Well That's Awkward

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Telstra employee Leslie Nassar has outed himself as the man behind the larger-than-life caricature Fake Stephen Conroy. What happens in the next few days will be a test of both Nassar’s endurance and Telstra’s ability to cope with satire from within its own ranks — satire aimed at the very Minister responsible for the communications industry.

Nassar took over the Twitter account @stephenconroy in January when its creator thought he’d play the role well. "It was a good opportunity to try something different," Nassar explained in a blog post last night. "I wrote as FSC the Buffoon, FSC the Evil Genius, FSC the Concerned Citizen. Hell, there were moments of FSC the Zen Buddhist. The whole thing, beginning to end, was a chance to flex my creative muscles a little (some might say, very little)."

Nassar reckons most people were probably bewildered. But his snarky take on broadband and communications policy, and particularly the Rudd Government’s plans to censor the internet, gained an audience. His observations roamed beyond his portfolio, though, with tweets like "Apparently LOL means ‘Laugh Out Loud’ and not ‘Lots Of Love’. Now I’m going to have to re-read all those internet comments about me." And "I saw a homeless single-mother of 3:00 this morning. She was injecting ground-up tax dollars between her toes". And "Keating is greatly talented at explaining complex topics in a way that common, ignorant people can understand."

Fake Stephen Conroy’s first move beyond Twitter was an "interview" with ZDNet Australia.

ZDNet: "How would you respond to criticism that the internet filtering scheme currently being trialled has the potential to impose censorship restrictions on free speech in Australia?"

FSC: "Let me answer your question with a question: do you love children? Did you know that children love delicious candy? We regulate the delicious foods industry to protect the children you so love, so why should the internet be any different?

"Unregulated, our nation’s grocery store shelves would be full of chocolate-covered razor blades. That’s what the internet is like today, and every time a child visits a web page, they’re consuming potentially deadly mind-candy.

"Filtering is a public safety issue, not a free speech one."

FCS wrote op-ed pieces about the departure of Telstra CEO Sol Trujillo and the "mental collapse" of pro-censorship academic Clive Hamilton, the "dangers" of high-speed internet access, and even blaming the Howard government for the spread of tentacle-rape. Somehow.

Speculation about Fake Stephen Conroy’s true identity mounted, with the finger being pointed at a variety of high-profile Twitter users, including yours truly.

But Nassar decided to unmask himself and stay in control of the process after receiving a phone call at home asking about Conroy, an experience he says was "creepy". Yesterday morning he tweeted the simple tweet: "Okay, so here it is; Fake Stephen Conroy = Leslie Nassar". The fact was soon reported on ZDNet and then Fairfax.

And here the complications for Nassar began…

When American journalist Daniel Lyons was outed as the parody Apple chief Fake Steve Jobs in 2007, he had the advantage of independence from his target — as well as a year of solid writing and a mention in a Business 2.0 feature "50 Who Matter Now". Nassar has written only a handful of articles and is far from independent. Telstra’s had a rocky relationship with the Federal Government in general and the Minister for Broadband, Communications and the Digital Economy, Senator Stephen Conroy, in particular. With Nassar revealed as a Telstra employee, there must be enormous pressure from the corporation’s more traditional PR types to "bring things under control".

Telstra’s only public statement so far is a post on their Now We Are Talking blog by Mike Hickinbotham, which claims to give "the real facts". It says:

"Lesile [sic]is not going to lose his job as a result of announcing he is the Fake Stephen Conroy.

"Telstra did not shut down Leslie’s Twitter account. Fake Stephen Conroy (twitter.com).

"Telstra did not out Leslie as the Fake Stephen Conroy.

"Telstra’s policy is that only selected spokespeople deal with the media."

On Twitter, Hickinbotham has been retweeting what is obviously the approved sound bite: "No one told LN to stop. He’s been asked to use good judgment. Everyone should use good judgement when engaging in social media".

But that doesn’t square with Nassar’s own statements. Just before the Telstra blog post, he tweeted, "Yes, I’ve been asked to stop Twittering as @stephenconroy". And after seeing the post, he went ballistic.

"What bullshit. I wasn’t told to stop? Quilty had a f*cking stroke, @M_Hickinbotham.

"@M_Hickinbotham I was fine with your NWAT [Now we Are Talking] double-speak, but f*ck you if you think I’m standing for that.

"I was fine with being told to drop FSC, but don’t throw me under the f*cking bus just to make Telstra look social-media savvy."

Neither Nassar nor Telstra are saying anything else at this stage, but given this exchange one has to wonder whether being "asked to use good judgement" is just a passive-aggressive way of ordering Nassar to stop without saying it out loud.

Social media consultant Gavin Heaton reckons this is a particularly thorny situation for Telstra, and one where the corporation’s actions will speak louder than words.

"It strikes me that while many brands seek to reach out and engage their customers in an authentic way, there is still a lot of talking and not enough doing," writes Heaton. "By Mike Hickinbotham’s own admission, Leslie ‘understands the whimsical nature of social media and in particular Twitter’. Leslie has been able to build a following and keep a suspicious and cynical audience in hand."

"From a branding point of view, this seems to be a great opportunity for Telstra to take advantage of a mini-crisis. I can imagine whole campaigns built around Fake Stephen Conroy or perhaps a more anonymous ‘Minister for the Internets’."

Heaton even imagines Nassar as "Australia’s own @Scobleizer" – a reference to popular US technology blogger Robert Scoble, who began his blogging career critiquing Microsoft from the inside.

Or, given his outburst, Nassar may well be without a job by the time you read this.

Just where are the boundaries of a citizen’s right to hold and express a personal opinion now that casual conversations are online, archived and searchable?

Whatever happens to Nassar, this case will be analysed to death.

New Matilda

New Matilda is independent journalism at its finest. The site has been publishing intelligent coverage of Australian and international politics, media and culture since 2004.

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