“People, including the media, like believing what is easy to believe.”
America's newest Secretary of State, Rex Tillerson, isn't on Twitter. But since January, a convincing account called @realRWTillerson left many people, journalists included, wondering whether the former ExxonMobil CEO had finally come online.
Over the weekend, though, two tweets from the account made it clear that Tillerson was still very much offline. In response to President Trump's Muslim immigration ban, @realRWTillerson had this to say:
I'm fairly confident that a hopeful Secretary of State wouldn't bite the hand that feeds it. Especially when that individual is Tillerson, whose history—which includes lobbying against US sanctions, ties to allegations of human rights abuses, and decades of seeding climate change deception, not to mention a close friendship with Vladimir Putin—makes him somewhat of an accidental diplomat.
On Sunday, I confirmed the account was a hoax with White House transition team member Christian Whiton.
I recently got in touch with the person tweeting as fake Rex Tillerson. They told me they work in the publishing industry, but have otherwise chosen to remain anonymous. I was able to confirm they were indeed the owner of the account, and we chatted a bit about Twitter, dissent, fake news, and, of course, Tillerson himself.
Our interview has been edited for clarity:
Motherboard: What made you decide to create a surprisingly convincing Rex Tillerson Twitter account?
Fake Rex Tillerson: Well, first, I suppose the idea of doing it was just out of curiosity—simply, whether I could. But it quickly became apparent that people are quick to believe what they want to believe, which made me realize that I now had an (albeit small) opportunity to perhaps do some good.
I'll be totally upfront that I am disgusted by this administration and its worldview. So, I suppose to a certain degree, I was flying a false flag.
That's cool. What made you decide to go the subtle route, instead of pure parody? I assume that's why so many journalists accidentally retweeted you.
Well, I knew that in order to reach the most people—people I wanted to target, that is (supporters of this administration)—I needed to make them believe that the account was authentic and that the tweets were actually coming from Rex. If I had made a purely parody account, I wouldn't be able to reach the conservative audience I wanted to reach. Also, there were already a couple other obviously parody accounts on Twitter, so that market was already getting crowded.
My original plan was to gather followers before really pushing the boundaries of what Rex would believably say in order to perhaps spark a constructive conversation among people that might otherwise dismiss the topic if it came from someone else. Namely, an open liberal. I was trying to "incept" them, I guess.
I think you succeeded! How does it feel to read stories like this?
Oh definitely. Within a couple hours of those tweets, my follower count exploded by a couple thousand, and then I was promptly shut down.
[Editor's note: Fake Tillerson told Motherboard they didn't know BuzzFeed News had written about them.]
People, including the media, like believing what is easy to believe. Whatever that might mean, individually. Part of what disappoints me when I read the news is that a lot of information is mined from social media, oftentimes without substantiation. I think it's lazy. Reporting means tracking down real sources, verifying them, corroborating them against other reliable sources, and then clearing away the opinions to present the public with factual information. Going to someone's Twitter account, or alleged Twitter account, for "quotes" or information is not reporting.
I think, despite my cringes, Trump has a point about the news. But he's wrong that it's fake. What it sometimes is, however, is misinformed; the reporting is real, but the sources are unreliable. Just like my Rex account.
What happened on your end when Twitter suspended you? They're not very transparent about that sort of stuff.
Nothing. I switched over to the Rex account from my real account and it just gave me that "your account had been suspended" screen. When it was suspended, I was not entirely surprised but still disappointed a bit. It was expected, though, and I wasn't too concerned by it, ultimately.
[Editor's note: Motherboard asked a Twitter spokesperson if the company had plans to make it harder for people to impersonate public figures, and was directed to Twitter's impersonation policy and FAQ pages.]
Does it scare you that you're on the State Department's radar? A lot of "rogue" Twitter accounts have emerged recently—some for fun, and others claiming to be whistleblowers. Do you think Twitter is a safe medium for dissent?
I acknowledge that I broke Twitter's rules, and that's fine. I went into this knowing that and that I could be suspended at any time. But I am not afraid of the State Department.
I refuse to be afraid of my government. I know what I was up to was a form of impersonation, but I also know that everything people took to be authentic from my profile is just as much their responsibility as mine. I had almost seven thousand followers, so that's seven thousand accomplices. My account was not verified, there had been no official announcement from the White House or State Department that Rex was on Twitter, so my account was just as obviously phony as the other more obvious parody accounts.
The difference is that mine "looked" legitimate because I was being subtle or innocuous, and my handle began with a very Trumpian "@real."
Right on. What you think about Motherboard's story that "rogue" Twitter accounts should verify themselves if they want to be trusted by journalists?
I think that's a valid argument. But it's still up to consumers of information, whether private individuals or the press, to verify through thoughtful fact-checking, and decide whether the information is sound.
Account verification helps, but verification doesn't mean that the account is bound to the truth. A verified Rex account could say that burning coal is good for baby rabbits, but the verification doesn't make it true.
Obviously I think people are smart enough to know something as absurd as that isn't true, but it's another thing to expect them to "not believe everything they read online," especially if the source has a little blue check.
Third-party verification would definitely be helpful in informing the public that the operators of the accounts are, in the example of @NotAltWorld, in fact run by members of that agency. I think we can trust the "Alt National Park Service" to give us reliable climate facts and stories about our nation's public spaces, don't get me wrong, but I would definitely double check their stats and claims before printing them in an article or on a blog someplace and call it reporting.
Are human actions the primary cause of modern climate change? Yes or no.
I, Fake Rex Tillerson, believe that human actions are definitely the primary cause of modern climate change.