Inside Higher Ed: Presidential doppelgängers tweet

By Steve Kolowich, for Inside Higher Ed

April 18, 2011

“Call your state legislator and tell them not to take any money from #UNH,” wrote the Twitter user @PrezHuddleston on Friday. “One phone call can make a difference (think Safe Rides).”

Aside from the novel medium, the message was hardly unusual to hear from the head of a public university during a period of budget cuts. After all, Mark Huddleston, president of the University of New Hampshire, has been vocal in defending his university’s budget from machete-wielding legislators.

But scroll down @PrezHuddleston’s Twitter feed and you’ll begin to notice other tweets that seem less suitable to the presidential pulpit, such as a tweet that mocks student government candidates for thinking they would actually have a voice if elected. Another admonishes The Boston Globe for writing about the University of Harvard while the University of New Hampshire is having its budget gutted.

Continue scrolling, and things get stranger. You’ll see messages to @PrezHuddleston from @MarkHuddleston, another Twitter user bearing the New Hampshire president’s name and photo: “We’re soulmates,” wrote the first earlier this month. “Exactly. Just like Jekyll and Hyde,” quipped the second.

Here, several bemused students have interjected. “This exchange going on between @PrezHuddleston and @MarkHuddleston is starting to confuse the hell out me,” tweeted Justin Doubleday, the sports editor for the campus newspaper. “Who is the real one again?”

In past years, the voice of the college president was not so difficult to pick out. It could be heard on selective occasions such as convocations, dedications and commencements. It would use grand rhetoric to outline master plans and capital campaigns. It would echo above the fray.

But in a time when college administrations have embraced Twitter as a strategic tool, it no longer seems implausible that a university president would also diarise in 140-character bursts on the web. Mark Huddleston does use Twitter: @MarkHuddleston is actually he. (@PrezHuddleston is a prankster, who makes his ruse explicit by putting the word “fake” in his profile name.) The New Hampshire president uses Twitter to inform followers about events he attends, to post articles he finds interesting and to gush about famous visitors to campus. “I hope that it humanizes me and makes me more accessible,” Huddleston said. “I want students to think that I’m personable – that I’m not just a suit and tie.”

Yet if using Twitter makes college presidents more personable, it also makes them easier to impersonate. As in the case of @PrezHuddleston, the plausibility of a bona fide Twitter president has given rise to phoney ones. And Mark Huddleston is not the only college figurehead with a doppelgänger. In the past two years, fake presidential Twitter accounts have cropped up at Columbia University, Wesleyan University, Georgetown University, Brown University, the University of Texas at Austin, and Vassar College.

“What happens to all of Anne Hathaway’s dresses?!?!” tweeted a fake Lee Bollinger, president of Columbia, during this year’s Oscar broadcast, which featured the starlet and her rotating wardrobe.

“Mo’ money, mo’ problems,” lamented a fake Michael Roth, president of Wesleyan, shortly after Roth was revealed to have been one of the highest-paid liberal arts presidents in 2007-08. “Just kidding, my life is awesome.”

Wesleyan and Columbia have not paid their presidential impostors much heed. “I was aware of this impersonation but haven’t thought too much about it,” wrote the real Michael Roth in an email. Given how much he puts himself in the public eye (he does not tweet, but writes regularly in the popular press and keeps a blog), “I expect that satire is part of the deal,” Roth said.

As for the phoney Bollinger, a Columbia spokesman said, “given that it is clearly satirical, we haven’t experienced much in the way of confusion”. (The real Bollinger does not tweet.)

But not all institutions have had such a laissez-faire attitude towards presidential impostors. Officials at Georgetown have, on two separate occasions (the most recent being last month), discovered a fake Twitter account in the name of president John DeGioia. In both cases, they lodged a formal complaint with Twitter, which suspended the account under its anti-impersonation policy.

The University of Texas at Austin did the same to shutter the account of someone passing himself off as president William C. Powers. So did Vassar, when officials learned that there were phoney Twitter accounts for the president, the dean of the college, the director of residential life, and the director of security.

In some cases, college officials say it was not obvious enough that the fake accounts did not in fact belong to the administrators they were pretending to be. Bret Ingerman, Vassar’s vice-president for computing and information services, said that unlike the outrageous fare that one might find on the fake Bollinger feed (“making all my pants into cutoffs might have been premature”), the fake feed for Vassar president Catharine Bond Hill seemed to be imitating Hill’s administrative pronouncements without parody. “It was clearly not satire,” Ingerman says. “It did not come across that way.” Hill does not have a Twitter account, but the tweets resembled messages she recently had sent to the campus through other channels, Ingerman said.

Twitter’s impersonation policy exempts satirical accounts as long as they “make it clear that the creator of the account is not actually the same person or entity as the subject of the parody/commentary”. It suggests several ways to do this, including adding the word “not” or “fake” to the user name (as does the fake Huddleston).

Georgetown officials said they had similar concerns about verisimilitude with DeGioia’s most recent doppelgänger.

Also, communications officers at the institution wanted to make sure that there would be no confusion if they wanted to open a Twitter account in name of Georgetown’s president some time in the future “if we choose to go into that medium for him”, a spokeswoman said.

Don Hale, vice-president for public affairs at Texas, offered a similar rationale. “If [we] leave the door open, we don’t have any control over that [later] down the road,” he said.

Huddleston, the New Hampshire president, says colleges are justified in moving to have accounts closed if they are peddling misinformation in the guise of a campus authority figure in a way that could cause harm. “If someone tried to impersonate the chief of police or head of medical services, that might require a different approach.”

But in the case of harmless satire, “I think we’re probably better off being a little more playful,” he says. After all, if ribbing of the sort Huddleston gets from @PrezHuddleston (whose true identity remains a mystery to its muse) stakes its humour on the notion that college presidents are stodgy and self-serious, then attempting to silence those satirists outright might reinforce the stereotype.

Dan Sinker, a journalism professor at Columbia College Chicago, says that if colleges simply wait a little while, the fake presidential feeds will probably peter out from exhaustion. After all, Sinker says, trying to be funny in that medium for a long time is hard.

He should know. In the autumn, Sinker became briefly famous for a fake Twitter account he created in the name of Rahm Emanuel, the former White House chief of staff who was then running for mayor of Chicago. The account, which parodied Emanuel’s well-known tendency to be brusque and vulgar, gained nearly 50,000 followers over about six weeks. And yet Sinker was criticised for harping too long on the same joke. “It’s a hard medium to stay alive in,” he says. “People get bored of what you’re doing pretty quickly.”

The current fake college presidents have not been nearly as successful as Sinker’s fake Emanuel. Part of the reason, says Sinker, might be that college presidents are generally not eccentric enough to caricature. “Most college presidents aren’t characters,” he says. “Most college presidents are college presidents.” And making fun of an office, rather than a personality, could be a shallow mine.

With so little to work with, some phoney Twitter presidents might find it difficult to maintain a high output of genuinely clever tweets. (The fake feed for the Wesleyan president, for example, has gone cold after a mere 16 tweets.) “I think that most colleges that see it as a problem [that they] can just let punch itself out,” Sinker says.

Another alternative? Encourage the president to run rampant on Twitter in his authentic voice. E. Gordon Gee, president of Ohio State University, has been doing so for several years, and has not slowed down. Gee has close to 16,000 followers on Twitter – many thousands more than even the most popular presidential parody. Perhaps the key for college presidents, says Sinker, is to make their own feeds as robust and entertaining as any satirical version could hope to be.

“He’s rocking Twitter,” says Sinker of the Ohio State University president. “There’s nothing to parody there.”

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