It’s fair to say that it was a rough 2011 for Rupert Murdoch. Not only has he had to deal with all that pesky phone-hacking business (and make a public apology to the victims) and any number of expose documentaries over how he’s (allegedly) exercised autocratic control over the British media for at least the last few decades, he’s now been convinced to come down to the level of the average attention-seeking celebrity and join Twitter.
It’s an interesting move. As you might expect, some of the messages which he’s received haven’t been completely complimentary, especially the responses to his fabulously well-thought out observation on the fact that “Brits get too many Bank Holidays for a broke country”. This alone lends weight to the idea that either he’s determined to annihilate whatever reputation he had left, or that the account is fake and he’s being impersonated.
Personally, I went for the second option until I found out that he’d been plugging Fox’s movies (has he SEEN half of them??), Fox News’ evening broadcasts and op-ed pieces in the Wall Street Journal. Surely, this had to be too specific and too worryingly close to what we imagine Murdoch’s train of thought to be for the account to actually be run by one of the Dark Lord’s minions? No – it’s real; News International have put out a statement to confirm it. They could probably understand our skepticism – fake Murdoch accounts (many of them painfully well-observed, especially when dealing with his testimony at the Leveson Inquiry) are legion and have thousands of followers, many of whom probably wondered whether Murdoch’s own tweets could ever measure up to what we thought they may say if he ever signed up.
So why has he? Is it, as many think, because he’s about to invest in Twitter? Is it as a result of a personal introduction by the site’s founders? Murdoch himself hasn’t gone into any real detail on his motives, but thankfully we’ve had someone else to shed some light on what he may be up to.
Shortly after Murdoch’s profile appeared on the site, so did one for his wife – @Wendi_Deng. Posting her first message on New Year’s Day, “Wendi” gave her husband real-time tips on which tweets he should delete (!), swapped motivational tips for the year ahead, flirted with Ricky Gervais, looked into an appearance on Piers Morgan’s CNN chat show and contacted one of the best Murdoch parody sites – @RupertMurdochPR.
The media followed her every word, each tweet looking more and more like a PR car crash in progress, safe in the knowledge that this account was also real. It had to be – it was verified by Google as “Official”. That is, until yesterday when News International announced that the account was, in fact, a fake. To be fair, it was a very good one – whoever was behind it (thought to be a British male twitter user) had a genuine grasp on when to mis-spell updates and the actual diary of Wendi Deng. as well as dripfeeding just enough fictional information on the Murdochs’ private lives to fool much of the press into thinking that this really was the simultaneous arrival of one of the world’s great power couples on social media.
It turned out that, rather than being an attempt to publicly embarrass either News International or the Murdochs, the profile was set up out of boredom and as a joke in response to the hype surrounding Rupert joining the network. Everything simply got out of hand after the profile was verified and a News International employee apparently confirmed that @Wendi_Deng was real, and the actual user took to pointing the finger at Twitter for giving it the blue tick of approval in the first place.
So what now? Will the real Wendi Deng stand up and take back her Twitter profile? Will she sue? Can she sue? Many Lawyers will tell you that there’s no such thing as a freestanding “image right” just as much as there’s no freestanding right to privacy – they’re protected by a patchwork of different laws governing confidential & private information, data protection and passing off.
But surely Wendi can take action over the use of her name without permission? Celebrities have been signing up to endorsement deals for years, so isn’t this the same thing? Eddie Irvine set the precedent on “false endorsement” cases in 2002 as part of a dispute with Talksport which saw them altering an image of him to look as if he was holding a branded Talksport radio and used it in an advertising campaign. This case found that, if the celebrity in question can show either goodwill or a sufficient reputation at the time in question and that the conduct in dispute would create a false message that they did endorse the produce or service among a significant number of users or customers then they could claim either damages or an injunction. This case changed the commercial protection of a celebrity’s image through the Court, but it’s of little use here as the profile isn’t endorsing anything in particular apart from her “husband”. She can’t sue for Trade Mark infringement either, as she hasn’t registered one in relation to her name (although she now might….).
The account wasn’t a parody or fan account (and anyway, Twitter has a reputation for standing up for them and anything else covered by US first amendment rights)- it was a very accurate impersonation. You’d imagine that Twitter may take action off their own bat to shut down the profile (especially if Murdoch really is looking to invest) and as of this afternoon it looks as if it has as the username @Wendi_Deng “does not exist”. Her creator may simply have had enough of the attention. He got that attention at least partly because the profile had been verified by Twitter, who should be the most embarrassed by the whole episode, which although relatively harmless has shown up serious flaws in the “Verified Profile” system – if it worked properly then how was the profile ever created?
This probably won’t scare celebrities away from Twitter, and I’d imagine that the scramble for some kind of digital watermark for high-profile users is already underway. Many will take comfort from the fact that the UK Courts aren’t shy from awarding damages in defamation and/or privacy cases when Tweets go too far, and libel may have been a very useful fallback for the Murdochs if the profile had stayed up.
For now, though, the whole episode is a case study in gullibility and proof that for your average public figure, building a new audience on social media even if your traditional media career is winding down is easy if you know how and what to tweet – the revitalising effect of Twitter on Stephen Fry’s public image (despite several hissy fits) should be proof enough. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m off to register my name on every single social network I can think of before someone squats on it. It may be worth something one day. And, if you’re thinking that you may not get fooled by this kind of fakery, check back in with Uncle Rupert, who was having a Twitter conversation with a fake profile for Larry Page (CEO of Google) over whether or not he should give Google+ a try…