “Parody” on it. Three seconds of investigation would lead an interested party to discover the silly truth about the account. The fact that so many news outlets reported the account as a “fake” rather than doing a quick analysis of the situation could reveal that the news media are obtuse, lazy or don't know what parody means. But this article isn’t about the news media – it’s about social media.
Trying to make something out of nothing is, of course, not a new phenomenon in the news, but the recent rash of stories about the “fake” Twitter account did start a discussion that is germane to technology: How should platforms like Twitter and Facebook be governed? It's an important discussion since governance will impact how parody and fake accounts are handled and how seriously information found online can be taken.
There are two opposing positions when it comes to how social media platforms should be managed by the companies that own them, and they can be described as either a Laissez-faire approach, or a benevolent dictator approach.
Supporters of hands-off approach believe that Twitter and Facebook should just let people do what they want on the platforms and not censor or curate the content. They are free platforms, using them is optional, and there’s no obligation for anyone to use those sites, this viewpoint purports. If people don’t like how those sites are managed or governed, they are free to take their ball and go home while the website creators continue to do as they please.
Perhaps a more popular view today is that because large social media websites tend to have a monopoly on their corner of the market, those sites have an obligation to curate content. Supporters of a benevolent dictator style of social media governance argue that, no, those who don’t like how these sites are governed can’t just stop using them, because there’s no other game in town and they need the functionality. Just as Georges Clemenceau famously stated that "War is too important a matter to be left to the military," supporters of this viewpoint purport that technology is too important to be left to technologists – there must be oversight for preservation of the greater good, free market autonomy be damned.
The parody Mayor Jones Twitter account was eventually removed because it did not adhere to Twitter’s rules. Twitter allows parody accounts, but only if they indicate in the account name that the account is not legitimate by using a distinguishing word like “fake,” if they don’t use an official-looking avatar, and if they make it clear on the bio page that the account is not legitimate. In the case of @MayorJonesRVA, the account name “Dwight the Blight” was not found to meet the account name requirement of being obviously illegitimate, and the account was removed.
Most government organizations are likely to support a social media governance model where this type of regulation is in place. A lack of legitimacy or officiality online has long kept government away from popular trends like social media, as organizations instead opted to create their own costly platforms or solutions for fear of being associated with the kind of content that now constitutes the bulk of Twitter. Whether it’s that these products are just now becoming ripe for government use or whether budget constraints have left organizations with few other options, governments are increasingly using services like Twitter, Google Maps and Facebook. After all, they’re free and they’re easy to use. But many of the problems government worried about do occasionally crop up. Verified accounts such as those on Twitter help add legitimacy to the service, but they’re not the whole answer.
In October, a White House staffer was fired for his Twitter account, where he called Sarah Palin and her family “white trash,” in one of his nicer tweets. The former staffer apologized for the account and claimed that the account began as a parody, but that may have been a last-ditch effort to save his job -- his tweets don’t come across as satirical so much as mean-spirited and abrasive. In any case, he likely learned some kind of lesson after he lost his job.
Toronto Mayor Rob Ford, who has turned himself into a one-man cavalcade of absurd and bizarre statements in recent months, has spawned at least one satirical Twitter account in @RobFordTO, which will likely continue to be allowed by Twitter because the name on the account is “Rob Ford Satire.” In the account operator’s defense, comedy writing is difficult, but the tweets don’t come off as being very creative or particularly funny – one prototypical tweet reads, “Me read? No. I have picture books!” The real Rob Ford is far more entertaining, in this writer’s opinion.
Former New York Congressman Anthony Weiner’s media hijinks spawned a number of parody twitter accounts, one called Anthony’s Wiener (@AnthonysWiener), which posted its most recent tweet on Nov. 3. Weiner made himself an easy target, and he probably elicits less sympathy than an organization or person with a lower profile, like an assistant principal of a middle-school.
In September, an Oregon middle-school assistant principal named Adam Matot asked a court to take action against students who had created parody Facebook and Twitter accounts of him, as he claimed that some of the obscene materials posted in association with his identity damaged his reputation. The assistant principal invoked the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act, and when that didn’t work, he tried the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations (RICO) Act, which has been used in many high-profile cases, including those involving organized crime. The case was dismissed and the court noted a precedent that “lying on social media websites is very common.” The judge even pointed out that police have been known to create fraudulent social media profiles to capture criminal suspects.
There are plenty of satirical websites, too, such as one parody of the NSA’s website that can be found at nsa.gov1.info. The site’s content is ridiculous, and does include a statement in the footer that it is indeed a parody of NSA.gov, but the site is well-executed and convincing enough that one journalist may have spent as long as 10 or 15 minutes compiling information for a story about the NSA before he realized the site wasn’t real.
While parody is protected free speech, the larger question is how best to legitimize the Web, or whether that is a worthy goal in the first place. Wikipedia was once cited as de facto proof that everything on the Web is somehow inaccurate. The idea was that information that came from Wikipedia wasn't “real” research. However, that image has changed. Wikipedia pages are still frequently vandalized, but there are now enough people dedicated to keeping its information pretty accurate that it’s really no wonder Wikipedia has become a more-or-less reliable source of information.
It seems clear now that the trend is headed toward more curation of content, not less. The question now centers not on whether there will be a line, but where it will be drawn. Twitter announced on Nov. 25 that the site would begin using an age-screening process to prevent users under the legal drinking age from following alcohol brands. Actual verification of the user’s age won’t be required – the site will simply supply a prompt asking the user to enter his date of birth and the returned data will be checked against the user’s local drinking age laws. Just as with every other age prompt online, all the underage user has to do to gain access is lie. It’s unclear, however, whether this change indicates a true desire on behalf of Twitter to control content more closely or whether this is just a precaution based on legal advice.
Google recently integrated Google Plus into its YouTube commenting system as part of a long-term strategy that encourages people to use their real names online. While the feature definitely adds value and utility to the service, its users, and advertisers, it’s also highly unpopular with many people. The unpopularity of features like these inevitably leads to the aforementioned discussion of whom, if anyone, these services are beholden to.
Jonathan Reichental, CIO of Palo Alto, Calif., has been recognized by several large news publications as an influential Twitter user. As such, he understands the importance of social media in government. Authenticity, he said, is very closely linked to the value of information found online, especially with a site like Facebook, which is rooted in the fact that its users are real people. “The value of Facebook was gleaned from the fact it was authentic,” he said.
Government acceptance of the Internet and social media has come, Reichental said, and adoption will only get smoother and more feature-laden as government improves its tool sets and social media platforms themselves become more polished. “I think we’re there. It’s been a reluctant journey,” he said. “Public agencies are recognizing that social media is here to stay and will be an important way we communicate with our communities.” The issue of authenticity and using real names online will play a key role in how government is able to utilize social media, he predicted.
“There’s a really strong integrity issue if a member of a community has an issue that they’re communicating through Twitter or Facebook or one of the other outlets and it takes them some time to determine it's fake or it's not going anywhere,” he explained. “Sometimes, what agencies deal with are life and death, so we have to take this very seriously. We would never encourage anyone to tweet an emergency, but people are going to do it. It’s going to happen.”
As for the free market versus curated content debate, Reichental supports social media improving their services, but takes a free market attitude toward their unpopular decisions. None of the social media sites are true monopolies today, he said, and competitors to Twitter and Facebook will emerge -- if they don’t listen to their users, they will be replaced. And it won’t take long, he said, pointing to Snapchat as an instance of an service that has exploded in popularity in a relatively brief period. “Facebook and Twitter should not have any kind of arrogance about their role, because it’s vulnerable,” he said.
Colin wrote for Government Technology from 2010 through most of 2016.