Cyber-stalking is a delightful, if creepy, pastime. My personal tastes are on the vanilla side of fetish street. I have search-alerts out on people and am automatically informed when they make news. I RSS/Atom their blogs and follow them on Twitter. If they use Facebook (FB), I beseech them to become friends.
Some “friend”, many don’t. For months, I’d wondered about the FB profile of Amartya Sen (FBAS). FBAS friended me but he didn’t respond to the personal note I’d sent with the request. This was odd since he’s notably punctilious. The bio-info was cut-and-pasted from public sources. This is common among academics, however, so it wasn’t cause for suspicion.
The opinions expressed by FBAS were wildly different from the real-life (RL) persona. FBAS often cited Hayek and Mises. He had boilerplate right-wing views on poverty and creative destruction. While figuring it as a hoax, I wasn’t sure enough to hurl accusations. FBAS’ friends’ list included academics, writers and intellectuals, who know him in RL. The thought occurred that Sen was indulging in some obscure send-up and his RL friends were in on the joke.
I unfriended while haunted by fears that I was relinquishing a possibly genuine connection. The suspicions were confirmed when RL Amartya Sen met one of FBAS’ friends and learnt about “his” account. The Prof has successfully shut the impersonator down. Presumably, a bunch of puzzled FBAS friends are out there, wondering what happened.
Sen is not the only well-known person who’s been cyber-impersonated. It’s also happened to world chess champion Viswanathan Anand. For months, @vishyanand was on Twitter, with updates on his form and play, thanking fans who wished him luck, etc.
Unlike with Sen, the sentiments expressed were pretty much in line with what you might expect. But Anand has a trademark sense of humour and the impersonator was wooden. The a/c was “outed” within days in the closed chess community. Anand was then in the middle of a title match and had zero bandwidth to spare for chasing impersonators. He’s had the account suspended now (the real Anand is at @vishy64theking).
A much nastier impersonator fixated on Tishani Doshi. Doshi, a Chennai-based writer was busy launching her novel when “she” got into a foul-mouthed Twitter slanging match about the sex-lives of various writers. Doshi doesn’t use Twitter, and only learnt about it from stunned friends. In her case, malice was the obvious trigger. It beats me why somebody “did” Sen, or Anand, since there was no apparent viciousness. Nor was there much humour, except for the unintentional kind.
Of course, satirical impersonations translate well to the Web. Chaplin did a wonderful Hitler in The Great Dictator. Youtube has thousands of imitations of celebs ranging from the lame to wonderful. Danny Lyons does a great parody in his Secret Diary of Steve Jobs (fakesteve.net) with its tagline “Dude, I invented the frigging iphone. Have you heard of it?” Fake Steve always has a funny take on business buzz.
A young i-banker in Mumbai does a Secret Diary of Rakesh Jhunjhunwala (RJ) in the same tradition. This has hysterical rants like “I am the Batman to Shankar Sharma’s Joker”. What raises the blog to alpha-class is that half the commentators are seeking stock-market tips and utterly unaware it’s fake.
However, there is a difference between satire and impersonation. A public figure can grin and shrug off the former (though RJ’s secret diarist is probably sensible in keeping his/her ID under wraps). Where the latter is involved, the consequences are embarrassing, or potentially much worse. Whatever your views on cyberspace, keep tabs on your own online presence. Just in case, it isn’t you.