Q-and-A: Richard Feren, the man behind @DougFrod

Torontoist

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politics

Q-and-A: Richard Feren, the man behind @DougFrod

“I have a half-dozen photos of Rob and Doug posing with Trump that I will happily pull out when it’s relevant.”

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The extremely accurate and not-at-all satirical profile photo of the now-suspended @DougFrod account.

Among their many distinguished achievements, the Ford family has also inspired some of Twitter’s greatest works of satire. From the very start of Rob Ford’s term, @TOMayorFrod was faved, retweeted, and generally hailed as a hilarious narration amid the chaos.

So it came as a surprise when its companion account, @DougFrod, was suspended earlier this week. The @DougFrod account started as a parody of Rob Ford’s campaign account in early 2014, but was repurposed as a DoFo account when he ran for mayor in Rob’s stead.

“I’m looking at setting up a new account. It’s a shame that one won’t be restored,” says Richard Feren, the man behind the account, as well as three other Ford-related Twitter accounts, all of which are still active. Doug Ford is expected to reveal his political plan at Ford Fest tonight. We spoke to Richard Feren about his new Twitter strategy.

Q. Any guesses on who might’ve reported this account?

Twitter basically just sent me a boilerplate response saying it violated their impersonation policy and that the account won’t not be restored. Recently, there was a Toronto Star article that hinted at him running for mayor. So I used this parody account to tweet a link to that story and just made a little comment about how he’s poised to strike. Nothing controversial. The next thing I know, the account has been suspended.

Q. Your other account, @TOMayorFrod, was briefly suspending in 2014. Do you think the line is too thin between parody and impersonation? Twitter defines impersonation as what “is intended to or does mislead, confuse, or deceive others.”

Impersonation, when it comes to Twitter, is a fairly specific thing. It usually means outright identity theft. It suggests that somebody, either Doug Ford himself or somebody representing him, pitched the complaint in that way and verified the identity somehow. This came up before with the @TOMayorFrod account in February 2014, but they treated that a little differently, more as a trademark infringement and said that I had to alter the look of the Twitter profile and make it clearer that it was satire.

What’s confusing in this case is that the @DougFrod account was clearly labelled as satire. How Twitter interpreted it as impersonation is the strange part. I’m pretty sure Doug Ford himself doesn’t even use Twitter. There is an account in his name (@fordnation) but it’s clearly staffed, and only occasionally tweets out official announcements. He doesn’t really use it for his own personal messaging.

Q. You say that you’re not running these accounts for the laughs. You consider it to be a civic responsibility. Why?

Originally, the @MayorFrod account was something that I did as a way of dealing with the anger that I felt about Rob Ford. Long before he was elected mayor, I knew fully well what a terrible person he was and how much of a terrible mayor he would be. The original satire wasn’t so much directed at him, but at his official Twitter account, which tried to pretend that there was nothing wrong as it just tweeted agenda notices. My parody account became a very deadpan way to provide official updates from the mayor’s office that would often quote his own words and portray his absurdities. It all grew out of the frustration that I felt. He was able to propagandize himself and it wasn’t being sufficiently questioned. We all know the media was on him, but not on all fronts. I saw my role as filling in those gaps on a daily basis. I think that was fairly effective.

Q. Do you find it hypocritical that Twitter banned your account parodying a political figure, but still allows Nazis and automated Russian bot accounts to live? 

Twitter can set their terms of service and can sensor, suspend users, and shut down accounts based on their own rules. It does seem a little haphazard and inconsistent, how they interpret and enforce their rules. They seem unable to police the use of bot accounts, for example. I find that disappointing since they’re supposed to be on the cutting edge of that stuff. The question of what constitutes satire versus harassment versus impersonation isn’t always clear-cut, but when someone has an account that is clearly lampooning a well-known public figure, and actually has the word satirical in its account description, it’s obviously ludicrous for Twitter to say, “Oh, it’s a case of impersonation.”

Q. Can you share some of the best or funniest tweets from the account? Are there any you remember that stood out in particular?

I haven’t used it a lot in the past year. I’m still able to personally view the account even if it’s suspended.

On July 28, 2017: “Glad to see President Trump is following my brother Rob’s successful example by firing his chief of staff.”

On March 8, 2017: “Folks, this new fictional movie, which I have not seen, is a complete work of fiction” (N.B.: this is a reference to the film Filth City, which is loosely based on Rob Ford’s mayoralty.)

During the fall 2014 election: “Rallying the troops in our Scarborough office, all 10,000 of them! #OneMoreLieForTheRoad” (with a photo of just a few people in the campaign office).

Q. Have you given any thought to how you might cover Doug Ford’s political campaign now that this account has been banned?

I’m looking at setting up a new account. It’s a shame that one won’t be restored. It had something like 1,700 followers; it wasn’t nearly as popular as the @TOMayorFrod account though. I’ll have to start from scratch, but one thing I intend to do is use it as more of a campaign account. This will make it harder to claim as impersonation. Part of what I’ve always done is mimicked their graphics, logos, and slogans. I’ll be co-ordinating efforts with the @FordMoreYears account as the historical documentary account so to speak, and then a new Doug Frod campaign account, which I’m planning to launch today to co-ordinate with his campaign launch, should that turn out to be what it is.

My strategy isn’t to make up stuff. I’m always trying to be informative, even if it’s just repeating what they say, and then letting the disconnect speak for itself. I’ll still continue to do that. In the 2014 campaign, I took the graphics from their transit plan brochures and did my own version of it. They called it the Toronto Subway Expansion Plan and I called it the Toronto Subway Extortion Plan. I put a photo of Sandro Lisi in the driver’s window of the subway train, and transformed it into this cheerful, organized crime thing. That was one of the motifs I would go back to, portraying them as inept local crime bosses. That’s another avenue I’ll also be exploring. I’ll be looking at his actual campaign material and parodying that and coming up with graphic responses to those.

Q. Do you have any dirt on the Fords with Trump?

I’m going to proceed on the assumption that he’s going to announce he will be running for mayor. Whether he likes it or not, he’s already made statements in the past supporting Trump and I have a half-dozen photos of Rob and Doug posing with Trump that I will happily pull out when it’s relevant.

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