Bluefield Daily Telegraph, Bluefield, WV

October 11, 2012

Fake political Tweets lead to police investigation


CNHI

— HUNTSVILLE, Texas -- Twitter accounts that satirize local politicians are causing a dust storm in this East Texas city, and state police are investigating who's behind them.

Twitter accounts with handles such as @PhonyDonJohnson and @FakeKeithOlson spoof the inner-thoughts of eight of nine City Council members, including Mayor Mac Woodward. The accounts satirize comments made in meetings and voting records. Some ridicule councilors' religion and personal histories, or suggest sexual tension between City Council members.

Most are labeled as phony or declare themselves unaffiliated with actual elected officials. The most popular accounts -- with more than 100 "followers" each -- are the Twitter doppelgängers of At-large Councilor Keith Olson and Mayor Pro Tem Don Johnson, both of whom face opponents in the Nov. 6 election.

Created in July 2011, the account with the handle @FakeKeithOlson declares in its profile: "I'm not the sharpest tool in the shed." He gets a separate account that animates his facial hair, @OlsonMustache.

The @PhonyDonJohnson account declares in its profile he "does his part everyday to look out for his own best interest."

Johnson said he is “frustrated” by the accounts, which he described as vulgar and immoral. “But I don’t know what you can do about them,” he said.

Olson said the tweets recall a negative political atmosphere of the city's past.

“I think they are tasteless, they show poor judgment and poor character," he said. "(But) I can’t say whether they’re illegal."

Satirical accounts are commonplace on Twitter, the micro-blogging platform where users express themselves in bursts of 140 characters or less. Texas Gov. Rick Perry has several phony Twitter accounts. The @PimpBillClinton account reports more than 284,000 followers, and @Queen_UK has nearly 1 million.

Walker County District Attorney David Weeks -- himself the target of a spoof account @DavidWeePeeks -- said he's heard complaints from several City Council members and asked the Texas Rangers to investigate.

He declined to say what law the accounts might break. But Katie Newman, the 24-year-old author of one such account, said a Ranger told her he was investigating possible violations of an online impersonation law enacted in September 2009.

That law makes it a third-degree felony to represent oneself as someone else online "with the intent to harm, threaten, intimidate or defraud." The crime is punishable by a sentence of up to 10 years in prison and a fine up to $10,000.

"If the grand jury is going to indict me for something like this, they need to indict Tina Fey for making millions impersonating (former vice presidential candidate) Sarah Palin," said Newman. "Political satire has been going on for hundreds of years, and with modern technology and social networking there’s just new and creative ways to do it."

State police representatives did not return phone calls seeking comment.

Newman, who ran unsuccessfully for the City Council, is behind an account with the handle @NotFitch, which lampoons Councilor James Fitch. He is running unopposed on the Nov. 6 ballot.

“I’m interested in Huntsville politics and political satire," said Newman. "Fitch is an outstanding council member, and it had nothing to do with harming his character."

Newman said the fake accounts can't be taken as anything but satire.

Fitch, who is deputy chief of police for Sam Houston State University, agreed his online shadow is a parcel of public life.

“As much as I like to be a private person, as soon as I signed up for council I knew my business was going to be public," he said.

Huntsville lawyer Bryan Cantrell, who has represented the local newspaper in First Amendment issues, said the online impersonation law was not meant to punish political satire, which is protected by the First Amendment.

“There is no actual intent to impersonate or use false pretenses to convince others that the author is actually the person being lampooned," he said. "No reasonable reader would believe that these sites are the actual individuals.”

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Details for this story were reported by the Huntsville, Texas, Item.