Unethical Social Media at its Worst: Rob Ford’s Fake Twitter Account

The Globe and Mail, Maclean’s magazine, CTV, the Torontoist and blogTO all ran stories in the last day, alleging that staff of Toronto’s newly-annointed mayor elect, Rob Ford, used a fake Twitter account to deceive a voter into handing over incriminating materials during the campaign.

According to the reports, Ford was recorded offering to buy prescription painkillers on the street for a voter suffering from fybromyalgia, and tapes of the call were sent to the Toronto Star.

According to blogTO:

“In fear that the Star would release the information, Nick Kouvalis, a key Ford campaign member, tasked Macdonald with getting a handle on the situation. According to Maclean’s, “Kouvalis pulled aside Fraser Macdonald, the team’s 24-year-old deputy communications director–whose prior political experience consisted largely of his involvement in a model parliament club at Queen’s University–and told him to ‘do everything you can to get that tape….'”

Fraser Macdonald allegedly established a fake Twitter account (@QueensQuayKaren), with a bio that claimed ‘Karen’ was a “downtown Toronto gal who likes politics, my cat Mittens, and a good book,” and pretended to be a supporter of rival candidate George Smitherman. They allege he then befriended the person who made the tapes in order to get a copy. After receiving the tape, the campaign leaked it to the Ford-friendly Toronto Sun themselves, rather than having the less friendly Star release it at a time when it could be more damaging.

The fake Twitter account then continued its activity under the guise of being a supporter of rival candidate George Smitherman for the remainder of the campaign, posting messages including:

“I can see Ford’s appeal. I don’t agree with him on everything, but the man speaks the truth. George needs to improve on that.”
“@ThomsonTO that bitchy attitude sure got you far, Sarah [a rival candidate]. It’s funny that I once respected you. Now you’re just a total embarrassment”

Perhaps not surprisingly, the account was deleted shortly after the mainstream media caught wind of the deception. Fortunately, the Torontoist captured all of the tweets from the account beforehand prior to this happening. You can see them in their entirety here.

As a digitial communicator, I find myself actually getting angry when I think about this kind of tactic. I have no issues with the way the campaign leaked the tape once they had it, but the way they allegedly went about getting it is just disgusting.

Let’s go over this again – according to these reports, Rob Ford’s staff:

  1. Set up a fake account pretending to support the other candidate
  2. Mislead a voter into handing over incriminating material to them

As if this wasn’t bad enough, Macdonald actually gloated publicly about the stories today, telling people to get over it:

Is this the kind of behaviour we should expect from our elected officials or their staff? As Dave Jones and John Leschinski pointed out, political campaigns have for a long time populated the Letters to the Editor sections of newspapers with letters under false names. Similarly, cynics will point out that politicians of all stripes have broken promises.

Consider: companies have been hung out to dry for years for this kind of deceptive behaviour when the consequences are far less substantial.

This isn’t just about politics. I don’t care which side of the political spectrum people fall; deceptive and deceitful tactics should be out of bounds. Given the uber-high standard to which we hold companies in the social space, I would hope that people would consider this kind of behaviour to be just as despicable.

If this is the kind of behaviour that is considered normal for the people we trust to run our governments, then our moral compasses are pointed in entirely the wrong direction.

I’m not sure if the City of Toronto’s code of conduct for council members technically applies during an election, or if the city’s Integrity Commissioner has jurisdiction over the actions of the staff of election candidates, but if either applies then I’d hope that this isn’t the last we hear of this.

35 comments
Michelle
Michelle

I do agree that there should be a code of ethics on social media that should be used in elections, but it shouldn’t only focus on social media.
In America right now, midterm elections are here and the airwaves and swapped with attack ads and misinformation that comes with it. There should be consequences for politicians for misleading the public, but besides this point- it just reminds us once again how powerful social media can be, and how everyone should be wary that not everyone they are talking to is who they say they are online.

Michelle
Michelle

I do agree that there should be a code of ethics on social media that should be used in elections, but it shouldn’t only focus on social media. In America right now, midterm elections are here and the airwaves and swapped with attack ads and misinformation that comes with it. There should be consequences for politicians for misleading the public, but besides this point- it just reminds us once again how powerful social media can be, and how everyone should be wary that not everyone they are talking to is who they say they are online.

Stephen
Stephen

This example again shows the power of Twitter and how it can be very effectively misused. Without intervention social media can be easily used very unethically as is the case here. The issue is certainly why nothing has been done to counteract this. Social media seems to be vulnerable to this type of misuse, however the consequences are very little at present. Whilst this kind of behavior would result in legal wrangling in the offline world, it is quite concerning that on Twitter little to no action seems to be taken.

Stephen
Stephen

This example again shows the power of Twitter and how it can be very effectively misused. Without intervention social media can be easily used very unethically as is the case here. The issue is certainly why nothing has been done to counteract this.

Social media seems to be vulnerable to this type of misuse, however the consequences are very little at present. Whilst this kind of behavior would result in legal wrangling in the offline world, it is quite concerning that on Twitter little to no action seems to be taken.

Http://I-sight.com
Http://I-sight.com

Sad. Saddest part is that after the fact the guy still thinks he "outsmarted the competition" - that means no one in the organization took him aside to mention that perhaps it wasn't the brightest idea. Kinda funny that the fake persona was a book reading cat lover from queens quay though. I suppose politics has always been about media manipulation, but to me this is just downright deceiptful - not manipulative.

Ian Gordon
Ian Gordon

I wish I could say unbelievable, but I can't. I completely agree with you, and I wish this sort of thing surprised me. Maybe it's because I'm American but nothing that happens in political campaigns surprises me anymore.

The higher the stakes, the more you can be sure that the people involved in the campaign will stop at nothing to gain an advantage. No policy or code of conduct will change that.

Ian Gordon
Ian Gordon

I wish I could say unbelievable, but I can't. I completely agree with you, and I wish this sort of thing surprised me. Maybe it's because I'm American but nothing that happens in political campaigns surprises me anymore. The higher the stakes, the more you can be sure that the people involved in the campaign will stop at nothing to gain an advantage. No policy or code of conduct will change that.

MrTVTL
MrTVTL

This is what I love about the public in general...if someone in the mainstream media (including Canada's national propaganda rag, Maclean's) publishes it, people will eat it up and interpret it as gospel truth. This isn't as cut and dried as it appears, nor is Fraser MacDonald's cryptic comment (if, of course, that is his real name).

The question no one is asking is "who recorded the phone call in the first place?" If The Star had done so, then the right thing to do would have been to put it on The Star's website ASAP rather than hanging on to it, in order to kill the momentum that Ford's campaign was gaining as soon as possible...assuming, of course, they were as anti-Ford as they made themselves out to be (and I never really bought into that myself).

If Ford had recorded it, and one of his staffers "accidentally" leaked it to find and exploit weak points in his competition and/or the anti-Ford journalists, mission accomplished and then some. The anti-Ford camp got so hung up on issues such as this one and 11-year-old DUIs and pot-smoking that the camp actually humanized a candidate and made him more relatable to the average Joe/Jane, while simultaneously ignoring Ford's track record in office pertaining to both spending and handling of constituents (which is precisely what got him into the Mayor's office).

Personally, I think the whole thing is pretty funny. It has all the elements of a crowd work, and the people who think they're the smartest are getting worked the most. In other words, this isn't about unethical use of social media; it's about manipulating a segment of the population to jump through hoops. And guess what? You guys probably did exactly what Ford wanted.

(Not written by a Ford campaigner, staffer, or even an eligible Toronto voter in this election...just a very amused outside observer. I don't even have a Facebook Connect or a Twitter or a Digg or a Reddit or anything else in that regard).

MrTVTL
MrTVTL

This is what I love about the public in general...if someone in the mainstream media (including Canada's national propaganda rag, Maclean's) publishes it, people will eat it up and interpret it as gospel truth. This isn't as cut and dried as it appears, nor is Fraser MacDonald's cryptic comment (if, of course, that is his real name). The question no one is asking is "who recorded the phone call in the first place?" If The Star had done so, then the right thing to do would have been to put it on The Star's website ASAP rather than hanging on to it, in order to kill the momentum that Ford's campaign was gaining as soon as possible...assuming, of course, they were as anti-Ford as they made themselves out to be (and I never really bought into that myself). If Ford had recorded it, and one of his staffers "accidentally" leaked it to find and exploit weak points in his competition and/or the anti-Ford journalists, mission accomplished and then some. The anti-Ford camp got so hung up on issues such as this one and 11-year-old DUIs and pot-smoking that the camp actually humanized a candidate and made him more relatable to the average Joe/Jane, while simultaneously ignoring Ford's track record in office pertaining to both spending and handling of constituents (which is precisely what got him into the Mayor's office). Personally, I think the whole thing is pretty funny. It has all the elements of a crowd work, and the people who think they're the smartest are getting worked the most. In other words, this isn't about unethical use of social media; it's about manipulating a segment of the population to jump through hoops. And guess what? You guys probably did exactly what Ford wanted. (Not written by a Ford campaigner, staffer, or even an eligible Toronto voter in this election...just a very amused outside observer. I don't even have a Facebook Connect or a Twitter or a Digg or a Reddit or anything else in that regard).

Justin Kozuch
Justin Kozuch

A few points here, Dave.

1. Given that this we're speaking about Rob Ford here, arguably the most controversial and divisive politician in the history of Toronto... are you surprised his campaign resorted to this behaviour?

2. I couldn't agree more with you, as well as Kevin. It won't be long now; the code of conduct for members of Toronto's council will be rewritten to include acceptable behaviour on social network. If this doesn't happen so; what can and should be done to educate those who write this policy as to the importance of disclosure, transparency and honest on Twitter.

From our elected officials, we should expect no less.

Justin Kozuch
Justin Kozuch

A few points here, Dave. 1. Given that this we're speaking about Rob Ford here, arguably the most controversial and divisive politician in the history of Toronto... are you surprised his campaign resorted to this behaviour? 2. I couldn't agree more with you, as well as Kevin. It won't be long now; the code of conduct for members of Toronto's council will be rewritten to include acceptable behaviour on social network. If this doesn't happen so; what can and should be done to educate those who write this policy as to the importance of disclosure, transparency and honest on Twitter. From our elected officials, we should expect no less.

Kevin Richard
Kevin Richard

I guess its the case that something like this has to happen to wake people up to the potential misuse of the web as an election campaign channel. Hopefully this opens some eyes at organizations like Elections Canada so they can start building policies and regulations regarding online communications in future campaigns.

Kevin Richard
Kevin Richard

I guess its the case that something like this has to happen to wake people up to the potential misuse of the web as an election campaign channel. Hopefully this opens some eyes at organizations like Elections Canada so they can start building policies and regulations regarding online communications in future campaigns.

Trackbacks

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