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Political Parodies on Twitter: ‘Mockery Can Be a Very Effective Tool’

June 14, 2012 at 12:00 AM EDT
As part of an ongoing series on how candidates use social media this election season, Margaret Warner and journalists Lauren Ashburn and Howard Kurtz of discuss how parody accounts of politicians and surrogates on Twitter and Pinterest are creating buzz online.

JEFFREY BROWN: Back to politics now and to how the campaign is playing out online.

Margaret Warner has tonight’s edition of the Daily Download.

MARGARET WARNER: That’s our regular segment on social media and the Web. And we’re joined by two journalists from the website That’s with a hyphen.

LAUREN ASHBURN is the site’s editor in chief, formerly with USA Today Live and Gannett Broadcasting. And Howard Kurtz is with Newsweek and host of CNN’s “Reliable Sources.”

And welcome back to you both.

HOWARD KURTZ, Newsweek/CNN: Thank you.

MARGARET WARNER: As we saw earlier in the program, President Obama took his economic pitch to Cleveland in a campaign-style event. And his campaign went to great lengths to amplify this through social media.

LAUREN ASHBURN, They did. They were live streaming it on your computers. And before and during the speech, David Axelrod, campaign strategist for President Obama, asked for questions and then would later have a town hall in which he would answer the questions.

And the way that he would know that they were questions for the town hall is if you put the hashtag, which is a symbol where you can search for things, Obama 2012. And some of the questions, Margaret, were very good.

If Bush tax cuts caused these deficits, why did you extend? It was a thoughtful question. What is his job plan? And the other one was, what is hiding under his mustache?


LAUREN ASHBURN: It did range.

MARGARET WARNER: So, did the president respond to these? Did these get through and become part of the event?

HOWARD KURTZ: Well, the president wasn’t taking any questions on Twitter. He’s done that twice before, campaigned very aggressive in the use of Twitter.

But I think they kind of bobbled the ball on this one. An hour after the speech, Axelrod still hadn’t posted any answers for this. And things move very quickly online. And I think they kind of missed the moment. Also, with more conservative detractors of the president using that hashtag, it was kind of a mixed message.

MARGARET WARNER: So, meanwhile, we are hearing a lot about these parody accounts in social media. What are those?

LAUREN ASHBURN: Well, parody accounts are basically made up by somebody.

MARGARET WARNER: This is on Twitter?

LAUREN ASHBURN: On Twitter. It was on Twitter by somebody posing as somebody else.

So in this instance, the Romney campaign posed as Bill Clinton and said — tweeting as Bill Clinton — “There’s no question that Mitt Romney had a sterling business career,” which is playing off of something he actually said.


LAUREN ASHBURN: And then the next one was, “A vote for Barack Obama is a crapshoot,” which is a word that he had used, but not quite in this context.

HOWARD KURTZ: My favorite fake Clinton tweet is, “I’m back, baby.”


HOWARD KURTZ: But we can report to you that Twitter has taken down this fake Bill Clinton account, a Twitter spokeswoman telling me that while they’re pretty liberal about letting people use parody or satirical accounts, it has to be crystal clear, in the way that this one wasn’t, that it’s not the real person.

And the Romney campaign told me that it didn’t take this down voluntarily. Twitter only acts when there’s a complaint. So, clearly, there was a complaint by the Democratic side. So now the Romney campaign, which apparently is in love with this Clinton approach, is putting the fake President Clinton tweets on its own Web site, no longer on Twitter.

MARGARET WARNER: Where it will be very clear that it’s a Romney product.

Now, is Mitt Romney a target of these?

LAUREN ASHBURN: He most certainly is. Here’s another one we found, the LeVraiMitt.


LAUREN ASHBURN: The Real Mitt. Right.

And your French is much better, I’m sure, but it basically says, “The unions are dead, le boo-hoo,” which I don’t think need to be translated.

HOWARD KURTZ: There are a number of fake or parody Mitt Romney accounts, including the latest one that popped up has to do with Ann Romney’s horse, which is trying to qualify for the Olympics.

So the horse now has a Twitter account, and I think it’s probably clear that that one is phony.

MARGARET WARNER: But this one isn’t even pretending to be from Mitt Romney, right?

HOWARD KURTZ: It’s got a nice picture of him.



MARGARET WARNER: So that’s believed to be so clearly a parody that Twitter wouldn’t take this down.



MARGARET WARNER: Now, then it’s also moved beyond Twitter, hasn’t it, and out of the presidential campaign?

LAUREN ASHBURN: It has. And if you look here on Pinterest — that’s the social media sharing site where you can…



LAUREN ASHBURN: … pin up like pictures of France, and then you title your board, and they have done Claire McCaskill, senator from Missouri.

They do label it very clearly, saying this is a parody and that the posts are by American Crossroads.

HOWARD KURTZ: And that is, of course, the Republican super PAC founded by Karl Rove, which is trying very hard to elect Mitt Romney.

And I’ll tell you, it may be a phony account, but some of that food looks pretty mouthwatering.

LAUREN ASHBURN: Well, it’s funny because the board is what to eat at a D.C. fund-raiser, and then there’s sushi and a $5,000 price tag.

HOWARD KURTZ: There’s another category called fun-on-air Claire, and that’s of course is a reference to Senator McCaskill’s private jet, where she got into some trouble for taking political trips and had to pay a lot whole of back taxes. So it’s a way of needling her, shall we say, with some real controversies.

MARGARET WARNER: Now, this is the first campaign where we have really seen this in full flower. One, what do the campaigns think they’re accomplishing? And is there any evidence that these have a real effect in terms of affecting voters?

LAUREN ASHBURN: I think Howie and I disagree here.

Number one, to answer your question, I think that the campaigns think that they are attracting a young audience here who really does enjoy snark in a way…

HOWARD KURTZ: … kind of a “Daily Show”…


LAUREN ASHBURN: … in a way that maybe older voters don’t, helping to turn out the vote.

However, I think that people who do vote who are older feel that this is silly sandbox talk.

HOWARD KURTZ: Maybe. And I’m not saying this has a huge effect.

But what happens is, mockery can be a very tool in presidential campaigns or any kind of campaign. And I’m reminded of that famous video of John Edwards combing his hair in front of the mirror or John Kerry windsurfing.


MARGARET WARNER: Which were real things.

HOWARD KURTZ: Which were real things that happened.

And these are parodies, but sometimes they’re built on real things like Bill Clinton’s actual statement. So if this kind of mockery can get into the political mainstream, written about on blogs, we already talked about it on television…


HOWARD KURTZ: … people tend to remember it, and it can scuff up a candidate’s image. It doesn’t always work, not always funny, but the campaigns certainly are devoting some attention to it.

LAUREN ASHBURN: One other thing to add is that David Axelrod has 96,000 followers on Twitter.

So people like to hear what he has to say. And I think that by doing this just the level that the Obama campaign is doing, you’re engaging people

MARGARET WARNER: And that’s on social media more broadly, not through a parody.


And so we live in a culture where people like to know what Letterman and Leno and Colbert and Jon Stewart are doing. And I think this collectively — and some of them are anonymous — is an attempt to tap into that and have some fun with what can otherwise sometimes be the deadly serious business of politics.

MARGARET WARNER: Deadly serious.

Well, thank you both, Howie and Lauren.