Are parody Twitter accounts 'fake news'? Liberals, Conservatives disagree
Minister of Environment and Climate Change Catherine McKenna speaks during question period in the House of Commons on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on Thursday, June 14, 2018. (THE CANADIAN PRESS/David Kawai)
Mia Rabson, The Canadian Press
Published Wednesday, June 27, 2018 6:58PM EDT
OTTAWA -- Liberal Environment Minister Catherine McKenna says parody social media accounts that deliberately try to mislead readers are a form of identity theft that needs to be addressed.
McKenna herself was targeted by a parody account that was shut down Tuesday by Twitter after McKenna complained, only to spring up again just hours later with a slightly different name and handle.
The account uses the same photo from McKenna's own personal Twitter account, and while its biography does say it's a parody, Twitter apparently deemed it a violation of its policy about not impersonating others online.
A Twitter official says the company does not comment on specific accounts, but notes the user of the account would have been told why the account was closed.
Conservative MPs and pundits, however, say parody accounts should not be shut down simply because the government doesn't like what they say.
They point to a number of parody accounts about Conservatives -- including one dubbed "Not Steve Harper," online since 2009 -- and say they should not be treated as so-called "fake news."
Twitter allows parody accounts but they must include a word like parody or fake in the biography section and can't use account names or handles that are the same as those of the person being impersonated.
McKenna's personal Twitter account, which she opened in May 2010, has the username @cathmckenna and the account name Catherine McKenna. The McKenna parody began life earlier this week with the handle @cathemckenna and the account name Catherinne McKennna. It mostly posted things like advice for the environment but making fun of McKenna for flying first class or giving tax breaks to the rich.
Requests to Twitter to investigate the account were made by the government Monday. The account owner says in his or her new version that the account was "blocked for 7 days initially, and then the Canadian government had me banned."
But not for long.
The account owner's new version sprang up at 9:02 p.m. Tuesday night, this time as @catheemckenna and the account name CatheMcKennnna. By 6 p.m. Wednesday night it already had 5,200 followers, about twice what the original account attracted in its brief life.
McKenna said she has "seen more than my share of personal attacks, bullying and harassment on Twitter and other social media platforms" and has no problem with parody. But accounts that deliberately try to mislead people are politically motivated and need to be addressed.
"It's like identity theft, and it undermines our ability to have productive, informed conversations about issues that matter," she said.
Conservative strategist and media specialist Alise Mills said the government went too far by having this particular account shut down.
"Parody accounts are not fake news," she said.
Mills acknowledges she herself was taken in by the account and retweeted one comment with her own response until someone pointed out the account was a fake. But she says just because users make mistakes doesn't mean parody accounts should be shuttered. The accounts that are problematic are the trolls that call for violence or are demeaning, said Mills.
In 2014, incoming Ontario Premier Doug Ford, called for the federal government to make it a crime to impersonate someone on Twitter with parody accounts and threatened to sue people who had made several of him while he was a Toronto city councillor.
The government's electoral reform bill, which is now at the committee stage, creates a new offence under the Elections Act to share or post information trying to pretend its coming from a party or a candidate. However the bill makes a specific exception for parody or satire.
The three largest political parties have no specific policy directing MPs or candidates on how to handle parody accounts, such as whether candidates can retweet them or create them on their own.
Conservative Party spokesman Cory Hann says the Conservatives give "general guidance" on social media use and warn candidates that "being in the public eye sometimes means being the subject of a joke."
"Satire and parody are nothing new in politics and we hope our government has better things to worry about than what constitutes a parody Twitter account," he said.
NDP MP Matthew Dube said while the NDP doesn't have any formal policies, it should be a given that candidates and MPs don't share fake news or parody accounts that are trying to look identical to that of an MP or political party.
"It muddies the waters of what is already a challenging environment when it comes to the information that is out there for the public," said Dube. "There is some burden on us when it comes to circulating this kind of stuff."