The real Steven Knapp has been GWU’s president since 2007 and regularly meets with the student body president. The fake Steven Knapp is a 24-year-old GWU alumnus living in New York who uses Twitter as a creative escape from his mundane day job.
The two Knapps have never met.
“I have a life. I swear to God that I do,” said Hunter Patterson, who has secretly run the fake account for more than two years, seeing its audience grow to more than 2,400. “I didn’t really ever expect it to blow up like this.”
Mocking the university president has long been part of the college experience, especially on April Fools’ Day, when many student newspapers publish fake news stories, inflammatory headlines and doctored photographs. A generation ago, these humorous critiques reached only those who ventured onto campus to pick up a copy of the paper. Today, anyone can anonymously make such critiques online.
This terrifies many administrators, who realize that their carefully crafted branding strategies can be quickly upstaged by a viral video, satirical blog or fake Twitter feed.
“It does make me chuckle sometimes to see how worked up they can get,” said Anthony Rotolo, a Syracuse University professor who teaches about social media and belongs to e-mail group lists where administrators debate how to respond to fake accounts that they believe have larger audiences than they do. “What they don’t realize is that only people who see that information are participants in that conversation.”
Sometimes the humor is clever and pointed, the sort of thing that could have been read on Comedy Central’s “The Daily Show with Jon Stewart.” And sometimes the humor is offensive and line-crossing, the sort of thing that might get a school mocked on “The Daily Show.”
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Fake accounts have popped up at more than two dozen schools. In the Washington region, college students seem to be more eager to start fake feeds for their presidents than presidents have been to establish legitimate ones.
In addition to GWU’s @fakeStevenKnapp, there is @FakeNeil_Kerwin at American University, @FakeWallaceLoh at the University of Maryland and @TeresaASullivan at the University of Virginia, an account labeled “as parodied by one of her royal subjects.”
Of that bunch, U-Md. President Wallace Loh is the only one to fight back with a real Twitter account, @PresidentLoh, which launched this year.
The real Loh has about 1,300 followers, tweets shout-outs to lawmakers who visit campus and answers questions from students. The fake Loh has about 1,500 followers, tweets about investing the university budget in Mega Millions and launched a 2012 presidential campaign.
Other universities have worked to have parody accounts shut down. In 2009, Georgetown University successfully lobbied Twitter to suspend @JackDeGioia, which parodied President John J. DeGioia but wasn’t properly labeled as such. This year, Twitter temporarily shut down Western Kentucky University’s fake president, @PimpRansdell, because of trademark concerns. School officials have complained that the account is a form of cyberbullying.
These fake accounts are often profane, occasionally sexist and nearly always insidery. The fake GWU president endlessly complains about the school’s far-flung Mount Vernon campus, “The Vern.” The fake American president mocks the university’s branding campaign. And the fake U-Va. president declares that “emails in Comic Sans should be an Honor Offense,” referring to the school’s strict honor code.
From many of these accounts emerges a caricature of a college president who gets wasted and parties with students, publicly bashes trustees, and offers to lower tuition. In other words: probably nothing like the real leaders.
If the real Knapp were on Twitter, “it would be very controlled and professional,” Patterson said. “But it would be fun for me, because I could be like, ‘Who’s this imposter?’ ”
Knapp has said he stays off Twitter because he’s available to students in more personal ways. He has mentioned the fake account at public events and once signed a letter to the student newspaper as “(The real) Steven Knapp.” But through a spokeswoman, Knapp, who declined to be interviewed, said he does not follow the fake Knapp.
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The fake Knapp has, however, modeled himself after the real one: Both are environmentally conscious, drive a Prius, spend weekends on a Maryland farm with sheep and own a fluffy, white dog named Ruffles.
But the fake Knapp tries not to get too real. When Patterson was searching for something to tweet in January, he began quoting lines of poetry in an ode to Knapp’s background as an English literature scholar who specializes in Romanticism. Students recoiled, asking whether the account had been hacked. “Based on the last few tweets I’ve gotten, I am convinced all of you are illiterate,” the fake president responded. Patterson said he decided then: “Back to hating the Vern.”
Fake Knapp’s days are numbered: Patterson has decided that this will be his last semester running the account. That’s why he agreed to out himself to The Washington Post.
“I need to grow up,” said Patterson, who majored in international affairs and works in the social media industry. “I need to detach myself from school.”
Patterson debated handing the account down to a student or hosting a contest to determine the heir, but he doesn’t think he could trust anyone else. “I don’t want it to be this unfunny thing,” he said.
So he began setting up a storyline that will allow Fake Knapp and his sidekick Ruffles to ride off into the sunset. In February, the fake president received a fake memo from the fake board of trustees, who questioned his tweets and requested that he respect the Vern as a “valuable, beautiful part of our community.”
How will it eventually end?
“It’s a surprise,” Patterson said. “It’s nothing bad or ominous or evil. I want my final tweet to be really funny.”