This is the third interview I’ve conducted in the course of writing a paper on the practice of faking on Twitter – this one’s with Fake Steve Fielding. (A bit of a gap this time, as it’s been very brisk on a number of fronts for me in recent weeks.)
For those outside Australia, Steve Fielding is a prominent, balance-of-power Senator in Australia’s Federal Parliament. Senator Fielding represents Family First, a small party that draws heavily on the values of the Pentecostal churches in taking its political positions. Due to the vagaries of the Senate’s voting and preference systems, Senator Fielding was elected in 2004 on the basis of about 1.6% of the primary vote in the state of Victoria. He now wields considerable power, though, due to his importance in a Senate where neither the ALP government, nor the main opposition parties have control of the numbers.
It’s fair to say that Senator Fielding has been a target for parodists, and to some he’s a figure of fun. He’s given to odd stunts, he has an idiosyncratic rhetorical style, and he has recently become a prominent voice for climate change scepticism. Recently, he had an unfortunate bout of poor spelling, which led to him confessing to a learning disorder, and much discussion in the press and the blogosphere about whether or not this should make him immune to criticism.
Certainly many, especially those on the left, have decided that Senator Fielding is hopelessly out of his depth. And that’s certainly the attitude that comes across in the work of his parodic faker, who we’ll identify as “FakeFielding” for the purposes of this interview.
Interestingly, this is the only faker I’ve talked to who’s had any trouble with Twitter – details in the interview.
Could you explain why you chose your specific target for parody? What was the attraction to that particular person, or the circumstances that led you to choose them?
I’ve always been attracted to Steve Fielding as somebody perfectly ripe for parody and ridicule. I mean, does it get any better than an accidental Senator clearly out of his depth and desperately searching for relevance, all the while hiding his true motivation (religion) behind a co-opted and misrepresented word (family)? To top it all off Fielding has a beautiful habit of frequently acting like a complete goose, sometimes on purpose. How can you not have a laugh at a grown man whose single most important contribution to Australian democracy is going to work in a bottle suit?
Parody is often said to be about exaggeration for effect. Are there particular aspects of your subject’s demeanour, public speech or personal style that you exaggerate? Is there anything in particular that you play up?
I think the only aspect of the real Fielding that I play up is his tendency to screw up his speech by mixing metaphors, mangling clauses, or putting the completely wrong words in sentences. Oh, that and his relentlessly and embarrassingly self-aggrandising ways. The rest of FakeFielding is based on the popular caricature of real Fielding: bumbling, simple, a bit stupid. Those qualities I play up mercilessly. Then there are characteristics that are unique to the Fake Steve such as his childlike manner and desires. Even though this stuff exists only in my head (I’m sure that real Steve doesn’t call his wife in tears when he can’t open the tomato sauce bottle) it’s plausible because … well, it just is.
What do you usually bounce off when you’re composing parody tweets? E.g. does the news or the public appearances of your targets form the basis of tweets, or do you simply stay in character?
Sometimes I react to what’s going on in the news, and I especially try to make FakeFielding’s tweets match any of his appearances in the media, but most of the time I just try to write something in character.
Do you have a writing process? Is there a particular craft that goes into your parody tweets, or are they reasonably spontaneous?
Very spontaneous. I generally update my personal Twitter account and then switch over to the FakeFielding account with no idea about what I’m going to write. I’ll then jump into character and see if I can think of something funny to write.
Do you publish elsewhere, either in or out of character?
I blog and write elsewhere out of character.
How do you feel about Twitter as a platform for parody? Does the character limit impose a useful discipline? Does the interactive/networked platform make a difference?
I reckon Twitter’s great for parody. Being able to mimic a person’s stream-of-consciousness train of thought or report on their mundane daily routine opens up a goldmine of parody potential. The character limit only reinforces the “thought bubble” nature of the tweets and increases the chance you’ll tweet something that’s short, sharp and funny. The only drawback to the interactive nature of Twitter is that if you tweet a response to one particular person the exchange is invisible to other followers.
Have you had any interactions – negative or positive – with the target of your parody? Has Twitter ever been in contact to try to rein you in in any way?
I’ll let an email I received from Twitter in March ’09 do the talking:
We’ve received a complaint from a fellow Twitterer. It has come to our attention that your Twitter account:
is in violation of our basic Terms of Service, specifically article 4 which mentions impersonation:
4. You must not abuse, harass, threaten, impersonate or intimidate other Twitter users.
In this case “impersonation” is the issue. Impersonation is against our terms of service unless it’s parody. The standard for defining parody is, “Would a reasonable person be aware that it’s a joke.”
To settle this issue we’ve removed the profile image and changed the user name to “fakefielding” in the full name and username fields in order to eliminate confusion.
Has your parody practice ever had any effects – negative or positive – on your life beyond Twitter?
No. Real life and the Internet coming together is like crossing the streams in Ghostbusters.
What is your sense of your audience? Do you feel that they’re politically engaged; does everybody get it; are you broadly interactive with your audience; or is your audience too large to generalise?
From the replies I’ve received to my tweets I sense that my followers are generally politically active. I guess they’d need to be to have an interest in following a fake politician.
Do you feel that what you’re doing has politica; significance? Is targeting this person in line with your broader politica; outlook? Are you having an effect in terms of your own political beliefs/commitments? Or is it done mainly for laughs?
Laughs. Full stop. My parody of Steve Fielding is in line with my own contempt for his politics, but I’m not silly enough to expect that FakeFielding will have any political impact outside pandering to people who probably share my contempt.
Will you be maintaining your efforts into the future? Is it time-consuming? Does it take away from other things – other writing projects or your work or home life?
I’d love to continue with FakeFielding, especially through his campaign for re-election in 2010. I sincerely hope, for the health of Australia’s democracy, that the FakeFielding account will become redundant in 2011.
Speaking in the broad terms, what’s your take on Twitter as a platform for parody AND/OR political debate? Is it emerging as a space where people can “do” politics and humour? Any favourite exponents?
I’m a big fan of Twitter. I think it’s a great tool for networking, exchanging ideas, and having a laugh. I’m not sure that it is the best forum for in-depth political debate, but I’d love to be proven wrong on that. The way that people use Twitter is constantly evolving so who knows the role it might play in the heat of next year’s election campaign. At the moment I think the most likely situation will involve people having one conversation on Twitter that somewhat overlaps with a more detailed conversation on blogs and other websites.