Online Impersonation as Rhetorical Tool

Online impersonation is nothing new on Twitter, and the fact that a number of celebrities have “TheReal” or “Real” prepended to their twitter handles is evidence of the numerous imposters out there in cyberspace. Because of the ease in the digital world to copy/paste and easily duplicate images and text, impersonation has become easier than ever.

While impersonating trolls have spread false celebrity rumors and created mischief throughout the twittersphere, a new case of impersonation has arisen in an academic and cultural debate occurring on Twitter. Rajiv Malhotra (@RajivMessage), a self proclaimed Hindu public intellectual, has been accused of plagiarism by Richard Fox Young (@richardFoxYoung), a professor of History of Religions at Princeton Theological Seminary.

A self-described parody account of Malhotra first appeared in February of 2014 with the handle @RajivMassage, a play on Malhotra’s actual twitter handle, along with “Rajiv Malhotra” as the name. The picture was one of Malhotra, presumably taken from his account. The imposter played off of accusations that Malhotra did not know Sanskrit and paid money to boost his tweets. There was a break in tweets from June of 2014 until July of 2015 when the user jumped in on the debate about the plagiarism accusations.

Yesterday, a parody account of Young appeared on the scene with the more heavily innuendo driven handle @RichardFuxYoung. Unlike Malhotra’s parody, this account features Young’s current twitter photo in addition to his name.

It will be interesting to see how the events unfold in this discussion, which has already been riddled with name calling, inflammatory remarks, and not a small amount of innuendo and highly sexualized language. The form of satire and parody is nothing new, and political cartoons and caricatures have featured prominently in propaganda wars since the time of the Reformation and continues today in new forms (such as satirical publications like The Onion or tv shows like Saturday Night Live). What will be interesting in this conversation is the way that these farcical accounts contribute to the ethos of the prominent users in this debate. Some researchers (Coleman 1999; Dyer 1995) in CMC (computer mediated communication) hold up theories of deindividuation when individuals get caught up in their group resulting in loss of self-awareness. I wonder if these imposter accounts, as satire and parody, reinforce this group categorization by portraying the opponent in a caricatured way. Since the days of the satirist Juvenal, people have noted that often there is a truth exposed in satire and parody that lies beneath the surface of cultural consciousness. Do these caricatures then in fact mirror the perception of the opposing group? In other words, while on the surface the @RichardFuxYoung account is merely a parody account, what does this parody reveal about how those in Malhotra’s camp actually feel about Young? Similarly, a close analysis of the @RajivMassage account reveals the thinking of those in Young’s camp: Malhotra is not a “real” scholar who knows Sanskrit; Malhotra uses his money to buy influence; Malhotra trivially dismisses the plagiarism accusations.

In studying responses to these false accounts and the networks surrounding them, much can be learned about rhetoric, discourse analysis, and social media. This blogpost is just the tip of the iceberg, and I am hopeful that more analysis of online impersonations will reveal more about the layers of interpersonal interaction in the digital world.

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