The biggest racist on Twitter – and the ordinary man whose face he stole

What do a series of vile and viral racist tweets tell us about how parody and politics have become entwined?

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Barry Stanton is a proud father of five. Frowning deeply from the circular confines of his Twitter profile picture, Barry looks the epitome of the word “bloke”. Aged somewhere over 50 and somewhere under 80, the Blackpool resident seems to have set up his Twitter profile for one simple reason: to be as racist and as ignorant as humanely possible.

“Why do black people think comedy is just loud people shouting?” was one of his first tweets, less than two weeks ago, to minimal reaction. After professing his support for Brexit (“means BREXIT”) and describing London as “like the Congo”, Barry hit viral gold. “when i go to london i want to see BRITISH people speaking ENGLISH, not fucking somalis speaking hijabi,” he wrote on 21 November, to over 2,700 retweets and nearly 3,000 likes. Just a day later, he did it again. In a tweet that was retweeted nearly 3,000 times and liked over 4,000, he wrote: “just picked my lad up from school. he tells me he was forced to read the korma in religion class. bloody outrage”.

Barry’s malapropisms spread quickly across the social network, and he was branded “Nazi filth”, “a cunt”, “a racist moron”, and “everything I hate about what the UK has become” by furious Twitter users. Many held him up as a “typical example” of a Brexit voter. Although some expressed shock that someone so ignorant could actually exist, only a handful of others expressed disbelief.

The pictures on Barry Stanton’s account – of him in his dinner jacket, hanging around with family members, and going for a walk – do not belong to a man named Barry Stanton. They belong to a man from Worcestershire who supports Labour, has previously called Theresa May “a bloody pathetic excuse for a prime minister”, and voted for Remain in the EU Referendum.

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The man whose pictures were stolen for the Barry Stanton Twitter account does not understand what is happening. To protect his privacy, I will refer to him by a fake name, Albert. His identity was discovered by the UK Editor of Storyful, Kevin Donnellan, who searched through @BarryStanton64 for clues. From there, Kevin found Albert’s Facebook page and realised “Barry” had stolen his pictures.

Barry Stanton does not exist – or, not in the way Twitter users want to think he does. The account is a parody, created either by a liberal mocking the racists they detest or a real racist spreading their views via humour while hiding behind another person’s face. Presumably feeling that Albert’s pictures reflected the Brexit-voting, racist persona they were trying to create, the troll stole them from his personal Facebook page.

Many online who hate Barry Stanton have focused on his appearance as a line of attack. One person called him a “gammon-faced old lump of fat” and another an “ugly cunt with an ugly heart”. When I reach out to a woman on Twitter who got over 70 retweets and 400 likes for insulting “Barry’s” appearance, she says she always knew the account was a parody. “I was just having fun and insulting the character that was being portrayed by the account holder,” she explains. When I mention that Albert’s pictures had been stolen, she was horrified and deleted her tweets. “That is a step too far and it kind of makes me feel nasty for making appearance jokes,” she tells me over Twitter’s direct messaging service. “I'd hate to think what’s going on in his [Albert’s] head since being notified.”

When I reached out to Albert to let him know that his pictures had been stolen, there was some confusion. He didn’t respond to my Facebook message, so I sent one to his daughter and son, who he had recently tagged in posts on the site. Rather than being alarmed that his pictures had been stolen by someone posing as a racist, it was my message that alarmed Albert. He posted a status stating that my Facebook message was “an attempt to hack into all your contacts which I think has happened to me.”  It appears that he didn’t understand how I’d messaged his family (from information visible to the public on his profile) and assumed I was a hacker.

Albert’s confusion makes the acts of @BarryStanton64 even more troubling. Arguably vulnerable as an older man, Albert seems to have no way of properly comprehending what has happened to him – and how his face is being used. But what motivates a person to steal a grandfather’s photos just to troll on Twitter?

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Whitney Phillips knows that assessing the sincerity of online content can be difficult. Author of The Ambivalent Internet: Mischief, Oddity, and Antagonism Online, Phillips has spent years analysing why trolls do what they do.

“We want them to have this grand narrative explaining why they do what they do, and often their reaction is... a shruggie, which is just not satisfying to those of us who fundamentally don’t understand the impulse,” she says. I have found this in my previous work – asking trolls to explain their motivations is often simply an invitation to be trolled yourself.

The troll who stole Albert’s photos may have thought he deserved it (recently Albert got into a Twitter argument where he branded some women “slags on TV”). But beyond this, Phillips believes one of the key motivations to troll is simple: it works. Articles like this one lend legitimacy to a troll’s actions, and reporting on them can act as an incentive to copycats. “The problem, in other words, isn't just about individual choices to manipulate, harass, or taunt, it’s also about a media system that rewards those behaviours with attention,” Phillips says.

Yet in an age where tweets become news in their own right, it is not just journalists who have to question what they shine a light on. Although it is impossible to know exactly how many people retweeted Barry Stanton because they believed he was real versus the amount that retweeted him because they thought he was a great parody, the sheer volume of attention “Barry” received arguably rewarded his work. Many who thought he was real got into fights with him online, breaking the internet’s cardinal rule to “not feed the trolls”.

As well as questioning why a troll created Barry Stanton, we most also therefore question why so many people were willing to believe that somebody that stupid could exist. There were many hints that Barry wasn’t real, including the fact he had spelled “Quran” correctly in a tweet on 21 November but incorrectly called it “the korma” in the viral tweet the very next day. Why did so many people ignore these clues?

Andre Spicer, a professor of organisational behaviour at Cass Business School, explains that confirmation bias is at play. “First we have an emotional reaction [to Barry’s tweets] based on our political identity and it’s only after that then the kind of rational thinking kicks in,” he explains. Our cognitive biases mean we want our worldview confirmed (“all Brexit voters are stupid racists”) and are likely to ignore information that contradicts this (“Barry Stanton could spell Quran one day, but thought it was called korma the next”).

Barry Stanton’s tweets were so popular, then, because they confirmed what many already believed to be true – everyone who voted Brexit is a violent racist who thinks “hijabi” is a language and “korma” is a holy book. Barry’s tweets also provided the opportunity for other people to elevate themselves on the social network, by responding angrily to him. 

A Twitter user who argued with Barry tells me he wasn’t sure whether or not the account was a parody but decided to argue with it anyway. Their responses to Barry went viral in their own right, with one post gaining nearly 2,000 likes. Clearly, there is an incentive to act as if a parody account is real even when you aren’t sure. “With everything going on in Twitter you come across people like this all the time,” explains the user who argued with Barry. “But you also come across people who will stand up to it. So although I was angry as I arguing with him, it was nice to get the likes to see people agreed.”

Cognitive biases and a desire for retweets can therefore partially explain why so many people believed, or acted as though, Barry was real. Many may not care that Barry doesn’t exist, as the tweets can be used to demonstrate that people “like him” do. Yet Lee Ross, a professor of social psychology at Stanford University and an expert at cognitive biases, explains that this line of thinking is a bias too. “Folks, especially those predisposed to believe the story you mentioned, may essentially say to themselves, this event (the comment about the Quran) may not have happened, but events like it happen all the time,” Ross explains. “There is evidence that even when information is totally discredited soon after it was heard and believed it continues to have an impact. This may be because people initially explain to themselves why the thing may be true, so recruit memories of other information congruent with that initial information... and those explanations and memories persist.”

Even when Barry is exposed as a fraud, then, the impact of the account lives on. But does the fact Barry was fake really even matter – or was it just a laugh?

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Last year, Spicer wrote a piece entitled “Calling your political opponents ‘stupid’ is a stupid thing to do”.

“If you do IQ tests across the political spectrum you find it’s pretty even,” he explains, warning that assuming our political opponents are idiots is often incorrect as well as dangerous. “You get a one-sided perspective on a political issue, because you’re only looking for evidence which fits with your view and you’re disregarding any other evidence,” he says, explaining that psychologists call this motivated cognition. “It can lead to polarisation in political debate… you get formations of political echo chambers.”

These cognitive biases and their facilitation by social media recently allowed Russians to interfere in British politics. Researchers have found that troll farms in St Petersburg sowed discord throughout the referendum, publishing posts about Brexit from more than 400 fake Twitter accounts. While Barry Stanton is (most likely) not a Russian account, the fact many believed he was real illustrates the environment we have created, which can be very easy to manipulate. Our lack of critical thinking when it comes to social media posts like Barry’s can – and does – have huge political ramifications.

Our collective willingness to believe in Barry Stanton damages more people than just Albert – and helps more people than a single, solitary troll. 

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Poe’s Law is an internet adage that can be roughly summarised as “it is impossible to create an extreme parody online and still not have it mistaken as a sincere expression of the parodied views”. As long as there are people willing to fake Barry Stantons, there will be people willing to believe in them. 

Yet hopefully, understanding the psychological motivations to both troll and be trolled can improve our critical thinking abilities. By clicking through on a person’s profile we can look for clues about who they really are before we decide to retweet their views to a wider audience. Cognitive biases are innate and hard to battle, but changes can be made. Next time a tweet seems too good to be true: question whether it really is. 

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