An FBI agent, a tweet, and a parody disparity

A fake account offers practice in separating real social media posts from fake

Related NewsWise resources

Lesson 7: Fake News and Verification
Fact-Checking Tools: Video 3: Evaluating Social Media Accounts


The story

In the 24 hours after it was posted, it appears that tens of thousands of people were fooled by a viral tweet from an account ‘parodying’ newly fired American FBI agent Peter Strzok.

Agent Strzok was dismissed in mid-August, months after personal text messages highly critical of Donald Trump were made public. Strzok sent the texts while working on investigations into both Trump and Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton. He said his personal biases did not affect his work.

Whenever there is an issue that people are talking about, especially when it is emotionally charged or partisan, there will different people with different motives, who want to be part of the conversation — to influence what people think, add fuel to a fire, or just get attention.

After Strzok was fired, the account @_peterstrzok began issuing tweets in his voice. One tweet called president Trump “a dictator” and an “unhinged madman.” The day after it began tweeting, the account changed its name to @notpeterstrzok. It has since been suspended by Twitter.

Case study

Review the real Peter Strzok’s Twitter account, and screen grabs of the ‘parody’ account about the dismissal (since the page is now removed):

@petestrzok

https://twitter.com/petestrzok
https://twitter.com/petestrzok/status/1029035185218699264

Real account from Peter Strzok.

@notpeterstrzok

https://twitter.com/notpeterstrzok/status/1029104137030578177

‘Parody’ account of former US FBI agent Peter Strzok. Screen grab from Aug. 13, via the Internet Archive.

Compare the account pages:

  • How are they similar, and how are they different? On the surface, how easy are they to tell apart?
  • What do the bios say? What do the handles say? How old are the accounts? How many tweets are there, and from what timeframe?
  • What is the tone and content of the tweets?
  • Which account is verified?

Teacher Note: Credibility signals such as age of account don’t apply in this case, as the real account is new, with not many tweets, but there’s an opportunity here to discuss how lists of questions just give clues, not necessarily answers.

 

Discussion questions:

Verification

  • The Twitter handle and page biography states that this account is not the real Peter Strzok.
  • How closely do you think people pay attention to these signals?
  • What effect does the large type of the name have, contrasted with the small type of the @ handle?
  • If this post showed up in your feed, how likely would you be to click back to the main page, and read the bio?
  • The post from the parody account had well over 100,000 likes and shares when it was removed. How many of these people do you think mistakenly believed the account was authentic?
  • Why might it matter to Peter Strzok if people think he said something he didn’t? (How might it matter to society/democracy?
  • Why would Twitter suspend this account?


Parody

The Oxford dictionary defines parody as “An imitation of the style of a particular writer, artist, or genre with deliberate exaggeration for comic effect.”

  • Do you think the content on @notpeterstrzok is parody, based on this definition? Why or why not?
  • For something to be a joke, does it have to be funny? Who should it be funny to?
  • Have you ever not believed something because you couldn’t tell if it was a joke?
  • What happens when people believe jokes are true? Or fail to believe real information because they don’t want to be fooled?

 

Big-picture concept

Poe’s Law

‘Poe’s law’ is an online term with a long history, but simply stated by a recent Wired article, it’s the idea that “On the internet, it’s impossible to tell who is joking.”

A lot of online misinformation connects to Poe’s Law. Satire and parody can lose context, or be difficult to identify to begin with, and small disclaimers on misinformation can be used as a defence when someone is fooled by invented content.

Here’s a Wiki list containing many more examples of Poe’s Law. For instance the Flat Earth Society, which is likely to have a good mix of true believers, people who like the group ironically, with others in between.

https://rationalwiki.org/wiki/List_of_Poe%27s_Law_examples


Questions

– Have you ever been upset by something someone said, only to have them respond, “I was just kidding!”? Were they kidding? How can you tell? Why does it matter?

– How might knowing about this principle help with navigating information online in general?

 

Further reading: 

“#Resistance Twitter keeps falling for @NotPeterStrzok, an obvious Peter Strzok parody account,” The Washington Post. (Paywall)

Snopes fact-check: https://www.snopes.com/fact-check/peter-strzok-tweet-trump-dictator-unhinged-madman/