Jon Ronson is a bestselling author as well as a journalist for the Guardian and Time Out who, in 2012 had his identity stolen by a group of ‘trolling’ academics. The people in question were Luke Robert Mason, David Bausola and Dan O’Hara.
These were not your run-of-the-mill 14 year old 4chan trollers. They were extremely well educated. In fact, Luke was a researcher, David a ‘creative-technologist’/CEO and Dan lectured English and American literature at the University of Cologne.
The group had created a spambot – an automated computer program designed to assist in the sending of spam. The idea was born out of anger at a video Ronson had created which warned of the danger of spambots.
In the comments section the academics had warned him that “we’ve built Jon his own info-morph”. This particular ‘bot’ managed to replicate Jon Ronson’s on-line personality by tracking his tweets and posting similar topics. Or in their words, “re-purposing social media data into an in-fomorphic aesthetic”. The bot featured Jons photo and his name and was sending tweets as him. Why would you think that it was anybody else?
The tweets were fairly banal in tone – mostly anecdotes about various social arrangements – dinners, parties etc. For example,
However, they were littered with various irregularities and spelling mistakes. Enough to slander Jon’s reputation and journalistic credibility. For example
In what must have seemed like not the wisest move. David confronted the group head on in a video interview. He asked them why they had stolen his identity and if he could have it back. Mind you, they were not so obliging. Naming him an “aggressive person who wanted to ‘kill’ algorithms” and who “wishes to psychologically control them and the environment”.
After further exhaustive to-ing and fro-ing between the semantically obsessed academics and Ronson, the group gave their explanation as “wishing to highlight the tyranny of Wall St. algorithms – robots that automatically trade stocks and shares on the Dow Jones.
This story has really got the office talking so we thought it would be best to have a lightning round and share some of the email conversations from earlier in the day (unfortunately Chi was far too busy changing the worldwide SEO landscape to comment).
Do you think that there is anything wrong with what they have done?
Joe: Yes, wholly, they have not only re-appropriated his hard earned image and identity, but then shown complete arrogance to the detriment it may cause to him.
Ben: Absolutely – they took someone’s identity and used it for their own purposes. They framed it as an experiment, which is disingenuous, and were unapologetic – even refusing to understand Jon’s point of view.
George: Of course it’s wrong, if we can’t protect our own identity then that’s incredibly concerning. But I do kind of sympathise with the academics, their motive is fairly noble but the process is fundamentally wrong.
The team seems to be united in agreement that the whole affair is out of order and wrong, however Geraint had some choice words for the ‘academics’.
Geraint: Totally out of order & made my blood boil. The fact that they essentially stole Jon Ronson’s identify and had the audacity to mock him when they met. It struck me while watching this video that there was possibly more to this. These guys clearly didn’t like Jon Ronson on a personal level.
I doubt that they will be reading ‘Men Who Stare at Goats’ any-time soon…
How would you feel if someone had stolen your identity?
Ben: My emotions would vary depending on the situation. I have had money taken from my bank account, and I panicked that I wouldn’t get it back, but my bank were fine about it. I know someone who had his identity used by Mossad in the 1970’s, and that was scary as he was questioned by the security services. But both these cases are impersonal. This situation is personal, which I think makes it worse because it’s vindictive.
Geraint: I would be pissed off. I was mugged a few months back on Warren Street and that is the closest that I have come to having my identity stolen. I felt so invaded and disgusted by the thought of someone looking at pictures of me and my kids.
This whole situation is quite similar to the Liam Neeson film ‘Unknown’, although I suspect Neeson’s reaction to Dan O’Hara would be slightly more confrontational.
George: Like all the others, I would be absolutely outraged. I don’t think I would take it well. I had a similar situation a couple of years ago where a friend was using my name to post ads on Gumtree without my knowledge, the pranking was of course good natured but it became incredibly frustrating.
The items for sale ranged from Victorian prams to exotic birds and I would receive frenzied calls and texts constantly. There was nothing I could do. I even changed my number but the calls didn’t stop and I only found out who the culprit was a couple of months later.
Joe: Apprehensive as personal links, interests and views can be wrongly expressed.
We are definitely in unison about this, some of us have even had experiences of identity theft. How must Jon Ronson feel? It’s got to be incredibly jarring.
Will attitudes towards this relax over time?
Ben: I hope not! We are individuals, and just because the internet has made the world smaller and changed privacy forever doesn’t mean we should lose who we are. Whatever Dan O’Hara believes, I like to believe we’re not automatons.
Geraint: I hope that we are never in a position when this kind of behaviour becomes common-place.
Joe: No, Stealing someone’s identity should always be viewed as wrong and detrimental to the victim. What is likely to happen though, as media and the way we use it becomes ever more pervasive and common-place; instances of hacking and impersonation will become more widespread.
As this happens, institutions and the public alike will see the need to introduce more stringent measures to control people susceptible to this type of hacking and legislation against Twitter usage and other social media. Maybe sign-up information will need to become more and more personalised.
George: I definitely agree that sign-up information will become more and more intrinsic to the user. However, this kind of detail will probably only happen once the technology is there. Whatever happens, it’s going to be interesting to see where this takes us.
This is definitely something that will happen more often as people become more and more familiar with social media. One of the interesting aspects of this story was that the culprits weren’t a bunch of kids messing around. They were well educated academics.
It’s going to be fascinating to see how public perception to this changes over time. Will it become a Daily Mail style moral panic or will it become synonymous with living in these modern times? Something as normal as having your bank details cloned or an unwarranted sales call.