I run the @DarthPutinKGB “parody” account. The inverted commas are over the word parody for a reason. An account parodying any part of the Kremlin will, by definition, sound almost identical to a verified Kremlin account. From passing homophobic laws while posing for homoerotic photo shoots, to putting dead people on trial for crimes they got murdered for exposing, to denying and then later admitting the presence of their armed forces in numerous conflicts, when it comes to the Kremlin, it can be hard to tell reality from parody.
The account portrays Putin as a maniacal, sinister villain bent on world domination who thinks nothing of murdering those who irritate him while he drops vodka (and real) bombs. He also thinks he is God’s gift to women but is in fact that drunk you can find in any bar on a Friday night who makes women’s skin crawl as he desperately tries to get laid.
Darth Putin is also a pathological liar who would deny it snows in Russia with a straight face if he needed to. Beneath it all, deep down he knows he’s just an emperor currently in the late stages of a massive wardrobe malfunction that he prays no one will eventually notice. Maybe this is why some struggle to tell if it’s parody or not.
Since late 2013 it has a following of about 58,000.
Someone, somewhere, was not amused. Last Tuesday the account was suspended as, despite a bio that said “146% of Russians didn’t elect me. You don’t visit Russia, I visit you. I serve tea to those who call this parody. Tweets made while topless signed “vvp” it was decided it could be confused with the real person and thus violated Twitter’s terms of service.
So what lead Twitter to shut down this obvious parody account? Well, Darth wasn’t the first to be sent to Twitter’s gulag for re-education.
What first annoyed the Kremlin occurred on May 18 when the Veneto Regional Council (no, I’d never heard of them either) voted to recognize Crimea as part of Russia.
Naturally, the Russian Foreign Ministry was keen to make the most political hay out of this tectonic shift in European politics. Sadly, its efforts were undone by Euronews running an article on the subject that included @sovietsergey’s tweet embedded in the story. “Soviet Sergey” is an obvious parody account of Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, which even the Kremlin’s propaganda outlet Russia Today seems to get.
Keen to highlight their thick skin and desperate not to draw attention to the fact that it’s very easy to mistake them for their own parodies, the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokeswoman Maria Zakharova drew as much attention as she could to this small issue by taking to her Facebook for a rant with Foreign Ministry also chiming in for a whinge about Russophobia and information war against Russia.
This ensured more than 25 Russian news agencies reported this Russophobic inability to differentiate their verified accounts from parodies. Clearly just ignoring it was a much less sensible option.
So that’s what got @sovietsergey sent to Twitter gulag but it wasn’t the end. In fairly quick succession, a parody of Russia’s embassy in London @rusembassynot, the Russian ambassador to Great Britain @ambyakovenkonot, and then, Twitter’s window on Soviet Russia, @russia__not, were all suspended.
Finally, @DarthPutinKGB was suspended. Given the other accounts had been shut down, I was not surprised Darth was targeted. It’s not the first time he has annoyed the powerful but thin-skinned. In December Darth was among those to be targeted in state level hack attempt, (see this tweet).
As it was the fifth different account to be suspended, we can reasonably deduce that either some part of the Kremlin was “requesting” that Twitter do this or Twitter was doing it to appease.
Whatever the reason, it caused massive backlash against Twitter with an online campaign with the almost every news outlet from Al Jazeera to The Washington Post running stories about Twitter bending to the will of a dictatorship.
The Twitter brass themselves won’t comment and the various parts of the Russian government who were contacted by the press denied involvement. But, as Darth will tell you, you must only believe what the Kremlin denies.
If the intent was to silence criticism of the Kremlin, it’s clear the Russian Foreign Ministry has never heard of the Streisand Effect, as it back-fired spectacularly. It’s hard to think of a better way to draw attention to their inability take being laughed at or expose an uncomfortable relationship between a tech giant and an autocracy.
Getting the account reinstated was fairly straightforward. Twitter has an appeal process and, as the account was clearly a parody that was attracting a tidal wave of negative attention for Twitter, all that was needed was to remove “Vladimir Putin” and change the title to something that meant people couldn’t be confused with tweets from the real guy.
Apparently the Kremlin believes tweets like “Good Night. The invasion of Panama begins at dawn” could be confused as being from the president of the Russian Federation unless “Darth Putin” appears as the name.
The Kremlin spends millions on getting its message into the west through Russia Today and Sputnik. Its ministries are very active on social media and they have just gone and announced that the one thing they fear. They fear that after all the effort and millions spent denying the invasion of Ukraine, responsibility for MH17 and bombing Syrian hospitals, it is still very easy to confuse them for their own parody accounts. And furthermore, they hate that fact. Imagine being head of communications in the Russian Foreign Ministry and being asked to explain this. Worse, there’s not really a lot they can do about it. It’s not like they can admit their message is worthy of the mockery they are so clearly unable to take.
There is, however, a wider issue at stake here. Leaders like Putin will tell you that no society outside the West is capable of having an organic protest to demand better governance. In his mind it is the CIA that is behind every uprising against dictatorship everywhere in the world. As insulting to these societies as it is and as absurd as it sounds, they genuinely believe it.
Tyrants are convinced that it is through Twitter and other social media platforms that the Americans ferment regime change, hence their various attempts to control these platforms. So what does it say that Twitter chose to side with the Kremlin five times, rather than those they might shoot for protesting?
Twitter’s willingness to shut down five accounts that an autocracy believed were a threat is extremely positive news for all the members of the autocrat’s club. In future we cannot expect the tech firm to stand against requests to censor acts of brutality or to not shut down anyone who dares to use the service to speak against tyranny when they really need to. And that’s a pretty shitty advertisement for the ethics of a social media giant.