Twitter is a superb avenue for the rapid spread of information. It may be an even better avenue for the spread of disinformation.
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Dealbook reports that @GSElevator, a Twitter account that had more than 600,000 followers and purported to consist of utterances overheard in the offices of Goldman Sachs, is not what it seems. Its author, anonymous until now, turns out to be a Texan named John Lefevre, who never worked at Goldman Sachs, although he was offered a job there once and spent seven years at Citigroup.
@GSElevator thus becomes the latest in a line of viral Twitter sensations that seemed too good to be true and proved to be just that. There was @Horse_ebooks, a fake account that was half put-on, half performance art. Written by humans to sound like a spambot, it racked up more than 200,000 followers and earned its creators a New Yorker profile.
There was reality TV producer Elan Gale’s passive-aggressive note-passing war with a fellow airplane passenger, which turned out to be entirely fictional. There was Mia Farrow’s tweet about watching the trashy Syfy movie “Sharknado” with Philip Roth, which turned out to be her idea of a joke but nevertheless got written up all over the blogosphere.
Most of these hoaxes are harmless. Some aren’t. Shishank Tripathi, the Twitter user better known as @ComfortablySmug, arguably fomented dangerous panic when he made false claims about power shutdowns and government paralysis during Hurricane Sandy.
If hoaxes thrive on Twitter, it’s partly because Twitter is content to let them. The service’s rules have very little to say about the practice of tricking millions of people. You’re not supposed to impersonate someone else, although that didn’t stop whoever was behind a fake account for author Cormac McCarthy from fooling plenty of people, including Twitter cofounder Jack Dorsey.
There’s also a prohibition on violating trademarks. While Twitter will occasionally invoke this (especially if a major partner is the one lodging the complaint, cynics would say), for the most part the company prefers to style itself “the free speech wing of the free speech party.” For those running protest or parody accounts, Twitter offers a whole page of guidelines for avoiding trademark violation.
While it functioned as a form of commentary on the culture of Wall Street, @GSElevator wasn’t a parody account, exactly. It was a straight-up hoax. Simon & Schuster, which bought Lefevre’s book for a six-figure advance, says it doesn’t care, since the author never portrayed himself to them as having worked at Goldman Sachs.
Do Twitter users care? Apparently not. By now, we’ve all seen more than enough to make us doubt the viral flavor of the day. But faced with the choice between questioning and retweeting — well, there’s only a button for one of those things.