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The Hard Lesson Everyone Should Learn from Peoria, Ill.'s Twittergate Scandal

Though the scandal was enough to make any public figure cringe, it highlighted some invaluable lessons for existing in a social media-driven society.

“Two [expletive] things to get off my chest: If you don’t like Peoria and want to sit here and [expletive], then leave. And two, who stole my crack pipe?” Peoria, Ill., Mayor Jim Ardis recited from a fake Twitter account created under his name in 2014.

For all intents and purposes, Ardis’ online life had been hacked. Not, of course, in the traditional sense, but more in the sense that he had left Web real estate open and squatters siezed the opportunity to have some fun. 

In March 2014, a prankster launched the Twitter account @peoriamayor, which has since been suspended, as an inside joke to share with friends. The profile featured the comings and goings of the mayor’s twisted alter ego — a man hell-bent on all the liquor, heavy drugs and prostitutes he could find, according to various news sources.

While Twitter impersonators generally just want to chide and parody celebrities, public figures and organizations, the mayor took the crudely crafted parody as a serious affront to his character. He, with the help of the Peoria Police Department, fought back hard.

In April 2014, police raided the home of account creator Jonathan Daniel. They seized computers and game systems, and took Daniel into custody under the assertion he was impersonating a public official — a crime in the state of Illinois.

Ardis defended his position and city action at a press conference in June 2014, saying that the Twitter profile was never clearly marked as a parody and was an attempt to impersonate and defame him.

“If this filthy attack was labeled as a parody at the beginning, I would not have been any less repulsed, but at least it would be known to those reading the information that the things being assigned to me were in fact coming from someone posing as me,” he said at the time.

Despite the aggressive action on the part of the city, Daniel was never charged with a crime.

With the help of the Illinois American Civil Liberties Union, Daniel responded with a lawsuit claiming his First and Fourth Amendment rights had been violated. After more than a year of legal back and forth, the city settled the case on Wednesday, Sept. 2, to the tune of $125,000 — a costly lesson for the municipality and its taxpayers.

“In fact, we strongly believe the city would have ultimately won the case, but the reality is it would have cost the city several times the amount of the settlement in order to win in court, and as a result, settling early was the soundest fiscal strategy for the taxpayers,” attorney Jim Sotos wrote in a city release about the settlement.

Documents posted Wednesday on the official Peoria Facebook page and city website state that the city was not admitting guilt in the suit against them, but rather trying to shield citizens from the costly melee that would have resulted from continued legal action. The settlement will go before the city council for approval Tuesday evening.

Media attorney Richard Harris, with Day Pitney Law Firm in Hartford, Conn., said the Peoria Twittergate scandal is not unlike other social media-centric scuffles going on throughout the country. 

The attorney has seen his share of private-sector clients outraged by offensive online comments, and he said fighting back is not always the best route to take. 

“As I tell many of my clients in the private sector, and I’d say the same thing to people in the government sector, at times the best response is no response. There is so much noise out there in the Twittersphere that these comments individuals might find offensive or embarrassing disappear in the blink of an eye,” he said. “It’s the hardest advice for me to give to clients … when the client is personally offended and angry. What they need are good advisors to help them take a deep breath and see this in the bigger context.” 

From Harris’ perspective, the besieged mayor only added fuel to the flames and turned what would have been forgettable posts for a small audience into an absolute firestorm. 

“It was interesting in the Peoria case, the mayor did make things worse by trying to suppress the comments. As I recall, this was a Twitter feed that had a limited amount of followers, nobody was paying attention to this, and it would have disappeared in days or weeks had the mayor taken no action," Harris said. "But in this case, he was offended and used the powers of his office, perhaps inappropriately, to suppress the speech."

For public figures, the attorney said, there is a certain amount of fodder to be expected. By stepping into the public eye, Harris said they can almost certainly expect to draw the fire of outspoken critics. This makes proving defamation more difficult than it might be for a private citizen. 

“It is always appropriate to review carefully these kinds of personal attacks to determine whether the language of the social media posting poses a real threat to the safety of the … target of the attack or anybody else,” he said. “And certainly, like private-sector citizens, [they] have the right to sue for defamation, but the standard for prevailing in a defamation claim is much higher than it would be for a private citizen.”

Also, Harris said, "Never use your public office to seek remedy for this kind of personal attack. These are private claims. And in the case of the mayor of Peoria, he chose to use the connections he had as mayor to engage the police in this matter, and that is a mistake."

Wherever guilt lies in the Peoria incident, the boot mark of public opinion remains on the rear end of Ardis’ office and the city. Following the Daniel raid, more than 30 accounts were started or retrofitted to protest the city’s response; they remain active and visible to the public more than a year later.

Some of the more outspoken accounts feature the mayor with swastikas on his forehead, a Hitler-esque toothbrush mustache and even a depiction of Ardis as North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un. 

While there is no end-all solution to online hecklers, parody artists or malicious ne’er-do-wells, there are tools in place to help social media users know exactly who is behind the keyboard.

In May 2015, Government Technology reported on a newly instated Facebook feature that allows for public figures, governments and celebrities to officially verify their official accounts. 

Twitter also offers account verification for government organizations and an option for those who feel they are being impersonated.

If the situation in Illinois taught us anything, it’s that public officials will hear static and need to be more careful than ever before in what they respond to. Missteps can cost you.  

Eyragon Eidam is the managing editor for Industry Insider — California. He previously served as the daily news editor for Government Technology. He lives in Sacramento, Calif.