Sock puppets, twitterjacking and the art of digital fakeryby THEUNHIVEDMIND, theunhivedmind.com
September 29th 2011
In the 1970s, Italian philosopher Umberto Eco took a trip through the US. He stopped off at wax museums, Las Vegas and Disneyland and found a dense, semiotic landscape of fakes that trumped the relatively boring desert of the real. At one point on his journey, Eco wrote: “When, in the space of 24 hours, you go (as I did deliberately) from the fake New Orleans of Disneyland to the real one, and from the wild river of Adventureland to a trip on the Mississippi, where the captain of the paddle-wheel steamer says it is possible to see alligators on the banks of the river and then you don’t see any, you risk feeling homesick for Disneyland, where the wild animals don’t have to be coaxed. Disneyland tells us that technology can give us more reality than nature can.”
I reread Eco’s Travels in Hyperreality recently when thinking about the manifold kinds of fakery in the digital age – fake Twitter feeds, phoney Facebook accounts, staged internet suicides, and those Wikipedia pages undetectably mined with lies. Today’s digital technology offers us even more chances than Disneyland ever could to revel in hyperreal – or perhaps that should read cyberreal – fakery. And we eagerly explore those opportunities for reasons about which Eco was unwittingly prescient when in 1975 he wrote “the frantic desire for the Almost Real arises only as a neurotic reaction to the vacuum of memories; the Absolute Fake is offspring of the unhappy awareness of a present without depth.”
Hence, perhaps, some of my favourite satirical fake Twitter feeds. Such as “Dick Cheney”: “Won a baboon on eBay. Condition as-is, but I’m going to use the little guy for parts anyway. Never know when the ticker might blow a valve.” Or “Osama Bin Laden”: “Door-tag from UPS Ground says hazardous materials can’t be delivered – curse the infidels! Off to UPS depot.” Or Transformers director “Michael Bay”: “No, I don’t know who ‘Fellini’ is and quite frankly I don’t give a shit.”
Hence, too, ITV’s risible recent booboo when it had to apologise for showing footage purporting to be from an IRA propaganda video that turned out to be footage from a video game. Its documentary Exposure was aimed at showing links between Gadaffi and the IRA. But what was hilarious about the story was not so much ITV’s apology, but what Marek Spanel, chief executive of the game’s developer Bohemia Interactive Studio, told games website Spong: “We consider this as a bizarre appreciation of the level of realism incorporated into our games.” The game looked so real that it could pass as something better than a fake.
Or, too, phoney Facebook pages such as the one purporting to be that of a teacher in Bloomington, Indiana and including inappropriate messages to students, such as: “Happy birthday, you have my permission to get intoxicated.” Now police are considering bringing charges of identity theft – if they can find the culprit.
Perhaps Jennie Bone should also ask the police about her identity theft. Earlier this year, her husband Peter Bone MP raised questions in the house about tweets purporting to be from his wife that were really concocted by some so-far unidentified satirist. The impersonator posted comments on Twitter such as, “All eyes on PMQs – will Mr Cameron do his best to give me pleasure today? I live in hope”; “Liberal euronut bias even in Daily Mail today – is nothing sacred? EU won’t bribe me with cheap phone bill”; and “Preparing stuffed marrow for dinner.”
Peter Bone told the Commons that his wife’s twitterjacker “could put something racist or pornographic on at any time”. Perhaps, but it seems unlikely: many fake Twitter feeds risk diverging significantly from the impersonated’s real views or tones only at the risk of losing coveted plausibility. Last year, for instance, the great German philosopher Jürgen Habermas was twitterjacked. At 5.38pm on 29 January, “Jürgen Habermas” tweeted: “It’s true that the internet has reactivated the grass-roots of an egalitarian public sphere of writers and readers.” At 5.40pm: “It also counterbalances the deficits from the impersonal and asymmetrical character of broadcasting insofar as…” At 5.41pm: “…it reintroduces deliberative elements in communication. Besides that, it can undermine the censorship of authoritarian regimes…” At 5.44pm: “But the rise of millions of fragmented discussions across the world tend instead to lead to fragmentation of audiences into isolated publics.”
I fed these tweets into Google and found that they were all taken from footnote three to the English translation of Habermas’s funtime 2006 paper Political Communication in Media Society: Does Democracy Still Enjoy an Epistemic Dimension? Somebody had tweeted Habermas’s real words without his imprimatur – hardly the hoax of the century. But Habermas told me later: “It irritated me because the sender’s identity was a fake.”
Neither fake Jennie Bone nor phoney Jürgen Habermas, though, was as contemptible as what Professor Orlando Figes did. The historian posted disparaging reviews of books by rivals on Amazon, using the alias “historian” – and thus making him guilty of what’s known as sock puppetry. His posts described Rachel Polonsky’s book Molotov’s Magic Lantern “hard to follow” and Robert Service’s Comrades “awful”, while praising his study of Soviet family life, The Whisperers, for leaving “the reader awed, humbled, yet uplifted”.
To do a spot of sock puppetry or twitterjacking is so technically easy that, for some, it becomes irresistible. It can boost your reputation and damage someone else’s – until that horrible moment you get found out. One of the lures doing so is, as Eco found, dull reality gets trumped by fakery. In dreary reality, the lesbian blogger in Damascus is an uninterestingly heterosexual American studying in Edinburgh.
It’s perhaps fitting that some of this fakery touched on the Middle East, since it was there that, according to the late French philosopher of the hyperreal Jean Baudrillard, one of the modern world’s biggest fakes, namely the first Gulf war, happened – or, rather, did not. Baudrillard argued that even though real violence happened in this alleged conflict, the US-led coalition was fighting a virtual war while the Iraqis tried to fight a traditional one – the two could not entirely meet. The suggestion that what happened in Kuwait and Iraq in 1990-91 amounted to war was therefore, Baudrillard contended, a fake: rather it was “an atrocity masquerading as war”.
This is an age in which technology makes it easier than ever to lie or concoct fakes, but, quite often, makes it harder than ever to prevent oneself being found out. Michael Bay recently digitally inserted old footage of a chase sequence from his 2005 flop The Island in Transformers: Dark of the Moon – but was quickly exposed by bloggers. The speed with which a fake is exposed is perhaps the only heartening aspect of this story.
In another example, adventurer Greg Mortenson was exposed for writing a bestseller that partially faked his experiences among Pakistani villagers. He was hardly the first faux memoirist; indeed, you could sense Guardian journalists shaking their heads sadly as they typed: “The troubled world of book publishing has become almost wearily accustomed to receiving yet more bad news of a critically acclaimed memoir that turns out to have been partly or entirely fabricated.”
Mortenson is author of the bestselling Three Cups of Tea, a memoir so convincing and moving that not only did the book sell 4m copies, but Barack Obama gave $100,000 of his Nobel prize to Mortenson’s Central Asia Institute. It tells of how he stumbled into the village of Korphe, where locals saved his life and inspired him to give something back by devoting himself to building schools in the area. Only one problem: according to fellow adventurer Jon Krakauer, who has written an ebook called Three Cups of Deceit, none of that happened. “The first eight chapters of Three Cups of Tea are an intricately wrought work of fiction presented as fact,” Krakauer said, accusing Mortenson of “fantasy, audacity and an apparently insatiable hunger for esteem”. The extent of the fake is still being unravelled.
A similar apparently insatiable hunger for esteem is, it is claimed, what motivated Independent journalist Johann Hari to plagiarise quotes for his interviews. In his initial mea culpa, Hari denied plagiarism: “When you interview a writer … they will sometimes make a point that sounds clear when you hear it, but turns out to be incomprehensible or confusing on the page. In those instances, I have sometimes substituted a passage they have written or said more clearly elsewhere on the same subject for what they said to me, so the reader understands their point as clearly as possible.”
That was only part of his transgression. He also used a sock puppet “David r” to edit his Wikipedia profile and malign his critics.
In one sense, perhaps, the Johann Hari who won many awards for his reporting is, like Disneyland’s fake New Orleans, a hyperreal construct. Possibly, the actual Johann Hari suspected his intolerable mediocrity and so re-presented himself through online fakery. And, just as Eco felt a nostalgia for the fake Mississippi paddle-steamer trip when going on the phoney Disneyland one, so the disgraced Johann Hari may feel nostalgia for his faked-up hyperreal self.
Hari is yet another example of what human beings do given half the chance – namely, present themselves as what they are not. Remember Second Life? Me neither, but apparently it allowed mediocre muppets (such as myself) to reinvent themselves as sexy avatars, as hyperreal projections of their fantasies. The digital age facilitates the creation of such alternative identities in cyberspace. Philosopher Slavoj Žižek in The Cyberspace Real writes: “The ‘real’ upon which cyberspace encroaches is thus the disavowed fantasmatic ‘passionate attachment’, the traumatic scene which not only never took place in ‘real life,’ but was never even consciously fantasized”.
Žižek writes that online we can create a “space of false disidentification”, by which he means we can put on a mask to reveal who we want to be if not who we truly are. “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?” Furthermore, online we can assume or play with fake identities – sadist, masochist, toxic blog-poster, cookie-jar-collecting weirdo – that we would never admit to or condone in the real world.
But Žižek spots a lie in this purported revelation of our true selves online: “[T]he much celebrated playing with multiple, shifting personas (freely constructed identities) tends to obfuscate (and thus falsely liberate us from) the constraints of social space in which our existence is caught.” Facebook friends may well not be real ones; losing yourself in your World of Warfare avatars’ lifestyle issues wastes valuable time you could spend changing your real world.
There is so much digital-age fakery that scepticism is readily engendered by anything that might seem phoney. When, for instance, Alex Thomas and Scott Jones were photographed snogging in the street during the Vancouver ice-hockey riots earlier this year, some thought the picture was fake. The shot looked so much like a photographer’s wish fulfilment, it had to be phoney. But it wasn’t.
Viktor Mayer-Schönberger, professor of internet governance and regulation at the Oxford Internet Institute, says: “The digital age is difficult. We’re in a Foucauldian postmodern world where we can’t tell the truth from fakery.”
Mayer-Schönberger argues that several things are happening in the digital age that undermine our ability to tell the fake from the real. “We see more and more of plagiarism in the digital age than in the analogue.” But what is more problematic, he argues, is when faked information or faked personas pose as authentic. “In George W Bush’s presidential campaign against John Kerry there was a report claiming Kerry’s military record was faked. The internet was very fast as revealing that document was a forgery. Because it was put online, several experts saw that the document was typed on a typewriter that didn’t exist in the 1970s and so the document was quickly exposed as a fake.”
This is heartening – the internet being the solution to, rather than cause of, fakery. But, for Mayer-Schönberger, the problem in the digital era is that we don’t have heuristics or rules of thumb to expose its characteristic fakes. “In the digital world, by contrast with the analogue, the idea of original and copy doesn’t apply any more.” He points out that Adobe now advertises its flagship upgrade project as being able to take two photographs of a person and to transfer a smile seamlessly from one image to the other. There are also digital services in the US that will remove your ex-partner from your photos. “Is that fakery? Yes. Is that ethically problematic? I don’t know, but legally it could be odd. Imagine your ex is charged with murder and she comes to you asking for those photos of your trip to Hawaii – which were taken at the same time as the murder took place somewhere else – as evidence to clear her name. But you’ve had her erased from the images. The technical tools are powerful but the social or legal or ethical tools can’t keep up.”
Cyberspace, he argues, is so riven with fakes and errors that institutions have been compelled to take remedial action to maintain their integrity. Take Wikipedia. It had a crowdsourcing model of information dissemination – whereby entries could be written and corrected by anybody, the hopeful aim being that this process would result in pages that were unimpeachably true (a beautiful dream, but beautiful nonetheless).
“But there was a problem,” says Mayer-Schönberger, “that there was a lot inaccuracy and fake information. Wikipedia needed to develop structures to overcome this problem and basically this has involved the return to an old hierarchy that the crowdsourcing model was supposed to overcome. Now you trust not the editor but the super-editor or the super-super editor. It’s hierarchy of trust.”
So what’s his prognosis for online fakery? “It’s going to get much worse because technical rules to stop it are often almost impossible to implement. When you send a jpeg you may have photoshopped it but there’s no way of the recipient determining what has been photoshopped. You could just say it has been cropped rather than that the content has been changed – somebody taken out of the picture, someone else put in – but it is almost impossible to prove. Increasingly, you can’t tell truth from lies in the digital age.”
Mayer-Schönberger and I conducted this interview on Skype while he was holidaying in the Austrian Alps. At one point, he held up his webcam to show me marvellous views of lakes and mountains. Or did he? Given what digital tools are capable of, perhaps that wasn’t Austria or Viktor Mayer-Schönberger at all.
• As the result of a production error, a number of the links in this article were broken. They have now been fixed.
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