Obama’s Twitter account might not be who you think

Posted at 5:54 AM, Apr 10, 2013

(CNN) — Barack Obama is a busy man, what with budget negotiations, gun control issues, international crises and the ever-present back-and-forth political foolery of Washington.

So why should he send out tweets on Twitter?

According to an article on the Atlantic Wire, he doesn’t anymore.

“All of the president’s named social media accounts have been handed over to a non-partisan, not-for-profit group that isn’t overly concerned if you didn’t notice the transition,” Philip Bump wrote in the article, published Monday.

Some of this is, of course, Washington hairsplitting. Though @BarackObama has existed since his candidate days in 2007, most of the posts have been handled by his staff. (Occasionally, the president has posted something himself, tweets denoted by his “-bo” signature in the tweet.)

The account, which has 29 million followers, has now been handed over to Organizing for Action, an offshoot of the president’s 2012 campaign operation.

It’s as if, Bump wrote, “the president, mid-conversation, handed his phone to a telemarketer who does a great Obama impression. Or, to be more accurate, one telemarketer — the campaign — handed the phone to another one.”

There are legal issues involved — the presidential campaign was set up according to one set of guidelines, and Organizing for Action functions under another — but there’s a larger ethical point as well: Should we believe that tweets are actually coming from the person who owns the Twitter account?

After all, even though Twitter takes pains to classify some accounts as “verified” — a service they do proactively, according to the Twitter website — who knows who’s really on the other end? It’s an old Internet conundrum, best described by the classic New Yorker cartoon caption: “On the Internet, nobody knows you’re a dog.”

Transparency is best

Jerry Lanson, a journalism professor at Emerson College in Boston, puts it simply: Honesty — or, at least, transparency — is the best policy.

“If you’re transparent you’re off the hook,” he says. If the Obama administration is up front that the account has been farmed out, then it’s up to the public to decide if they want to follow @BarackObama.

However, Michael Zimmer, director of the Center for Information Policy Research at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, adds that it’s “reasonable to assume” that the views of @BarackObama are those of the president, and not some affiliated activist group.

“We’d presume that the message is ‘from him’ in the sense that someone discussed/cleared with him the kind of content that would be communicated through that channel,” he says. It’s “much like the White House press secretary: that person speaks on behalf of the White House.”

It can be difficult to tell whether the real person or some PR rep is behind the Twitter account of some public figures. All Twitter offers is their “verified” symbol. But judging by their tone, some of the most popular feeds appear to come straight from the mouths of the famous, including Shaquille O’Neal (@SHAQ), Lena Dunham (@lenadunham) and Steve Martin (@SteveMartinToGo).

Of course, Twitter transparency comes at many levels. Many public figures’ accounts have millions of followers, and followers can be purchased inexpensively if someone wants to run up the numbers. Other accounts are “bots” — computer-generated — inactive, or downright fake.

Celebrities have been slammed for these practices, and some accusations of Twittery fakery flew during last year’s presidential campaign.

Pranksters have also spoofed many well-known Twitter accounts. Over the weekend, megachurch pastor Joel Osteen was the victim of an elaborate hoax that included a fake website, phony headlines and sham Twitter account, all maintaining he had renounced his faith. Osteen’s staff actually responded to the hoax on his real Twitter account.

Twitter allows parody accounts, as long as the joke is clear. But Twitter’s impersonation policy states that “accounts portraying another person in a confusing or deceptive manner may be permanently suspended.”

‘You never really know who you’re dealing with’

It’s yet another sign that the Internet remains the Wild West, despite moves to civilize it.

In 1992, the Computer Ethics Institute, a Washington-based public policy organization, actually released a “Ten Commandments of Computer Ethics,” many of which lend themselves to Twitter users. Among them: “Thou shalt not use a computer to harm other people,” “Thou shalt not use a computer to bear false witness” and “Thou shalt always use a computer in ways that insure consideration and respect for your fellow humans.” However, like the 1.0 version handed down to Moses on Mount Sinai, they’ve been frequently abused.

Which is why, cautions Lanson, it always pays to be skeptical.

“We live in (an Internet) world that’s both instantaneous and a mirage,” he says. “You never really know who you’re dealing with.”

Perhaps another president should take heed. In an interview that aired Monday night, Stephen Colbert convinced Bill Clinton to take up Twittering. The 42nd president’s handle? “PrezBillyJeff.” (“President Clinton” and “William Jefferson Clinton” were taken, Colbert maintained.)

Colbert helped Clinton dictate his first tweet to the account, which already has more than 60,000 followers. But since then, three other tweets, humorous posts on Ayn Rand and “Air Force Seven,” have been published — and deleted.

Watch your back, Mr. President.

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