Why has a performance artist hijacked Grant Shapps MP's abandoned identity?

Meet the man who has resurrected the Tory chairman's alter ego "Michael Green".

NS

Sign Up

Get the New Statesman's Morning Call email.

We've read a lot in recent weeks about Conservative party chairman Grant Shapps, and whether he gave up the alternative identity of HowToCorp business guru Michael Green before or after becoming an MP in 2005.

It might, then, come as a surprise to the idle internet surfer to chance across a Michael Green Twitter account, still tweeting away into the void about how to make millions from affiliate marketing.

"Find the right niches and keywords to target!" it exclaims. "Find or create quality content without it appearing to be a duplication!"

The account  along with a Facebook page and HowToCorp website  are the work of performance artist Simon Farid, who for the last two years has been pumping out content based on the genuine posts of Shapps/Green during the time that HowToCorp was in operation.

They are highly convincing, to the extent that the Daily Mail recently used a screenshot of Simon's website to illustrate a story about Shapps's double life, under the impression that the site was the real thing.

The project, says Simon, was born out of an ongoing interest in alternative identities.

"A lot of those were much more serious, such as the police appearing to use cover identities to infiltrate various groups. When the original Grant Shapps thing emerged, I thought this was something that could be much more playful," he says.

"In a way, I am interested in Michael Green rather than Grant Shapps. I was quite strict with my parameters to use what parts of him exist, to look at how you can reanimate him through mimicry."

The result is a sort of ghost  but one that's arguably every bit as substantial as that of the "real" Michael Green. And, given Green's advice to marketers that they should create phantom websites purely to snare punters and funnel them to their sales operations, there's something peculiarly appropriate about the endeavour.

"He's operating in an industry that is all about deception," Simon points out. "All the language, the approach, particularly of affiliate marketing, is all about deception."

But Simon's work highlights just how easy it can be to hijack a social media identity  even the identity of a real person.

In the US, for example, where several states have laws against online impersonation, a woman has just been convicted of posing as her husband's ex-wife on Facebook and offering sexual services. Last summer, a Twitter account purporting to be that of singer Morrissey was revealed to be a fake  indeed, there are thousands of fake sites for singers and other stars.

In the UK, legally there's nothing specifically wrong with pretending to be someone else on social media. But it is against the law to misuse personal information, which is pretty much inevitable when creating a profile purporting to be someone else. Defamation, too, is an offence, as is impersonation for fraudulent reasons; and using a photo without permission can be a breach of copyright.

Social media companies do have policies specifically prohibiting impersonation. However, users who have attempted to challenge impostor accounts have complained that the process is often extremely difficult.

Twitter is currently in the process of implementing changes to its reporting processes, tripling the size of the team focused on that handles reports of abuse and allowing users to report accounts impersonating other people.

But there's often a rather blurry line between what's allowed and what's not. For example, Twitter users are allowed to create parody, newsfeed, commentary and fan accounts, so long as they don't use exactly the same name or avatar as the original.

Facebook is stricter, insisting that all accounts are created using real names and banning all fakes. Nevertheless, it often gets things wrong: recently, when informed that a fake  page was being run in the name of Indian politician Subramanian Swamy, it took down the real account rather than the impostor.

So far, fake political accounts haven't made much of an impact in the UK, although there have been a number  of instances involving local councillors. Merseyside councillor Seve Gomez-Aspron, for example, was recently forced to distance himself from a Facebook account in his name that was making offensive comments about cyclists.

More seriously, meanwhile, someone recently set up a Facebook account in the name of Naveeda Ikram, the first Muslim woman to serve as lord mayor in Bradford, and started posting racist messages in her name. The police are currently investigating.

Unfortunately, such accounts can have real influence. It's not uncommon for fakes to gather more friends and followers than those of the real people they're hijacking  to the chagrin of one or two famous names.

But in the case of the fake Grant Shapps/Michael Green accounts, it's arguable that this is perfectly reasonable, as the accounts are just as "real" as Shapps's ever were.

"Particularly with the Twitter account, you get a lot of people who are taking the posts at face value and reacting as if this is a real marketing guru  and I suppose this is valid, as these are genuine comments," says Simon.

Unsurprisingly, however, one person that hasn't interacted with "Michael Green" is Grant Shapps himself  "as far as I know", says Simon. "You never really know with Grant Shapps, do you?"

Simon Farid will be presenting "Don’t Hate The Rich – Be One Of Them!", a seminar using the identity of Michael Green, at Norwich Arts Centre on 15 April