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Zuma, Malema and the curious art of twitter-jacking

Do you have a bone to pick with those in power? Are you funny and tech-savvy with too much time on your hands? If so, then you’re in the prime demographic to do some Twitterjacking, a passive form of identity theft on Twitter.

All you need to do is pick a politician or a person in power, then sign up for a Twitter account in their name and begin to tweet away in a defamatory, but hilarious, way. It’s happening right now to South Africa’s President Jacob Zuma.

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“The president” sent this tweet from @jacobzuma a few days ago.
“Back from China. Wish my people were small, yellow and pliant.” This was followed a few hours later by “Helen Zille has got 11369 followers, I have 103. And like hers, mine are all mostly white. Lucky they don’t count when it’s election time.”

South Africa’s president seems to be a favourite of unofficial tweeters. Another fake Zuma account, @therealjz, posted a simple statement on the 7th of June. “So hung over”. There is obviously a political agenda to these tweets; a sarcastic irreverence that strikes a chord with all those who follow.

@ANCdomesticPr is another fake Twitter account that sprang up in response to the “crackdown” on South African media with tweets like “Hey Gupta, how is The New Age coming along? Hurry up, boet,” or “Thorn-in-sidia. Very serious offence. RT @mattduplessis Wait, what exactly are these charges against Mzilikazi that haven’t been dropped?” However this account seems to have gone quiet lately. Perhaps the tweeter got bored.

The fake Julius Malema Twitter account is an odd mix of fact and fiction. It’s not exactly funny, but it’s clearly not real either. Or is it? Take this tweet from @julius_s_malema: “Tripartite alliance partners r nw being used by individuals to fight their battles. The SABC and its board must fight their own battles”.

What’s the point of faking a statement like that, other than a deep desire for people to actually believe that you are Malema himself? Perhaps there is some curious thrill in fooling people in this manner. On the other hand, some of the fake Julius’ tweets are quite amusing, like “We must avoid a situation where the president and his family are richer than the entire country”.

Fake Twitter accounts seem to spring up around certain key events or people that have provoked an outpouring of comment and emotion. They rise up, tweet up a storm, then fade away until the next issue arises.

But do they give a voice to a marginalised and frustrated youth culture who feel they have no other way of engaging in democratic debate? Or are they just racist, sarcastic and pointless rants at easy targets?

The trend has taken off like wildfire. Twitterjacking or phweeting (phony tweeting) came under the spotlight when it was discovered that the Dalai Lama was not actually the tweeter behind the tweets. His account drew more than 20 000 followers in just over two days. This event marked the beginning of “verified” Twitter accounts.

Today it’s almost a mark of status to be parodied on Twitter, as if you’ve only really made it into the popular culture once someone is tweeting in your name. @georgebush tweeted “I can write boobies on a calculator”, while @kimjongil wrote “off the terrorist list for a second time. W00t!”.

The mark of a great twitterjacking is the ability of the writer to persist over a sustained period of time, building an audience and delivering insight into the zeitgeist through the familiar voice of a celebrated politician. So when @fakesarahpalin tweeted “Thinking of strapping myself to a balloon to stay relevant” during the balloon-boy saga, it resonated because it was funny, relevant and “kinda made y’all think, right?”

Anyone can begin a fake Twitter account, but few can see it through to the punchline.

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