You know those terrible parody Twitter accounts for Bill Murray or Will Smith that tweet dumb jokes or odd requests as though they're from the celebrities themselves? That, in large part, is what @BarackObama has become.
As The Wire reported last April, and as many, many people still seem not to realize, the Twitter account that bears President Obama's name and image is not actually tweeting on behalf of the president. Instead, it's controlled by Organizing For Action, the 501(c)(4) non-profit that took over the reins of the 2012 Obama campaign's organizing activity early last year. This is perfectly legal — OFA rents the account from the still-extant campaign infrastructure — but it's obviously confusing to users.
When I spoke with an official from OFA last year, I was told that the organization didn't think people should be confused. The account's bio clearly states it's run by OFA, and it notes that any tweets actually from Obama will be signed "-bo." (Over at least the past four months, there have been zero tweets signed in that way.) But the bio only shows up when you go to twitter.com/barackobama; retweets of OFA's Obama tweets don't indicate that it's not the man himself doing the tweeting.
@BarackObama PLEASE FOLLOW ME! I HAVE BEEN TRYING SINCE LAST YEAR AND TODAY MY HAMSTER DIED. PLEASE!— 神 (@ugxly) February 13, 2014
So what ends up happening is that people (like the confused, mourning girl at right) think they're interacting with Obama, just as people who respond to @WiIIISmith or whatever think they're interacting with the celebrity. And at no point, it seems, has the OFA used the @BarackObama account to clarify to people that they're mistaken in thinking the account is Obama himself (or even his staff) tweeting the president's thoughts.
This week, OFA more deliberately played on that misconception. After football player Michael Sam came out as gay, @BarackObama tweeted this:
Congratulations on leading the way, @MikeSamFootball. That's real sportsmanship.— Barack Obama (@BarackObama) February 10, 2014
And, on Thursday, this:
Tomorrow: @HouseOfCards. No spoilers, please.— Barack Obama (@BarackObama) February 13, 2014
What are these tweets? Is this OFA expressing its congratulations to Sam? Is it OFA talking about how excited it is for a new Netflix series? What's the voice here? After the Sam tweet, I reached out to OFA by email and phone to clarify who was speaking (so to speak) in that tweet. My questions weren't answered.
Members of the media didn't grasp the distinction between @BarackObama and Barack Obama after those tweets either. At Mediaite, a story reports that "Obama Tweets Congratulations to Gay NFL Prospect Michael Sam." At Deadline, "Fan-in-Chief Obama Tweets 'No Spoilers'" about House of Cards.
Both of those stories are wrong. The OFA official I spoke with last year made clear that the organization and the White House didn't work together on tweets. Besides, if they did, if these tweets were actually from Obama, there's no reason not to include that "-bo" at the end. If OFA itself was hoping to congratulate Sam, it has its own vehicle to do so: its organizational Twitter account, @OFA.
But doing so would undermine the reason OFA tweets as Barack Obama: To maintain the momentum of engagement between people and the campaign to leverage into political action — and fundraising. On Tuesday, "Barack Obama" tweeted for the last time about a contest where people could enter for a chance to meet Obama. Once registered, the screen that then popped up asked people to donate to OFA. For OFA, @BarackObama serves precisely the same role that those celebrity parody accounts serve for their creators: a way to maintain interest and generate attention.
One last wrinkle. Here's a tweet from the premiere of House of Cards last night.
What if — and there is no indication that this happened — a donor to OFA asked that the organization tweet this on the show's behalf? There doesn't appear to be any overlap between the show's producers or Netflix executives and OFA donors, and Obama is apparently a fan of the show. But there is nothing preventing such a scenario from taking place. That tweet from @BarackObama about the show has been retweeted over 30,000 times — an impressive social media marketing victory for any company. And if OFA wanted to, it could use @BarackObama for that for any number of things, besides simply the Obama policy initiatives that it usually uses the account to promote.
After all, OFA already uses @BarackObama to regularly plug one organization: itself. Having the ability to get the "president" to say anything you might want, is a level of power that the owner of @Real_Bill_Murray could never even imagine.