I am the FakeMarkRolfe telling you that all FakeMarkRolfes on Twitter are liars. And so is the real Mark Rolfe @Marcjohnr.
I’ve started with a variation of the old liar’s paradox, not to explore logic and contradictions, but rather to highlight the problems of reputation and believability in that alternate reality known as the Twitterverse: a place far stranger than anything Captain Kirk might have encountered.
For in that data-defined nebula, a mere 140 characters seem capable of creating 140 million anxiety attacks with just a flick of the return key.
It was a week in which Kurt Vonnegut would say, “so it goes”, after Charlotte Dawson’s reputation suffered a monsoon of bilious spites spat out by a truck of twisted trolls, and where the Commonwealth Bank was infuriated by an anonymous person who impersonated a senior executive at its subsidiary BankWest and posted slanderous comments on Twitter.
These two cases displayed the shared themes of reputation, anonymity, character assassination and public prominence. The latter case involved impersonation, which contravenes the rules of the great Twitter god.
In line with the rules of role-playing and making it “clear that the creator of the account is not actually the same person or entity as the subject of the parody/commentary”, the creator behind this account states “I am NOT Will Ferrell! This is a parody account - Not in any way affiliated with the actor Will Ferrell”. So far, so clear; there was no pretence of impersonation “to be another person or entity in order to confuse or deceive”. Moreover, it’s a joke account that rides the movie persona of crassness crafted by Ferrell rather than ridiculing the man himself.
Then there is a parody that has a harder edge. @Godwin Grech publicly ridicules the civil servant who rose to fame in 2009 by faking an email that seemed to allege rorts, which he passed to Malcolm Turnbull. It is more ambiguous with its declaration: “Fake | Genius | Clock Polisher | 7/Eleven till-biotch| Nephew Aunt Zelda | Storied Tory | In Limbo | Bulldogs Booster| No Conviction | Bespectacled Visionary |”.
This anonymous feed shows that it doesn’t take much digital effort for one person who gained their 15 minutes of Warholian infamy to remain in an uncomfortable spotlight of over 25,000 followers. The 15 minutes doesn’t run out in this case, but is kept alive in the digital world. There isn’t much that the real Grech can do but ignore it.
On the other hand, earlier this year the anonymous spoof account @QantasPR raised the hackles of a certain Australian airline. After last year’s grounding of the fleet, a certain Australian airline was subjected to a torrent of social media criticism, which the spoof account rode in the best of satirical fashion. It had such jokes as “Not many know this, but every Qantas passenger seat has a copy of the Bible wrapped in a life jacket”.
Although the spoof maintained it was the “non-official, official broadcast channel for Australia’s national airline”, thus maintaining the semblance of parody, the airline scored an own goal by successfully seeking its suspension on Twitter. This was a classic example of the Streisand effect, in which the attempt to suppress some disagreeable information creates a greater public controversy than if it had been left alone. The PR flacks for the airline obviously didn’t think that people could tell the difference between the real and spoof accounts and so gained the very negative publicity they wished to avoid in the first place.
However, the incident demonstrated the desire of corporations like Qantas (as well as the CBA) to control social media at the same time that they expand their usage of it. Corporations want only the upside and not the downside, yet social media cuts both ways. They want the credibility that the publicity may bring, but not the attacks on that credibility that the media now provide.
Since Aristotle and the ancient Greeks understood their power in persuasion more than 2,400 years ago, there have been constant battles between promoters of character and credibility and their detractors, who employ the equally ancient device of character assassination.
In such conflict, satire — which often overlaps with but is not the same as parody — is a powerful aspect of persuasion which allows an author to pose a clash between the claims made by a target and their actual practice. Such incongruity allows for the counter-attack of hypocrisy. Hence, the charge against the Commonwealth Bank and Qantas is that their behaviours with customers don’t match their publicity.
The internet is making it easier for these battles to be waged — and combining them with the old device of anonymous authorship. In 17th and 18th century England, for example, political pamphlets were widely distributed and penned by an “Unknown Gentleman”, who thought it crass that his identity should be exposed.
Then came the development of advertising and marketing for the mass consumer industrial society in the waning years before World War I. Status, desire, aspirations and a whole range of personal and social values became attached to goods that now sneeded a market. A good’s brand became important.
Further developments since the 1970s have ushered in a change in the importance of branding. As a PriceWaterhouseCoopers report found, the value of the brand was once a small portion of its value; now it is often worth over 60% of its value. That is why iPads cost so much when they are produced for so little in China. A recent report by McKinsey claims that there is still some $900 billion to $1.3 trillion of value to be found by corporations on social media.
Since then, the story of the global economy has been the spectacular growth of the service sector, where reputation is everything because there is no tangible “thing” produced. Finance, including banks like the CBA, is an intrinsic (yet often despised) part of that service economy. Between 1990 and 2007, the service and manufacturing sectors comprised about 90% of foreign direct investment (FDI) stock around the globe. However they exchanged their relative proportions. Manufacturing declined from 41% to 27% of world FDI while services leaped from 48% to 64%. By the end of 2004 global trade was valued at US$1 trillion however the flows of global finance were worth US$262 trillion.
These are vast mind-boggling sums that cause corporations to salivate. But they won’t come easily from social media. Banks have moved from the pale grey background of financial support to other industries to a place in their own right in the foreground of the economy with a desire to constantly generate profits, which may come at the expense of what is good for others, the benevolence towards the community mentioned earlier as a crucial aspect of credibility.
Here lies the potential for clash and incongruity. Satire and its associates, parody and humour, will be essential weapons in that battle. As Aristotle was well aware, humour can be an aggressive weapon against a target if an audience can be made to laugh at it. As much as the corporations try to grab their share of the vast sums, their reputations will acquire greater scrutiny to match with their practices.