What it’s like to be mistaken for a hated public figure on Twitter

Steve Bannon and George Osborn talk about their life on social media. 

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We all know John Lewis. No, not that one. “@JohnLewis” is a long-suffering American Twitter user who has been repeatedly mistaken for the British retail giant – “@JohnLewisRetail” – on the social media site. Lewis is good-humoured about the mix-up, and every year manages to go viral with one of his amusing tweets responding to the phenomenon. Last month, the company even sent John Lewis a Christmas gift basket for his troubles.

But what’s it like when you log onto Twitter and the thing you’re mistaken for isn’t a beloved factory of tear-inducing Christmas adverts? What if, instead, you’re mistaken for a hated public figure? How does life on social media change then?

The American software developer Mike Pence discovered how last month, when his namesake became the vice president-elect of the United States. "Why should I have to change my name? He's the one that sucks," he wrote in a tweet that went viral.

 But Pence isn't alone in falling victim to misguided social media haters. Steve Bannon, and George Osborn (no, no, not those ones) know all about it too.

Steve Bannon

Stephen “Steve” Bannon is the executive chairman of Breitbart news and will serve as Donald Trump’s chief strategist and senior counsellor. Steve Bannon is a 45-year-old HGV driver from Swindon.

“It started about 2010, when I first started using Twitter,” explains Steve Bannon, a father of three from Wiltshire who owns the Twitter handle @SteveBannon. “I started getting random messages, but it didn’t come to anything so it didn’t bother me, to be honest. That was, until this year."

On 17 August this year, Stephen Bannon was appointed the chief executive of Donald Trump’s election campaign. Consequently, Steve’s Twitter “exploded” with abusive messages, mainly accusing him of being a racist, as the website Breitbart had become more and more right wing – ultimately finding fans in the alt right movement – under Stephen Bannon’s leadership.

“I couldn’t believe people hadn’t done their research and had just gone on Twitter and typed in the name,” says Steve. He has become so used to his mistaken identity that when I asked him – over Twitter – if he’d like to be interviewed, he replied: “You do know I've nothing to do with trump. I'm golf dad in uk”.

“I use Twitter for my golf, I’m a golf fan and it gives me a lot of access to the professional golfers. I’ve had the tag ‘@SteveBannon’ for six years, before Twitter was that popular,” he explains. He has taken to replying to people on Twitter with a Star Wars meme that reads: “This is not the Steve Bannon you’re looking for.”

When Stephen Bannon was appointed chief strategist and senior counsellor to President-Elect Trump on 13 November, things only got worse. “I’m not taking it personal,” says Steve. “People have strong feelings about this guy but I’ve never said anything bad about him because I don’t know him.”

Every time Steve logs onto Twitter he has 20 to 30 notifications of people mistaking him for Trump’s right-hand man. He has considered changing his handle “@SteveBannon”, but he decided to use his new-found fame to set up a crowdfunding page for his 13-year-old daughter, Olivia, an aspiring golfer. When someone tweets him an abusive message, he sends back a donation link, and he hopes to raise £1,200 for new golf clubs for his daughter.

 

“The real Stephen Bannon messaged me and asked if I’d give up the handle, and at that time I set up the crowdfunding page,” says Steve, who has unfortunately only raised £10 so far. “He didn’t offer me any money and I didn’t ask for it, but when he suggested that we swap and I give him @SteveBannon, I said I’d consider it if we reach a crowdfunding goal to help with Olivia’s costs.

“I thought maybe the contacts he’s got in America, maybe he could sort of tag people and we could reach the goal. If we did reach the goal I’d be happy to give up the handle.”

Stephen Bannon never replied, and Steve hasn’t really considered giving up the handle again. “It’s a good topic of conversation. All the guys at work are ripping into me about my ‘new job’,” he explains. “It’s a bit of fun; it hasn’t had a massive personal impact on my family or lifestyle.

“It doesn’t really bother me at all, if anything good comes out of it – if I get some money towards Olivia’s equipment, then I’ll give up the Twitter page. If it doesn’t, I’m not really bothered one way or not.”

To donate money towards Olivia’s golfing aspirations, visit justgiving.com/crowdfunding/wrongSteveBannon

George Osborn

George Osborne is a Conservative Member of Parliament and served as Chancellor of the Exchequer from 2010 to 2016. George Osborn is a 26-year-old freelance writer and businessman.

“Sharing a name with the former chancellor did open a lot of random doors for me,” says George Osborn, a journalist who has written before about his experiences owning the Twitter handle "@GeorgeOsborn". “I was once used as a budget barometer by ITV, who said that the reduced level of abuse I was getting, indicated that George Osborne had done a pretty good job. I also managed to blag my way into the BBC studios, was briefly described by Ed Miliband as ‘his favourite George Osborn’, and I was privileged to know my namesake's schedule because tweets would come in for TV appearances, the Autumn Statement, the budget, etc.”

Before joining Twitter, George also had amusing experiences because of his shared namesake. During his time at Cambridge University, he earned the nickname “The Chancellor” when Osborne was appointed in the role in 2010, and at Christmas, a friend made him a t-shirt emblazoned with the nickname.

Unfortunately, however, there have also been downsides. Despite not having an ‘e’ on the end of his Twitter handle, George was frequently mistaken for the then-Chancellor on the site between 2010 and 2016, and was called – among other things – a “scare mongol illuminati liar” and a “c*nt”.

“Even though those messages weren’t meant for me, they still invaded my life, still felt like personal attacks, still contained acidic nastiness that could easily eat away at my state of mind if I committed the crime of checking my phone after he gave a bad speech,” he wrote at the time.

Since Osborne stepped down as Chancellor, the abuse has absolutely completely disappeared, and Osborn can use his Twitter freely again. Despite his experiences, he is happy he never changed his Twitter name.

“The main reason I didn't change my handle is that it is my name,” he says. “I mix running a small business with journalism, which means that it's important for people to be able to find me – even if my name is the same as an ex-Chancellor's. But there's also an element of riding out the storm for me too. Since he's been ejected from office, I've gotten little to no misdirected abuse. So for people who do share names with famous people on social media, the real question you have to ask yourself is: ‘Can I hold out until they stop being famous?’. Or ‘Can I get free stuff off them?’,  that's another thing worth considering.

“For what it's worth, I do actually want to meet my namesake one day. But I don't think he wants to see me.”

 

Amelia Tait is features editor at Shortlist.com, she was previously the New Statesman's tech and digital culture writer, and tweets at @ameliargh.