The Man Behind Mayor Rob Frod, On Getting Booted Off Twitter
The man behind the most popular and hilariously accurate Rob Ford Twitter parody account, Richard Feren, in his own words on being surprise suspended by Twitter.
Screencap of the email I received from Twitter.
I created the @TOMayorFrod Twitter account on May 31, 2013, as a response to bizarre and amusing tweets that emanated from the official Mayor Rob Ford account after his chief communications staff abruptly resigned. In the wake of startling revelations about Ford smoking crack on video, the firing of his chief of staff Mark Towhey, and the general disarray of his office, most of Toronto expected Ford to step down at any moment. Of course, that’s not the way Rob Ford operates, so while he proclaimed his intention to stay on as mayor, his official Twitter feed blithely tweeted announcements about spraying for tree parasites and offered reassuring messages like, “More Toronto bands have been added to my 'Hockey Night' playlist on Songza here.” I thought it would be fun to create a similar official-looking account to tweet further updates on how the office coffee pot had been refilled, a new Marmaduke cartoon posted on the bulletin board, and so on. So @TOMayorFrod was born.
Because I designed the account to mimic the official account as closely as possible (other than using the name “Frod” instead of “Ford” and claiming to be mayor of “Torotno”), I always knew that I was skirting Twitter’s rules about impersonation and parody accounts. Many people, journalists included, were often fooled by “Frod,” believing it to be the real mayor’s account, with frequently hilarious results. The similarity certainly provided a powerful angle to the gag: Were these drily satirical tweets any more absurd than the equally dry and often oblivious tweets from the official account?
Then, on Wednesday Feb. 19, my fears came true: After nearly nine months of daily tweeting with no complaints or warnings, the account was suddenly suspended. Twitter did not notify me about this, so I filed an appeal through the site, asking the reason for the suspension and what steps I’d need to take to restore it. Meanwhile, the suspension triggered a groundswell of support and disbelief on the Twittersphere, with many people appealing directly to Twitter to reinstate the account. A new hashtag, #FreeFrod, was propagated, and numerous followers altered their avatar and username to include the Frod handle in a spontaneous “I am Spartacus” movement. There were even new “Mayor Rob Frod” accounts created, impersonating my impersonation, right down to the background image.
The amount of support was unexpected and overwhelming. Even the media were contacting me for interviews, which seemed a bit premature to me since I didn’t yet know the reason for the suspension, but apparently the account was even more popular than I realized. And a lot of people suspected that Rob Ford—or someone representing him—had complained to Twitter to have the account taken down. According to Twitter’s guidelines, they only act on complaints about impersonation if they are filed by the target or someone officially representing them. Reporters asked Ford and his staff if they’d been responsible for the suspension. Rob Ford claimed he was not even aware of the account, saying, “I’m sure there’s lots of parody accounts. There’s only one Rob Ford, I can guarantee that." His chief of staff told reporters the mayor didn’t have a problem with parodies and that while they had “looked into” the account, they did not file a complaint.
Later in the day, I received a reply from Twitter: The account had been suspended because it “may be in violation of Twitter’s policies on impersonation and/or trademark.” They gave me 48 hours to edit the avatar, account name, bio, and background image, and said the account would be restored if I complied and replied to their email. At this writing, I had made the required changes and replied to Twitter; I have not received any further instructions and the account currently remains suspended, though I am hopeful it will be restored. It was notable that the complaint stemmed from a claim of impersonation (rather than, say, anything to do with the contents of my tweets). Since Twitter claims they only pursue such complaints if they’re brought by the subject of the impersonation, were Rob Ford and his staff lying when they said they had not filed the complaint? We already know about Ford’s tentative relationship with the truth.
If that were the case, I had to wonder, why? And why now? The account had been operating steadily for over eight months, had amassed over 7,800 followers, and been the subject of several media stories. Most of Ford’s staff had been well aware of it for some time. His communications chief, Amin Massoudi, had blocked the account from the beginning (interestingly though, he does follow an Olivia Chow parody account). Other staffers actually followed the account, and when I met a former staffer who’d resigned last fall, he told me that for a long time, staffers wondered if the account were actually run by someone in their own office (I revealed my identity publicly in mid-November, putting to rest speculation on who was behind it). So why did no one decide to take steps against the account until mid-February? I suppose the unfolding re-election campaign may have been a factor, but even if the mayor and his staff were indeed behind the complaint, did they really believe that suspending this one account would end my satirical attacks on the mayor? After all, I was already branching out to other social media with the Frod identity, including writing articles “in character” for VICE.
Until the Freedom Of Information requests to the mayor’s office regarding the @TOMayorFrod account are eventually honoured (yes, some people are filing them), we may never know who initiated the complaint. Beyond that concern, though, many people have questions for Twitter about their parody policies, and what constitutes fair use of a public figure’s image and identity for satirical purposes. I believed that by naming my character “Frod” and designating him mayor of “Torotno,” I had made it clear enough that this was not claiming to be Rob Ford, mayor of Toronto. Still, from Ford’s perspective, he could reasonably argue that the appearance of the account was so close to the original, and the difference in spelling so minute, that people could erroneously assume that it was the genuine article… a theory borne out by empirical evidence of hundreds of confused replies on Twitter. While I certainly don’t mind people making fun of me, I also wouldn’t want anyone misled into believing the words of an imposter to be mine. So, I figure it’s a fair request, and if the account is restored, it will have a new look that will mark it more clearly as satire. It may take some of the punch out of the account, rendering it a more conventional parody rather than the
prank it had been (and for which I make no apologies). It will be a new chapter in the life of “Mayor Frod,” and I will continue this work, whatever new shape it may take, until its namesake is no longer in office. I hope that day will come soon.
Update: As of five minutes ago, we're back!