Inside the Weird World of Twitter’s Celebrity-Impersonating “Parody” Accounts

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Twitter’s official policy is, “Users are allowed to create parody, newsfeed, commentary, and fan accounts” — provided that they meet three requirements: that the avatar is “not… the exact trademark or logo of the account subject,” that the account name “should not be the exact name of the account subject without some other distinguishing word, such as ‘not,’ ‘fake,’ or ‘fan,’” and that the bio “should include a statement to distinguish it from the account subject,” such as “Parody Account.”

Celebrity parody accounts don’t have to worry about the first requirement, and are almost universally compliant with the third. But few — and such popular accounts as @ozchrisrock, @BiIIMurray, and @ZachGalifinak are not among them — follow the middle rule, and no representative of Twitter would go on the record to explain why the company only selectively enforces it (or provide any other insight for this story). For example, while the fake Chris Rocks and fake Bill Murrays tweet without interruption, Twitter suspended comedian Andrew Shaffer’s @EmperorFranzen, an actual parody of a celebrity, and would only reinstate it if he changed the handle to “something like @fakefranzen.”

Let’s look, for a moment, at the Twitter-required “parody” label itself. Most of these accounts don’t fit the most basic definition of parody, which in practice (i.e., “Weird Al” Yankovic’s songs, Mel Brooks and Zucker-Abrams-Zucker’s movies, TV shows like The Colbert Report) involves selecting a serious subject and ridiculing it through imitation. And there are people who’ve done that — who have taken a real person of note and constructed a clearly satirical Twitter persona that sends up their oddness or vapidity. Take, for example, @Michael_Haneke, wherein writer Benjamin Lee reimagines the dour Austrian auteur as a sub-literate goof, tweeting about “wurner hurtsog” and his two “parms dorz,” all peppered with copious “lol”s.

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Accounts like his, Lee says, have been around a while, “from way before the start of fake Haneke.” But he’s just as baffled as I am by this movement of parodies-that-aren’t-parody. “I guess I don’t really understand the point in them,” he shrugs. “Maybe people are happier to retweet a joke when it looks like it comes from someone famous?”

Perhaps. When I asked Rhodes and @ozchrisrock what specific elements of their subjects they were parodying, neither could provide an answer. Rhodes tried: “One thing I think people like to do a lot of the time is, with some of the jokes, they’ll sometimes read it in the voice of a character — I guess Ron Burgundy being the main character there. And I guess that’s what gives it that element, in a way?” And @ozchrisrock responded, “I think everything he does in his standup is what you get here.” But that’s not parody — that’s impersonation.

And it gets stickier when the more successful Twitter celebrity impersonators, like Rhodes, figure out how to monetize their work. He points out that he only does monetized content sharing “once in a while” on the Ferrell account, where “I’m within all the guidelines,” and to be fair, he plays by the rules; his display name is “Not Will Ferrell,” and the bio makes clear that he is “not Will Ferrell” and has “no affiliation wit the actor Will Ferrell.” And that protects users like him — to a point.

galifianakis-insure Terry Middlebrook is senior counsel at the law firm of Holland & Knight, specializing in intellectual property work: copyright, trademark, and media protection rights. She says that social media accounts labeled as fake or parody are “considered protectable free speech.” But she stresses that in the state of California (where she, and most celebrities, are located), “we do have a ‘right of publicity’ that does not require you to suffer any damage if you are the celebrity. However, it does require some sort of commercial use… If they start to accumulate followers, or take ads on Facebook or something like that, yes, then they’re going to get a cease and desist letter.” Even without the commercial element, celebrities can get fake Twitter accounts shut down for speech that is “misleading or false or defamatory,” Middlebrook says. “Good old fashioned common law hops in. Then you can stop them. But you have to find them, and half the time they hide.” (She’s not wrong, and not just in the case of a limited-information interview like @ozchrisrock; I requested interviews with more than a dozen additional parody-account holders, and got no responses.)

But the bigger question is whether the people who run these accounts, aware of the general user’s ignorance and/or indifference about Twitter verification and the low likelihood that a person who’s reading someone else’s retweet will click through to a bio with that “parody” disclaimer, are just plain deceiving people. “It’s simply not right to do that,” Middlebrooks says. “It’s stealing. It is stealing another person’s personality, or their name or their fame. These celebrities worked very long and very hard to become recognized in their field.” Even if they didn’t work so hard, their names are still theirs — and the way Twitter is set up, the lines are hard to draw. “I do generally wonder if a lot of the [parody] followers actually know if these are parody accounts or not,” Lee says. “I suspect not.”

A peek at @ozchrisrock or @BiIIMurray‘s @-replies proves Lee right, but there’s more than just anecdotal evidence. Back in 2012, for example, another Will Ferrell account, @RealFerrellWill (43,000 followers), wrote a tweet promising $1 per retweet to the Trayvon Martin Foundation. It was widely retweeted — Slash and Aziz Ansari were among those who did so — and reported by CNN before it was debunked. Ferrell’s publicist told E! News, “He’s had a lot of imposters over the years, just like Seth Rogen and a lot of other celebrities, and unfortunately there’s no way Twitter seems to get a handle on verifying who’s who. It’s unfortunate there are not better safeguards in place.” The same day, a fake Will Smith account’s Martin-related tweet went viral, retweeted by Spike Lee and Rosie O’Donnell, among others. Both accounts were quickly suspended, but it seems to take viral blow-ups of that magnitude for Twitter to step in.

Of that sense of deception, Rhodes says, “I think when you look at certain accounts it’s very clear from the get-go who is crossing that impersonation line… I think it’s just one of those things that just from looking at the surface you can tell who’s on what side of that coin.” When I asked @ozchrisrock if he felt he was deceiving people, he would only respond, “Just doing jokes. Just twitter.”

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Yet on top of all of that, some of them aren’t even his jokes. Several celebrity parody accounts have been accused of joke theft — stealing tweets from comedians and other Twitter users, slapping the famous face on it, and enjoying the RTs. @ozchrisrock has frequently been accused of plagiarism. An earlier Bill Murray account, @bill__murray, was suspended in 2012 for some combination of plagiarism, nondisclosure, and solicitation. (Twitter will not comment on the specific cause for suspensions.) Charges of joke theft have plagued @BiIIMurray as well; that “good morning” quip that earned thousands of retweets and favorites appeared five months ago, on the Tumblr of a user named “Kingsleyyy.” But wait — around the same time, it also made its first appearance on @BiIIMurray’s timeline. And 11 days before that, the joke was tweeted by… a fake Will Ferrell.