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.

25 Responses toUnethical Social Media at its Worst: Rob Ford’s Fake Twitter Account

  • 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.

    • I’d like to think so, although I’m not hopeful in the short term as it generally takes public sector rules years to catch up. If things do change, I just hope there isn’t an over-reaction (knee-jerk reaction is often to ban things) as there’s lots of potential for genuine engagement rather than the cynical manipulation alleged here.

  • 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.

    • Hey Justin — I’d think that activities like the ones alleged here are ones that should be covered and prohibited by any half-decent training program, and by any good social media policy (standard approaches to disclosing affiliations would cover it).

      • Agreed. What is most surprising is that his campaign, based on having for respect for taxpayers, seemingly has gone against that by deceiving the general population, and then bragging about it as openly as Mr MacDonald has.

        I’d like to hope that future candidates take this important lesson into account before doing something as odious and irresponsible as this.

        Thanks for posting your thoughts around this; it’s an important issue.

  • MrTVTL
    ago10 years

    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).

    • Hi “MrTVTL”… firstly, thanks for your comment – I appreciate it.

      All of these questions are easily enough answered – the Toronto Sun confirmed that Doneit-Henderson recorded the conversation, and that the Toronto Star was first looped in when they were copied on an email to Ford’s campaign manager. There are also plenty of reasons for the Star not to immediately publish the story (chief among them an opportunity to publish it at a time when it could get the most attention).

      None of that really matters, though. The lack of integrity and flagrant disregard for ethical conduct that is alleged aren’t excused by any possible answers to those questions. What’s more, if the situation you’re suggesting is in fact true (which I doubt) then that would show an even greater level of deception, and would be even worse in my opinion.

      Make sense?

      • Mrtvtl
        ago10 years

        That’s kind of my point, davefleet. It doesn’t make sense.

        Why would a man with fibromyalgia presumably looking for help from an elected official take the time to record a call? Most people in chronic pain are not rational thinkers, through no fault of their own of course. That makes no sense.

        Why would a Twitter user give potentially incriminating evidence against someone to a complete stranger? That makes no sense.

        If we assume that The Star wanted to maximize the impact of the story, then why didn’t they release it as soon as possible, NOT allow Ford the time to react, and allow for the story to spread, thereby maximizing the impact of the story and minimizing Ford’s momentum? The optimal time to release the story would have been BEFORE Ford started gaining traction so that he would have to answer it at every debate (because you know every candidate would attack Ford based on those grounds), not after. Again…this doesn’t make sense.

        The basic premise of the story makes no sense. It smelled like a work when it was first reported, and it smells like one now. And if it is, it was a pretty gutsy move on the part of the Ford camp. I don’t think it was necessary, and I wouldn’t have personally pulled such a move off if I were running for mayor. But the more I look at the situation, the more it looks like a work.

      • Dave, what do you mean when you suggest the Star shouldn’t publish the story immediately but should wait for “an opportunity to publish it at a time when it could get the most attention.”?

        • I can only speculate on why they didn’t publish it immediately, but the stories I’ve linked to suggest that they were looking to release the information towards the climax of the campaign, when more people were paying attention to it (and hence when it would sell more papers and, potentially, do more damage to the campaign)

  • 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.

  • Http://I-sight.com
    ago10 years

    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.

  • 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.

    • Quite honestly, all of this talk about regulating twitter is both foolish and impractical. When are people going to get used to the idea that social media and influence is all about generating bias – whether you are promoting a brand or a candidate.
      Politics is not for the faint of heart – these kind of dirty tricks have always being going on, the difference with social media is that the shenanigans are exposed.

      • Three points in response:

        1. I don’t know if anyone is talking about regulating Twitter. However, lots of organizations have guidelines for employees on how they can behave – both online and offline. Rules around that use wouldn’t set a precedent; in fact they’d follow it.
        2. Does the fact that people are already deceiving others excuse a blatant continuation of the trend? In my eyes, the fact that this kind of thing is done is part of the reason why many people sneer when they talk about politicians.
        3. I agree that much social media use is all about influence. However, there are legitimate and illegitimate ways of going about it. Building trust, rallying support etc are legitimate ways. Deceitful manipulation isn’t.

        Perhaps the fact that, as you say, these shenanigans are being exposed should be a cue for change, not an excuse to just shrug and assume it has to be that way.

        • Hi Dave,

          Not to sound combatative, but when I read Kevin Richards reply “organizations like Elections Canada … building policies and regulations regarding online communications in future campaigns.” and “Without intervention social media can be easily used very unethically” – to me that sounds like regulation.

          I am not sure its possible (or desirable) to prevent these kinds of tactics anyway, should the allegations be true. Besides, the veil of anonymity that social media provides can still be used for good. Deep Throat anyone? (the Nixon whistle blower, not the movie.)

          • To be honest, I would agree with the idea of putting rules around deceptive
            practices in elections. I’m not an expert in them anyway, but I wouldn’t be
            surprised if this kind of thing were already covered by existing policies
            (many rules are media agnostic).

            I would agree with you that there can be a place for “anonymous” use of
            social media (although very few things online are truly anonymous). However,
            I do think that we should hold people who run for public office to a higher
            ethical standard than the one that’s allegedly displayed here.


  • Michelle
    ago10 years

    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.

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