Parody accounts have proliferated on Twitter almost since the dawn of the micro-blogging platform. And far from being exempt, politicians have frequently been the subjects: Former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, former Republican Vice Presidential candidate Paul Ryan, Queen Elizabeth and Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel have all been subjects of parody Twitter accounts, and as far as we know, these high-profile figures accept a certain amount of ribbing as part of their job.
But not the mayor of Peoria, Illinois, who contacted local police this spring after learning of the parody Twitter account @peoriamayor, which, according to the Chicago Tribune, portrayed Peoria Mayor Jim Ardis “as a foul-mouthed political with a penchant for liquor, drugs and prostitutes.”
Curiously, Twitter had suspended the account, created by Peoria resident John Daniel, “several weeks” before police raided his apartment in April, according to the Peoria Journal Star. Though Daniel was not home at the time, three people who were there were taken in for questioning, and police also went to two of his housemates’ places of work to bring them into the station.
“They brought me in like I was a criminal," Michelle Pratt, a housemate, told the Star. “They said they had a search warrant and took all the electronic devices that had Internet access ... they said there had been an Internet crime that occurred at this residence.”
All this for a Twitter account that, according to the Associated Press, never attracted “more than a few dozen followers.” So what’s the big deal?
Peoria Police Chief Steve Settingsgaard told the Star that Daniel was being investigated for “false personification of a public official,” a charge that carries a sentence of up to a year in jail. While Daniel was not charged, his roommate Jake Elliot was arrested and has since been indicted on drug charges after police discovered marijuana during the search.
Elliot’s lawyer Dan O’Day is asking the judge overseeing Elliot’s case to suppress the evidence on the ground that the search warrant was not justified.
“Peoria has enough crimes to investigate without conducting Magellan-like expeditions throughout cyberspace simply to please a mayor whose feelings have been hurt,” O’Day told the Star.
It’s not just the Peoria police and mayor who appear to have overreacted. According to the AP, Twitter suspended the account when the city of Peoria threatened to sue. Although Daniel did not initially label the account a parody, he says he did add a parody label a few days in, which is required by Twitter’s terms of service -- and presumably should have protected him.
Twitter has been inconsistent in removing or refusing to remove content that violates its terms of service. When late last year a Twitter user by the name of Melissa Bachmann was confused with another Melissa Bachman who had published photographs of herself alongside endangered animals she killed, the former Melissa was subject to an onslaught of threats on Twitter. In an interview with International Business Times, Bachmann said that Twitter was nonresponsive when she contacted them, and did not offer any help beyond allowing her to block individual offendors, something she said was untenable due to the volume of the threatening tweets.
More recently, Robin Williams’ daughter Zelda Williams was the target of Twitter harassment after her actor father committed suicide. Williams was so rattled by the mean-spirited attacks – some that celebrated her father’s death -- that she announced she was quitting Twitter. In response, Twitter announced it would revise its policy to allow for users to better avoid harassment.
IBTimes’ Christopher Zara wrote about Twitter’s sudden change of heart:
“… some users who have been on the receiving end of Twitter harassment may be wondering what took Twitter so long. The company has long been criticized for its hands-off approach -- and for not taking threats and harassment seriously enough until a high-profile incident blows up in the news. It took an online petition with 140,000-plus signatures before Twitter added a “report abuse” button that makes reporting instigators easier. That it took the harassment of a major celebrity’s daughter before Twitter made its latest pledge is not likely to quell accusations that the company is too slow to act.”
Perhaps the threat of legal action from a small-town mayor was enough to convince Twitter to suspend an account that presumably did not violate any of its terms of services. Or perhaps there is more to the story that has not been disclosed. As the AP reported, Twitter has at least a dozen Peoria mayor parody accounts. But apparently none of those accounts made Ardis “a victim of sexual doggerel and filth,” as he told the AP Daniel’s did.
For his part, Daniel says he is a victim of a civil rights violation, and the American Civil Liberties Union has backed him in a lawsuit against the city. Meanwhile, Jake Elliot’s grandmother has launched a Change.org petition urging the state’s attorney to drop the charges against her grandson. The petition says the indictment is “based on flawed legal reasoning at its best and abuse of power at its worst.”