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Twitter briefly bans Russian parody accounts (2016)

Summary: Twitter allows parody accounts to remain live (often over the protests of those parodied), provided they follow a narrow set of rules -- rules apparently intended to make sure everyone's in on the joke.

Here's everything Twitter users agree to do when creating a parody account:

  • Bio: The bio should clearly indicate that the user is not affiliated with the subject of the account. Non-affiliation can be indicated by incorporating, for example, words such as (but not limited to) "parody," "fake," "fan," or "commentary.” Non-affiliation should be stated in a way that can be understood by the intended audience.

  • Account name: The account name (note: this is separate from the username, or @handle) should clearly indicate that the user is not affiliated with the subject of the account. Non-affiliation can be indicated by incorporating, for example, words such as (but not limited to) "parody," "fake," "fan," or "commentary.” Non-affiliation should be stated in a way that can be understood by the intended audience.

Unfortunately for the very popular Vladimir Putin parody account (@DarthPutinKGB), Twitter's moderators decided the account didn't strictly adhere to the "make it obvious" policies covering accounts like these.

screenshot of Twitter account @DarthPutinKGB display name Darth Putin, profile photo of Vladimir Putin winking,  bio "Czar for life of all Russians and maker of exclusive brands of exotic team, perfume & underwear. I absolutely don't have a palace. For parody see @mfa_russia"

This ban immediately resulted in backlash from other Twitter users who were fans of the account -- one that made it clear (albeit without all the specifics demanded by Twitter) that it was a parody. Disappointed fans included Estonian president Toomas Hendrik and Radio Free Europe, which published a collection of the account's best tweets.

While the ban was technically justified by the violation of the specifics of Twitter's rules, the end result was a lot of Twitter users wondering whether Twitter moderators were capable of recognizing obvious parody without accounts bios copying the platform's parody guidelines word-for-word.

Decisions to be made by Twitter:

  • Is the banning of harmless parody accounts an acceptable tradeoff for protecting users from impersonation?

  • Should the parody guidelines be altered to make it easier to identify parody accounts?

  • Should moderators be allowed to make judgment calls if an account is clearly a parody but does not strictly adhere to the parody account guidelines?

Questions and policy implications to consider:

  • Should Twitter use more caution when moderating parody accounts whose parodic nature isn't immediately clear?

  • Is impersonation too much of a problem on the platform to ever relax the standards governing this kind of humor?

Resolution: Twitter swiftly reinstated the account following the backlash. The account remains active, despite its new bio not explicitly following the Twitter Rules for parody accounts.

But it wasn't the first time Twitter moderated accounts parodying Russian government officials. A similar thing happened roughly a year earlier, when Twitter blocked an account parodying powerful Russian oil executive Igor Sechin, apparently in response to a Russian government complaint the satirical account "violated privacy laws." This happened despite the fact the user's handle was IgorSechinEvilTwin, making it clear it was a parody, rather than an attempt to impersonate the real Igor Sechin.

screenshot of Twitter account post from @igor_sechin with display name IgorSechinEvilTwin

Written by The Copia Institute, February 2021

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