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.