News & Politics

Fake Is Good: The People Behind Twitter’s Candidate Parodies

The 2008 presidential campaign has been one for the ages when it comes to parody. From spot-on impersonations of Sarah Palin and Barack Obama to hundreds of viral Web videos mocking the candidates, this race might be remembered more for the spoofs than for the real thing.

People such as Tina Fey may be grabbing all the headlines for their spoofs, but bubbling under the surface of the Web is a growing trend of folks using a microblogging service called Twitter to effectively parody the candidates. Twitter—which allows you to send out messages of 140 characters or fewer to a group of friends via the Web or cell phones—is used most often by people to let friends know what they’re up to or for organizing purposes.

But a few people in the Washington area have commandeered the accounts FakeJohnMcCain, FakeSarahPalin, and FakeJoeBiden to skewer and impersonate the candidates—and have gained thousands of readers in the process. (There is a FakeBarackObama, but the account hasn’t been updated since July.)

We sat down—er, or chatted over e-mail—with the people behind these accounts. (Though the Twitterers all wished to retain their anonymity, we can tell you they all live and work in DC, either for progressive political organizations or public-relations firms. Two people are behind FakeSarahPalin, so we refer to them as FakeSarahPalin1 and FakeSarahPalin2.) They talked about everything from why Twitter works so well for parody to what they’ll do with their accounts when the election is over.

What inspired you to create these fake Twitter accounts?

FakeJohnMcCain: For me it came out of a thought experiment. I’d been watching Twitter for some time but had never really dived in, mostly because in my tinkering it seemed more like a new and exciting way to waste time yakking with friends rather than anything useful from an organizing perspective, and IM already more than satisfies my “waste time yacking with friends” requirement.

But I was intrigued by the jungle telegraph quality of Twitter—the way memes spread quickly across the network. One of the common Twitter experiences is to suddenly get bombarded with a ton of people all tweeting the same link as news breaks. Then others retweet, and so on. The same phenomenon happens on blogs, but it takes much longer for a meme to pick up steam there.

I was wondering if there was some way that this could be put to practical use, and it occurred to me that one such use might be to develop a sort of broadcasting service for negative and/or unflattering news stories about McCain—to provide a one-stop shop that you could just subscribe to and get the latest bad news for the GOP.

The thing was, there were already people trying this; at least one major national progressive organization had a staff person tweeting negative McCain stories at the time. But they were doing it in the standard, boring, earnest way that progressives do everything—straight headline, blurb, link, no commentary—so it wasn’t very interesting.

That’s when I thought it might be more interesting to do the same thing from the perspective of McCain himself, since he’s got a legendary bad temper and a high opinion of his own rectitude, so he can’t be happy to see these stories running. So from that, FJM was born—with the links as the advocacy payload and the funny commentary as the chocolate coating to get people to try it.

FakeSarahPalin1: I was watching FakeBarackObama and FakeJohnMcCain on Twitter for a while. On the day Sarah Palin was announced, I was in the Tattered Cover [a bookstore in Denver] right next to the Big Tent [at the Democratic National Convention] and checked to see if FakeSarahPalin was available. Shortly thereafter, I hustled to make sure FakeJoeBiden was available. I registered them both. [My friend who now cowrites FakeSarahPalin] came into the store, and I told him what I’d done. I told him the password, and he went for the first tweet: “Little-known fact: I’m little known.”

FakeSarahPalin2: I did it because I knew I’d never—on my own—get a shout-out from Monty Python. I still haven’t, but at least I get to slipstream in the real Sarah Palin’s absurd glory. (What’s the antonym of glory, anyway? She has a lock for a patent on it, once someone invents the right word.)

Seriously, I did it on a lark—bored after the convention and looking for a cute joke. It really mushroomed beyond the minimal expectations I had. Given the absurdity of the campaign, though, I see that we fill a real need in finding the entertaining diamond beneath the proverbial pile of manure we call a national discourse.

FakeJoeBiden: I have to thank [FakeSarahPalin1]. A couple of us were hanging out after work the night before the vice-presidential debate, talking about FakeSarahPalin’s adventures in Twitterland. [FakeSarahPalin1] mentioned that he had also created a FakeJoeBiden but hadn’t done anything with it. Before I knew it, I had become FakeJoeBiden. Kinda funny how two guys Twitter as FakeSarahPalin and a woman ended up Twittering as FakeJoeBiden. FakeJohnMcCain, do you have a sex? Or are you just a disembodied voice over the series of tubes?

FakeJohnMcCain: Fake John McCain is ALL MAN.

You all have hundreds—if not thousands—of followers. Why do you think these fake Twitter accounts have become so popular?

FakeJohnMcCain: The thing is, in real terms they’re not particularly popular. If I ran a Web site that had 1,500 (or 5,000) daily readers, nobody would care.

They appear more popular than the numbers suggest partly because of Twitter’s echo-chamber quality—the rapidity with which popular memes bounce around the service—and partly because the Twitter audience is disproportionately made up of a pretty narrow slice of the online audience—mostly early-adopter types in media and tech. These folks already occupy a world that’s very inward-looking, so if they start hearing about something from their friends, it can seem like a big trend even if nobody outside New York, San Francisco, or DC has ever heard of it.

FakeSarahPalin1: I mean, Sarah Palin is kind of hilarious. I think Team FakeSarahPalin has an easier job than McCain or Biden. The material practically writes itself—and what doesn’t, Saturday Night Live does for us.

FakeJoeBiden: I think any type of political satire right now is hugely popular. That’s why Saturday Night Live’s ratings are soaring. It’s amazing how quickly my following sprang up. I started tweeting the morning of the vice-presidential debate. I kicked things off by choosing someone I knew to be following a lot of fairly influential twitterers and followed all the people he was following just to kinda announce, “Hey, I exist.” Then FakeSarahPalin and I got into a few back-and-forths during the day. The vice-presidential debate was mayhem. Twitter was having serious issues, and replies were coming in like 20 minutes late at some point. I don’t think I’ve ever tweeted that much and that fast in my life. But it was a lot of fun. And by the end of the day I had more than 750 followers.

I think the Fakes are popular because its almost like Conan’s “if they made it” segments with the hideous celeb offspring. The Fakes are “if they said it.” If you could see inside the candidates’ minds, what would they be thinking?

Was Fake Steve Jobs  ever an inspiration? Anyone else?

FakeJohnMcCain: Absolutely, Dan Lyons’s FSJ was a huge inspiration for FJM, and his influence can be seen pretty directly in some of FJM’s recurring lines. FJM loves to call liberals “libtards,” for instance, which was directly inspired by Fake Steve’s rants about Linux users being “freetards.”

FakeSarahPalin1: A bit. Quite honestly, though, [the reason for starting the account] was dissatisfaction from FakeBarackObama on the Republican side. Those guys are such losers. It is clear, time and time again, that we beat them online, and we beat them in comedy. Period.

FakeSarahPalin2: I considered Fake Steve Jobs a personal favorite, as long as he lasted—but note that even he couldn’t keep up the charade forever. Good parody is hard and can be tough to perpetually reinvent. He may have influenced me subconsciously.

The primary influence, though, is the ridiculousness of Sarah Palin’s candidacy—I mean, really, like John Cleese said in that video clip above, Monty Python could have dreamt this up. A no-account, inexperienced governor who [as mayor] ran a town about the size of the population of DC’s Logan Circle neighborhood, whom I have more foreign-policy experience than, who made her debut on the national stage talking about snowmobiles, moose, and hockey—I mean, really? This isn’t just an elaborate joke?

It’s the richest vein of inadvertent political comedy since Dan Quayle drove off into the sunset. And really, I was waiting for FakeJoeBiden to say during the debate: “I knew Dan Quayle; Dan Quayle was a friend of mine. Sarah, you’re no Dan Quayle.”

Obviously, your fake accounts take the most extreme aspects of these candidates’ personalities and exaggerate them. For example, FakeJohnMcCain is always very, very hilariously angry. What are the characteristics you try to work with most on Twitter? What are the tactics you use to convey these exaggerations?

FakeJohnMcCain: For FJM, there are a few recurring themes:

• Anger. Or more specifically, impotent anger—anger without the ability to do anything about the thing that causes it. FJM is mad about everything, from getting beaten by a no-experience kid on down, but very little of it is within his ability to control, so he yells and swears and stamps his feet and makes empty threats a lot. Generally, this is conveyed via CAPS LOCK (which is also CRUISE CONTROL FOR COOL, of course).

• Oldness. Or, more politely, out-of-touchness. FJM thinks of himself as a hip, sexy swinger, but unfortunately his definition of “hip” fossilized in 1981 or so. So there are lots of references to ancient cultural figures (like Abba—which is the real John McCain’s favorite band ) and things associated with creepy old guys (like those Werther’s Originals candies, whose commercials always featured an older man luring a kid to sit on his lap).

• Machismo. Or, more bluntly, contempt for weakness. I grew up around military people, and while most military types are well adjusted and see themselves as defenders of those unable to defend themselves, there are a few who end up going in the opposite direction—fetishizing strength and seeing weakness as a cardinal sin. FJM is one of those few. This is actually his biggest disagreement with Democrats—not so much policy issues (which he really doesn’t care much about) but his belief that Democrats are congenitally weak and can’t take a punch without crumpling. He’s constantly making fun of them for their weakness; here’s an example.

• Misogyny. Or, more accurately, fear of women. Like the real John McCain, FJM sees women mostly as tools to be used to satisfy some need he has—to get off or to get ahead. (Witness his callous treatment of his first wife and his marriage to Cindy in order to advance his political ambitions.) He thinks of women the way a cat thinks of a scratching post. Because of that, when talking to empowered women or just about women’s issues (like when Lilly Ledbetter came up in the debate the other night), he tends to shift suddenly into “angry FJM” mode.

FakeJoeBiden: I think that parody is best when there is a kernel of truth to it. To me, Joe Biden is a fossilized frat boy. He’s happiest with a Bud Light in his hand watching the game. He has great teeth and knows it. His Achilles’ heel is his hair. He’s a little sensitive about that but tries to make up for it with bluster. He’s also not super-happy that Sarah Palin gets all the attention. As I mentioned earlier, the hardest part is that his most famous trait is his verbosity, and this is not really a medium where you can play around with that.

What will you do after the election if your FakeCandidate loses? You’ve got thousands of followers—could you use the accounts for good? Or for evil?

FakeJohnMcCain: If my candidate LOSES? I’m much more concerned about what would happen if he WINS. If the Democrats can’t win this one, they should just close up shop and do something else entirely. Maybe Pelosi, Reid, and Emanuel could get a dog and a van and drive around the country solving crimes or something.

I have no idea what I’ll do with FJM after Election Day should Obama win. I could imagine it going on with less-specific references to McCain, but it’d all be dependent on whether there’s an interested audience and if it’s still fun to do.

As for using it for good or evil, that imputes more influence and importance to FJM and the other fakesters than we deserve. If the real McCain does win, I can’t imagine him spending the same amount of time worrying about FJM continuing as he would spend, say, worrying about whether Roger Simon or Joe Klein is coming to his next barbecue.

FakeJoeBiden: Wait, I have to keep doing this? Shoot. What have I gotten myself into?

Seriously, though, Joe Biden is pretty unfunny. He’s a boring, long-winded, old white guy. There’s not a lot to work with, especially in 140 characters. This is hard work. Even SNL couldn’t make Joe Biden funny.

FakeSarahPalin1: We’ve already raised about $2,200 for Obama through FakeSarahPalin and FakeJoeBiden. I suspect that this is just the beginning of Sarah’s foray into politics. We’ll be waiting.

Why is the FakeBarackObama Twitter so terribly unfunny?

FakeSarahPalin1: I think three reasons:

1. Race. It’s really hard not to be sexist with FakeSarahPalin—we portray her as an imbecile, but we work hard to not make her stupidity related to her being a woman. I have a couple rules with her—I try very hard not to be sexist, and I generally avoid not-already-politicized family jokes. With Obama, I’d imagine for a Republican, making fun of him would be really hard without being racist.

2. Obama just doesn’t provide a lot of material. He doesn’t say a lot of crazy or stupid shit like “I have foreign-policy cred because Russia is my neighbor.”

3. Republicans just aren’t very funny. Look at every venture they’ve made into comedy. They’re just not good at it. They fail every time. Name a funny Republican comedy show. (Lorne Michaels, though, it has been brought to my attention, is a maxed-out McCain donor.)

FakeJohnMcCain: It depends on which one you mean (there are tons of fake Obamas running around), but I actually thought @fakebarackobama was pretty funny; we had several good back-and-forth exchanges back in the summer, before anyone started paying attention to this stuff.

I disagree respectfully with [FakeSarahPalin1] as to whether it’s just genetically impossible for conservatives to be funny. I think it’s possible, but it’s just not often seen these days because when you’re winning, you don’t spend time doing the kind of thinking that leads to good comedy. Mark Breslin, the founder of Canada’s largest chain of comedy clubs, once described comedy as “the cry of the intelligent and powerless”; intelligent progressives know that feeling today a lot better than intelligent conservatives do. If 2008 ends up being a realigning election, check back in ten years and see if there aren’t some funny conservative voices emerging out there.

Why Twitter? Why not start a parody blog instead?

FakeSarahPalin1: Time and network. It was easier to get followers and easier to come up with 140-character quips than big, long blog processes. Even a paragraph is too much. But if I can come up with a quick quip, it goes straight to the presses.

Do you think this movement of fake so-and-so’s on Twitter accounts will continue past the campaign? Could you see it being applied to any other medium?

FakeSarahPalin1: There are actually a few—FakeDonDraper, FakePeggyOlson from the TV show Mad Men, for instance.

FakeJohnMcCain: It’s a natural development in social networks for fakesters to emerge. The original social network (Friendster, remember that?) is actually famous in tech circles for killing its business by trying aggressively to stamp out fakester accounts. (See this story from 2003 for some examples.)

Twitter seems to be taking a less draconian approach of allowing fakesters to operate as long as they’re clearly labeled as such (@andersoncooper, for example, had to change to @andersonscooper and clearly state that he was not the Anderson Cooper). So I would expect to see them continue and mutate into new forms as long as Twitter is a popular service.

FakeJoeBiden: I could see any public figure working. Just imagine if Seinfeld was still on—that would be some great twittering.

Who are your favorite twitterers other than the folks in this group?

FakeSarahPalin1: I like Favrd a lot. Honestly, though, FakeSarah cracks me up more than just about anything.

FakeJohnMcCain: A problem with Twitter is that once you start following more than 100 or so people, it’s just impossible to keep up with individuals anymore—all the tweets sort of blur together into an undifferentiated mass. So I’m sure there are people out there doing cool stuff, but at this point if people don’t put “@fakejohnmccain” in their message, I’m probably missing it. Which is too bad, but whaddaya gonna do?

That being said, @amazonmp3 posts a deal every day where he/she puts one downloadable album up for sale for $2.99, which is pretty kick-ass.

Any reaction from the actual candidates, campaigns, or supporters?

FakeJohnMcCain: I’m still waiting for my invitation to perform FJM for John McCain the way George H.W. Bush invited Dana Carvey to the White House to impersonate him back in ’92.

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