Mayor Ardis Twittergate and Online Satire

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Mayor Jim Ardis gave a press conference last night, with no questions from media, hot on the heels of the ACLU announcing they are suing the City of Peoria, IL.

Many Peoria residents who follow WMBD on Facebook saw the link in their newsfeed to the press conference video that WMBD recorded and uploaded to YouTube. Peoria Journal Star reporters and other media personnel also linked to the video and engaged in discussions of this situation on Facebook.

An ugly and unfortunate circumstance has now grown worse and it's hard to tell where this story is going to end. I have no expertise regarding law or city government, but I can provide some expertise on social media platforms and online community policies.

Let me explain a few things about Twitter, parody, verified accounts, and PR.

From Twitter Terms of Service:

“Impersonation: You may not impersonate others through the Twitter service in a manner that does or is intended to mislead, confuse, or deceive others.”

All Mayor Ardis had to do was notify Twitter about a violation of their Terms of Service. The fake Twitter account with the nasty statements would have been deleted, terminated, removed. All this controversy, the police raid, ACLU involvement, and quoting of foul tweet language in the press conference could have been avoided.

In the press conference video, the mayor says his identity was stolen. No, it was caricatured. He asks why the tweets never entered print or broadcast media. Because they were unseemly. By quoting them in the press conference, in a misguided attempt to arouse sympathy or elicit outrage, he does no service to his cause.

PR firms are used by CEOs and politicians to shield them and fine-tune the spin when a scandal or tricky situation arises. To attempt to dance through the mine field on your own can have disastrous results.

This is why a media celebrity, CEO, tech pundit, music artist, film star, or public official gets a Verified Account on Twitter, so people will know which account is the real, authentic person. It is a good idea to have a profile on all the most popular social networks, to prevent enemies or people who are trying to be comedians from creating an account in your name. It's a form of online squatting. Staking a claim to your name and protecting your legacy.

This threat of impersonation is also why you should never delete your Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, or other account. A malicious person might start a new account in your name, spam your friends and colleagues with friend requests or invitations to connect, and then spew forth crazy, filthy content supposedly coming from you.

Twitter has a special antidote to this. It's called the Verified Account.

If a Twitter account is not labeled Verified Account (with a large check mark), people will be skeptical about it. There have been many fake, satirical, parody Twitter accounts for celebrities, tech gurus, CEOs, etc. and they are NOT labeled parody. Sometimes they are called The Fake Steve Jobs or the Anti-Bill Gates or similar, but often they just use the real name.

False but comical “news report” websites are sometimes labeled satire, but often these sites have buried the disclaimer at the bottom of their Home page or in the About page. Other times, you have to surmise that the “news” is just Mad magazine or Saturday Night Live-type humor by recognizing the absurdity of the content.

The Onion has no such satire notification and poses as legitimate, with “America's Finest News Source” as their tagline. “America's Funniest Pseudo News Source” would be more accurate. Their latest article is entitled “Resigning House Leader Cantor Reflects on All the Accomplishments He Thwarted.”

The Daily Currant has no indication that is a humor website, but in the HTML code the title tag, which shows up in Google search results listings, says “The Daily Currant - The Global Satirical Newspaper of Record.” On the website itself, what users see in their browser, there is no warning to not take it seriously.

News Biscuit has this slogan: “News Written By You.” A recent article is entitle “Egypt Swears in New Pharaoh for the Next 4,00O Years.” Their disclaimer, a link in the footer at the bottom of the Home page says they endeavor to ensure the accuracy of the reports. It's not clear that it's a satire site. You have to comprehend this based on the very silly content.

Comedy Central has a website called Indecision. Its tagline is “News, Politics, and Other Jokes.”

Private Eye, which is referred to as the British version of The Onion, seems legitimate on the Home page, but does carry this message on the About page: “...offers a unique blend of humour, social and political observations and investigative journalism.”

Google News participates in the trending craze of parody and comedy news, with this notice: “To offer a diversity of opinions and content, Google News does contain some satire, often humorous or hyperbolic stories with the intention of social commentary. We identify these types of articles with the tag (satire), so that you'll know when you're reading a satirical article.”

It is indeed unfortunate that the City of Peoria did not have public relations experts review the ACLU news and formulate a better response to it. Apparently, the City of Peoria has no communications staff and not much going on in social media, just a steady stream of press releases. This is unfortunate. Cities, companies and individuals must adapt to the changing media landscape, for if they do not, they may bitterly regret it.

It is time to re-examine how taxpayer funds are invested. Perhaps less money to developers, especially in light of the problems with the Pere Marquette and other money-losing projects, and more money to real municipal needs is in order. Filling pot holes, for example.

A college student intern with a passion for social media would have known how to report the fake Twitter account that pretended to be Jim Ardis. Anyone reading the inflammatory tweets would know the account was bogus.

Pubic relations and social media management are required for any large organization. Much can be done to prevent or remedy negative social network information dissemination through deft maneuvering of content and audience building. There are also reputation management companies who specialize in counteracting negative online publicity.

Here's a website that explains why and how a city should use social media for information dissemination and for active participatory conversations with engaged constituents:

Parody and satire Twitter accounts do not have to be labeled as such. Neither are they stealing an identity. I am also relatively sure that a public official cannot sue for defamation of character or libel in a case like this. Mayor Ardis even mentioned taking action against the “hosting” of the fake Twitter account, which I assume means suing Twitter.

Another thing I'm sure Mayor Ardis and his team did not think about is the tendency of musicians to sample audio and use vocal statements out of context. Already there is at least one music video that has excerpted the “choice phrases” of his news conference and put them into a music video with satirical images of the mayor. This was accomplished just a few hours after the news conference. I refrain from posting the link to it.

See the Mayor's press conference video uploaded by local WMBD news outlet.

WARNING: Video is unfit for work or family viewing.


About the Author
Steven Streight is a man of many skills. He’s a talented writer, web content developer, internet marketing consultant and photographer. He’s a trustee on the Peoria Historical Society, a member of SCORE Peoria and the author of the Peoria technology history book, “Bicycle Fever.” In his downtime, he’s hangs out with his beloved Min Pin and tries to get some rest. Considering how involved he is in the community, it sounds like he could use as much as he can get.