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‘Twittering’ politics: the case of the fakes

By Nicholas Hookway - posted Monday, 22 March 2010

Are politicians “real”? It appears not. In the simulated world of “Twittering politics” the fake Penny Wong Tweets about how Kate Ellis never lends her clothes, or Tasmanian MP Lara Giddings jokes about the “inhumanity” of attending school fetes. It’s banal and irreverent sure, but does it count as “politics”?

Twitter, for those of you not keeping up (and lets face it, that’s pretty understandable considering the incessant speed of cultural and technological change), is one of the latest developments in online or web-based culture. It is a micro-blogging service that enables internet users to upload short and brief text based updates, called “tweets”. As the site declares, Twitter “lets you keep in touch with people through the exchange of quick, frequent answers to one simple question: What’s happening?” Twitter takes what Evan Williams described as the “frequency, brevity and personality” of blogs and supercharges them - well, at least the frequency and brevity part!

Like its popular “Web 2.0” siblings Facebook and YouTube, Twitter is part of a new landscape of participatory or user-created social media that allows users to become not just “consumers” but “producers” of media content. While most “tweets” produce media that centre on the “I” dramas of everyday social life, they are also being cleverly appropriated to create fake and satirical political profiles. The classic Australian example is the simulated Stephen Conroy created by Telstra employee Leslie Nassar. Nassar lampoons Conroy, particularly on government policies such as internet filtering and censorship. Nassar ended up finding himself in hot water with Telstra over his blog and was temporarily sacked for his transgressions.


So how do we interpret the development of fake MPs online? For some the fake MP phenomenon might be interpreted as part and parcel of the contemporary “trivialisation” of politics - as the demise of rational and reasoned debate - or perhaps even further evidence of “moral panic” over the internet as a tool of deceptive fakery. You know the line: the internet is a dark-alley for pedophiles, fraudsters and acne ridden pizza eating hermits.

Perhaps for those more media theory inclined types, the fake MP phenomenon will be read as another instance of what Jean Baudrillard - French media theorist extraordinaire - called “hyperreality”. That is, a condition in which endless media saturation renders life a “copy of a copy”; a disturbing scenario where you can no longer distinguish the “real” from the “simulated”.

Like Neo in The Matrix - or believers of not so recent internet sensation Clare Werbeloff (aka the “chk chk boom” girl) - we can’t tell the difference between the real and the fake. On this logic Britney Spears isn’t a “faker” she’s just a believer in the artistic merit of “hyperrealism”.

I think we are better off reading the fake MP phenomenon not as the denigration of politics, the evils of internet anonymity or the “end of the real” but as a sign of good old fashioned democratic participation. This might be the faux Nick Minchin accusing the real Stephen Conroy of confusing the “proper” moral role of church and state - “it is the domain of churches, not government, to set the moral tone for the country” - or the fake Nathan Rees wondering if “exaggerating really gives you hemorrhoids?”

“Twittering” politics also brims with insight into how PR and spin are influencing the machinations of Australian politics. K Rudd, for instance, makes an impressive faux “impression” in Twitterdom. He writes: “Just got one of my Labro's to snap this new publicity shot of me. Check this shit out, ladies:”. Following the link, a “Twitpic” opens of our beloved Prime Minister wielding electricity between his hands that could only rival emperor Palpatine. Yes, Kevin may be the master media manipulator but “the citizenry” is on to his particular brand of political PR (um, electricity!). The polls tells a similar story. Twitter shows how we are not “duped” by political spin but can actively decode it and spit it back out again as political satire.

So when I read in social and political theory about how a vibrant “public sphere” is being threatened by the mass media, by political PR, by the use of news management and consultants, by the “hidden machine of political advertising” (Young, 2005) my political cockles can’t help but be warmed by what’s happening with the construction of fake online MP personas. I know, I know, new social media doesn’t save the world, and yes, we shouldn’t fetishise it as some kind of technological utopia, but you can’t help but sit up and take notice of how it is influencing contemporary political participation. The fake MP phenomenon is not about the trivilisation of politics, internet fraud or even high flaluting theories of hyper-reality but it’s a good news story about how participatory media can create new and different kinds of “public sphere” -it's about how we find the “real” in the “fake”.

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About the Author

Nicholas Hookway is a lecturer in the School of Sociology and Social Work at the University of Tasmania. His interests lie in social theory and cultural sociology.

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