The Ethics of Fake Twitter Accounts

The recent revelation of the identity of the @CormacCMcCarthy has us thinking the ethics of Twitter impersonation. 

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The recent revelation of the identity of @CormacCMcCarthy has us thinking the ethics of Twitter impersonation. McCarthy wasn't the first high profile celebrity to find himself impersonated onTwitter, of course. Wendi Deng, Jurgen Habermas and Rahm Emanuel and countless others come to mind. After we interviewed the fake McCarthy, commenter RiverVox asked, "I wonder about the legal issues. Does this constitute identity theft?" And another, Jon david Morgan was a little more certain. "So cheating is okay ...  What logic is there in that?"

So, just because a lot of people like to impersonate celebrities on Twitter, does that make it okay?

It is not unethical to impersonate someone on Twitter. Twitter has an authorization process for a reason. Peg Keller, another one of our commenters makes a good point. "There are thousands of fake accounts in other people's names on twitter which is why they have a validation process for celebrities. If an account is not verified, assume it's a fake," she writes. Though, as we saw with Wendi Deng, the verification process has its flaws. At the time, Twitter claimed that verifying that account was more of a copy-editing misstep, like, say, a blogger misplacing an apostrophe. Something we bloggers are willing to forgive.

When using the Internet we enter into some sort of social contract in which we accept that misrepresentations are the norm. "We're in a Foucauldian postmodern world where we can't tell the truth from fakery," explains Viktor Mayer-Schönberger, professor of internet governance at the Oxford Internet Institute. Or, for our more visual readers, the classic New Yorker cartoon to the right sums it up: We could all be dogs. As Internet dwellers know, it's very difficult for any faker to last long. It took only a few days for both the fake Deng and McCarthy to be outed.

And, as far as identity theft, some argue, these misrepresentations are a part of our own identities. The Internet is what Philosopher Slavoj Žižek called a "space of false disidentification." He writes:

Is this logic of disidentification not discernible from the most elementary case of 'I am not only an American (husband, worker, democrat, gay …), but, beneath all these roles and masks, a human being, a complex unique personality' (where the very distance towards the symbolic feature that determines my social place guarantees the efficiency of this determination), up to the more complex case of cyberspace playing with one's multiple identities?

A fake Twitter account is no different than an Elvis impersonator, whose identity consists both of the man beneath the costume and the costumed man. it just happens to be on the Web and not in a cheesy Las Vegas lounge.

And besides, to cry identity theft, as our commenter Morgan did, is reaching. Tweets don't lead to financial fraud, one of the definitions of identity theft according to the Federal Trade Commission.

It is unethical to impersonate someone on Twitter. Certain circumstances make Twitter impersonation more egregious than others. In the case of Dan Sinker impersonating Rahm Emanuel, some might argue, as a journalist he is held to certain ethical standards—even on the Internet. "Though Sinker is an assistant professor of journalism at Columbia College, he does not seem to understand that what he did was deceptive and unethical," wrote Casey Bukro in The Chicago Tribune. "The Society of Professional Journalists Code of Ethics encourages journalists to tell the truth. Sinker hid his own identity while posing as Emanuel and sending profanity-laced Tweets about the mayoral campaign."

The level of fakery legitimizes certain impersonators. For example, claiming to be a building or a cobra is clearly parody. There's no tricking of readers since these things would not have Twitter accounts. But the line blurs quickly. We tend to excuse and reward funny accounts, especially when they garner publicity and a following. Does Sinker's obvious Rahm farce makes his impersonation more ethical? The real Mayor Emanuel had a verified Twitter feed and we (the Internet) eventually outed Sinker.

Habermas—the real Habermas— argues that the truly anonymous are the most guilty. "It irritated me because the sender’s identity was a fake,” he told The Financial Times' Stuart Jeffries when discussing his Twitter impersonator. The person (or persons) who impersonated him made no indication of their own identity, so they crossed the line.

What we have learned. The Internet is a slippery place. No matter what ethics prevail there, its denizens will almost always figure out the truth.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.