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Wendi Deng, the wife of news baron Rupert Murdoch, must be fuming after an impostor fooled everyone — including Murdoch’s own company — with a fake Twitter account. She’ll have to live with it.
As previous incidents have shown, the law and Twitter itself will side with satirists even when a famous name is at stake.
For anyone who missed it, the fun began when @wendi_deng decided to join her ‘husband’ in his resolution to begin tweeting in 2012. Unlike Murdoch’s tweets, which were panned as ‘boring‘ by Gawker, the messages from his ersatz wife were reported with delight by the media — until, that is, ‘Wendi’ confessed they were a hoax.
The fake Wendi, who is actually a man in Britain, now joins other famous bogus Twitter accounts like ones tied to St. Louis Cardinals manager Tony La Russa and oil-spill villain BP. The latter is still active at @BPglobalPR and includes recent gems like “Please, write your representatives and tell them you’ve forgotten about the Gulf of Mexico.”
These impersonation accounts have also triggered their share of full-blow lawsuits. This summer, an insurance firm forced a court settlement with a person who had been sending fake tweets about its business of allowing investors to bet on death. And La Russa sued Twitter in 2009 after an alter-ego mocked his DUI conviction but dropped the suit shortly after.
In the case of Deng and Murdoch, legal experts say they will have little luck driving the male UK Wendi from the site.
“It’s not clear that she has a remedy under trademark law,” says Professor Lisa Ramsey of the University of San Diego. She adds that companies who can show a Twitter account is causing confusion might have a trademark case but that it will be harder for an individual to do the same
, especially if they are not widely famous. Celebrities who have registered their name in association with products or services have certain rights but fame alone is not enough for a trademark suit. Ramsey also noted that though some states have laws on impersonation, there is no federal law on the issue.
This means that it’s largely up to Twitter to decide what to do with fake accounts. The company has an impersonation policy and a check mark system to verify real celebrity accounts (that somehow failed on this occasion). But it also has a strong record in standing up for parody and other First Amendment rights.
“I think it’s great that Twitter is balancing free speech against trademark rights and rights of publicity,” said Ramsey, who has published articles on brand-jacking and social networks.
But if Deng and Murdoch get aggressive, they may have an opening because the fake account belongs to a British man. Compared to America, the UK courts have a poor record of protecting free speech which has earned them a reputation for “libel tourism.” This means that a UK defamation lawsuit could be a backdoor into shutting down the Twitter account.
In the meantime, though, “Wendi” appears to be having the time of his life. The Twitter account is buzzing with messages from famous journalists and the author is tweeting a stream of new adventures.