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.