Political Twitter Parodies Are A Sad Excuse For Free Speech

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Is operating a social media account in the likeness and purported voice of a public official “parody” or “impersonation?”

Is there a reasonable limit on this behaviour that is, at best, “trolling” or, at worst, intentionally perpetuating libelous misinformation?

The recent proliferation of Twitter profiles bearing misspelled federal cabinet ministers’ names and using their official portraits has caused confusion among more casual users of the social media platform. Take, for example, several dubious accounts — from @CatheeMcKennnna to @CathrynnMcKenna — dedicated to mimicking the real Environment and Climate Change Minister Catherine McKenna (@CathMckenna).

There are some accounts that are clearly satire. Others gleefully blur the lines between parody and misinformation.

The defence of these accounts was framed well by Alberta UCP Leader Jason Kenney’s spokesperson: “Satire can and has been a valid form of political commentary.”

Freedom of speech?

True, it is “free speech” to proliferate accounts that portend to be ministers with a “parody” disclaimer — even if they shamefully mock their name — but it is still the wrong track to be on.

Defending so-called “parody” accounts has become a disturbing pet project of online conservatives in recent weeks, giving rise to an entire #ParodyCabinet.

We weren’t lacking in vitriol in politics before. Canadian politics is not for the thin-skinned, despite our reputation as a polite people. But we should expect better.

There are plenty of people who contact politicians — particularly women, persons of colour, LGBTQ and people with disabilities — repeatedly with a multitude of clever curse words, hate messages and even threats.

Exercise your right to criticize, but take a look inward to ask why you are doing it in such a harmful, potentially abusive way. Why do the operators of these accounts go to such great lengths to defend their right to be vicious behind a veil of someone else’s identity? Why not use their own voice?

While we can hope that people will do their research, and look into the bylines and history of messages from a particular account — Twitter is a platform developed for the quick resharing of bite-sized information. Seldom do threads and coherent understandings come out of the stream of 140-character messages mashed together into a single feed.

This degree of effort would be better devoted to knocking on doors for candidates they support or encouraging non-voters to get involved.

Weaponizing ‘parody’ to mislead

The accounts can use every other tweet to mislead. For example, @rgooodale, a recently suspended account impersonating Minister of Public Safety Ralph Goodale, made announcements and statements that were vaguely believable on first glance.

Verified accounts with the blue verified checkmark are ideal for identifying the true account or accounts of a politician, but the two-tier approach continues can create conversation silos, too.

Why would anyone defend the weaponization of misinformation via anonymity? What are the expectations and hopes we have for our political dialogue?

This degree of effort put into creating phony emails and accounts would be better devoted to knocking on doors for candidates they support or encouraging non-voters to get involved.

Online antics have real-life consequences

I’m also just ashamed in the lack of creativity. Attacking women who are cabinet ministers — yes, let’s be serious, most of the targets have been the women in cabinet, and it’s not just by chance — by pretending to be them and saying a more ridiculous version of what they said is old hat. Try some creative graphic design, hyperbole and old-fashioned self-depreciation instead.

Both sides of the political spectrum have employed this tactic. “Parody” accounts from the progressive persuasion in past have crossed the line as well, including a number that feigned to be former Prime Minister Stephen Harper in the aftermath the tragic, terrifying Oct. 22, 2014 shooting incident after his security procedures placed him in a broom cupboard during the event. That, too, demonstrated a severe issue with masquerading as others online.

This anonymous mockery of public officials verges on the more conspicuous approach we’ve seen from online conservative actors like Ontario Proud. Just take a look at the impact of $60,000 of third-party Ontario Proud ads placed during the recent Ontario election, and make your own judgments about the effect malicious online antics have on democracy.

#ParodyCabinet may be free speech, but it certainly isn’t doing our democracy any favours.

Again, these people should have names. They should be unafraid to put their names out there and then call their mothers to explain what they called mostly women in cabinet.

Taking action

Harper’s director of policy and Andrew Scheer’s former digital director have both defended the #ParodyCabinet as satire, labelling any criticism as an attack on free speech, propping up trolls and the more morbid elements of Twitter in the process.

Jack Dorsey, Twitter’s co-founder and CEO, is taking action against these accounts and took a stock hit this week as a result. It’s still the right thing to do.

I think, for starters, Twitter got it right back in 2014 when they forced notable VICE-published, Richard Feren produced @TOMayorFrod’s account to change its avatar to a different photo than the official portrait.

#ParodyCabinet may be free speech, but it certainly isn’t doing our democracy any favours. If you want to be a contrarian to the worrying state of this, go ahead and call it censorship. Time will tell why online disassociation from what you are saying about others is problematic.

Political leaders like Alberta’s Jason Kenney certainly should not enable it with any form of endorsement in the form of “liking” parody account tweets.

Canadians deserve better

While calling out individuals who troll is perhaps exactly what they want, this cheap discourse is just about where we set the standard for political engagement in this country.

Politicos of all stripes should be more creative and rise above the low-level identity impersonation that is flourishing under the guise of “parody.”

With the 2019 election on the horizon, we ought to be having a more nuanced conversation than a black-and-white distinction between parody and an attack on freedom of speech.

The people who step up to serve the public every week receive hundreds of notifications every day, each with new, terrible, disassociated messages coming from Twitter accounts lacking identifiable information for a constituent with something to voice.

Twitter doesn’t need to host this behaviour, and we should applaud them for taking action. In the meantime, we should keep #callingitout.

Shane Mackenzie, Ensight consultant and Liberal strategist.

(Published in HuffPost Canada on Thursday, July 12, 2018)