Spoofs, lies and re-tweets: Is it safe to make parodies online?

Danny Boyle All it takes is a large number of followers and some retweets to make people think fake Twitter accounts are in fact real celebrities

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"Proud to be British," tweeted an understandably ecstatic @dannyboylefilm just as the director's Olympic opening ceremony drew to its triumphant close.

The simple yet succinctly heart-warming comment flew across the Twittersphere in a flash, lapped up by his legions of fans both old and new.

"Congratulations on an extraordinarily brilliant opening ceremony. It was a privilege to be there," responded BBC broadcaster and former England footballer Gary Lineker.

"Thank you @dannyboylefilm," said Martha Lane Fox, the UK government's "digital champion".

Even Ed Miliband, leader of the Labour party, hopped in. "Thanks for that fantastic opening ceremony," he wrote.

But the problem was, it wasn't Danny at all. The account owner admitted some days later that it was just a "fan account" - before disappearing into the ether, presumably having collapsed under the weight of thousands of Twitter users shouting: "How could you make us look so stupid?!".

The truth is we had little evidence to back up the idea that it ever was Danny, aside from an enormous number of followers and some well-timed celebrity re-tweets.

But in the age of Spoof 2.0, that was enough. All it takes is a moment of supposed realism for something - anything - to take off.

Bradley Wiggins Effortlessly cool and on Twitter - but Bradley Wiggins didn't snap back at Piers Morgan

Just ask British cyclist and newly anointed national hero Bradley Wiggins.

Many probably still believe Wiggins enjoyed a piercing dialogue on Twitter with Piers Morgan, in which the former newspaper editor turned US TV host said he was "disappointed" the gold medallist had not sung the national anthem while on the podium.

The reported retort: "I was disappointed when you didn't go to jail for insider dealing or phone hacking, but you know, each to his own."

Funny, maybe - but it never happened.

Blurred lines

From Charlie Chaplin's take on Hitler to the likes of the wonderfully crafted Fake Steve Jobs blog, parody, satire and outright make-believe have been a part of every popular culture movement to date.

But on the internet what were once clear lines between the real and the obviously untrue have become blurred - both in the eyes of the readers and in the eyes of the law.

"Once you're putting things into writing, it's not really a joke, is it?" says Athalie Matthews, from London-based law firm Bindmans.

"It's very hard to remove an electronic trace when things are up there. It's the same as publishing something in a newspaper as a joke - the same rules apply."

Start Quote

I had unwittingly chosen a subject almost beyond parody”

End Quote Glen Wilson Journalist who spoofed TV pundit Andy Townsend

In Danny Boyle's case none of the tweets were considered insulting or offensive, but it might not have stayed that way. With hundreds of thousands of deceived followers, a misplaced tweet could have had serious repercussions for his reputation.

Indeed, it's in cases of impersonations where the most risk is to be had.

Recently, someone set up @UnSteveDorkland - an account spoofing Steve Auckland, the chief executive of one of the UK's biggest newspaper companies, Northcliffe.

The account had fewer than 200 followers, but it irked the executive enough to prompt him to seek a court order to name the account holder. It wasn't that he couldn't take a joke, Mr Auckland said, but that the account was being used to harass his staff.

In court filings, Northcliffe accused the owner of @UnSteveDorkland of, among various things, hacking company computers - a charge he denied.

Initially, Twitter said it was obliged to comply with the order - after a lawyer took on his case pro bono, the account holder was able to get the subpoena quashed, and Northcliffe eventually backed down.

'Crazy situation'

To date, and despite claims of being out of both date and touch, the law has been consistent in dealing with issues such as these.

Media lawyer Ms Matthews recalls a case in 2008 that set something of a precedent in the UK.

It centred on a fake profile and group set up by a man to impersonate a former school friend by detailing incorrect information about his sexual orientation, as well as false claims suggesting his business owed people large sums of money.

It was, Ms Matthews says, "a crazy situation where he'd set up this profile in an angry moment and it led to a massive award of damages. The court took a very dim view of it". The man had to pay £22,000 plus costs.

As the popularity of Facebook and other networks continues to grow, malicious cases such as these have become more and more common.

Rules on parody

Twitter:

  • Twitter users are allowed to create parody, commentary, or fan accounts (including role-playing). Each user is responsible for the content that they provide. Accounts with clear intent to deceive or confuse are prohibited as "impersonation accounts" and subject to suspension. In order to avoid impersonation, an account's profile information should make it clear that the creator of the account is not actually the same person or entity as the subject of the parody/commentary.
  • Guidelines in full

Facebook:

  • On Facebook people connect and share using their real identities. This culture creates accountability and builds trust and safety for everyone. Claiming to be another person, creating multiple accounts, or falsely representing an organisation undermines community and violates Facebook's.
  • Facebook Community Standards

But where the law gets more ambiguous, and in turn more controversial, is with satire.

There are hundreds of examples, and sometimes the spoofs are hard to spot.

For real accounts belonging to public figures, Twitter has employed a verification process - a distinctive tick logo to show it has been checked out. However, this isn't foolproof - a fake account purporting to be Wendi Deng - wife of Rupert Murdoch - was given the verified tick, only to later be revealed as a hoax.

Another example involves football pundit Andy Townsend. The Irishman was wrongly quoted in the Independent newspaper as saying female officials should be encouraged into the sport, particularly "the attractive ones".

The quote had come from a spoof account that didn't bear Twitter's verified tick - and the newspaper had to print an apology.

Glen Wilson, the football journalist who had made the account, would later reflect: "The problem was that in Andy Townsend, a man who once remarked on radio 'Snakes on a Plane? What's that about?', I had unwittingly chosen a subject almost beyond parody."

And it is here where would-be spoofers and impersonators can find themselves in trouble, when their send-up is so good, or contains information so biting, that it gets beyond a joke.

"It just very much depends on what the people are doing and saying, and whether or not it's obviously a joke or whether it really is something that could really upset somebody," says Ms Matthews.

The secret to practising safe spoofing? Make it obvious - very obvious.

"Make it very clear it's not them, that it's not to be taken seriously," she adds.

"With the law concerning privacy, the fact it's all daft and untrue is irrelevant.

"Be very careful in what you say. You may defame others, you may misuse private information. You could get someone saying that you're passing yourself off as them. Think pretty hard about it."

Like so much on the internet, once something is put out there, it can never be taken back.

As the great Sir Winston Churchill once blogged: a spoof tweet can get halfway around the world before the truth has a chance to log into Facebook.

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