August 28, 2013 9:44:02 AM
Carl Smith - [email protected]
A court order is asking Twitter to furnish the district attorney's office with personal information -- name, IP addresses and other details -- associated with a social media account satirizing Ward 3 Alderman David Little, documents obtained by the Dispatch show.
The order is related to a Starkville Police Department criminal investigation into the satirical @DavidLittleBOA Twitter account, which documents show was later changed to @DavidLittleFake.
No charges had been filed in the case as of Tuesday.
The order, signed by Judge Jim Kitchens, cites Miss. Code Annotated 97-7-43, which lays the groundwork for misdemeanor claims against "whoever falsely and willfully assumes or pretends to be an officer or employee acting under the authority of the State of Mississippi," including municipalities.
The crime carries a maximum possible penalty of six months in jail and a $500 fine.
Another court document filed by SPD detective William Durr, the case's lead investigator, states the Little parody was "created in the name of David Little and then later renamed to be a parody account. After the discovery of this account, it was confirmed that there was no authorization by David Little to create any Twitter account in his name."
It is unclear if the Little parody account was marked as a parody account when it was created. Language in the court order asks for Twitter information to determine "whether the account was presented as a parody or if it claimed to originate from a person, David Little."
Twitter officials confirmed a request by the police department to preserve data for parody accounts of both Little and Ward 1 alderman Ben Carver on Aug. 2. The social media company has yet to present the district attorney's office with any information.
An SPD investigation into parody Twitter accounts was launched when Little filed a formal complaint with the agency after two accounts lampooning him and Carver emerged on Twitter shortly after the board ousted former Chief Administrative Officer Lynn Spruill in July. Both Little and Carver were interviewed by detectives, SPD confirmed.
The Dispatch interviewed the person who operated the Carver parody Twitter account Tuesday. The source asked to remain anonymous.
The source said another Twitter user, claiming to be a journalist, requested an interview and directed the source to call a cell phone number in July.
The phone number given by the account posing as a journalist matched a cell phone number Durr had previously provided the Dispatch to contact him.
While the department has utilized Twitter in investigations, SPD chief David Lindley said it does not maintain an official social media account and denied knowledge of any subordinate using a fake account to investigate parody accounts.
Lindley did confirm the phone number given is within a range of numbers operated by SPD.
"I have no information at all and have no knowledge of it," he said. "We don't have a problem with anybody circulating our police numbers to provide us information on ongoing investigations."
The Twitter account @BullyNews was used to interact with the person operating the Carver parody. The @BullyNews account is linked with four public tweets as of Tuesday, three of which were public tweets directed to the @BenCarverPrays account.
"JUST IN!! Criminal investigation launched in regards (sic) to @BenCarverPrays account. More to follow," tweeted @BullyNews on July 31, which elicited the response, "@BenCarverPrays welcomes criminal investigation, and doe (sic) not wish to resolve the issue before valuable resources are wasted."
Direct messages between the two accounts show the @BullyNews account, whose profile picture cannot be identified and is marked "Twitter and professional services" in the left-hand corner, asked the Carver parody to call a phone number on July 31, "ask for Bradley" and then referenced an upcoming press deadline. The account then stated it performs freelance work but never identified the publication.
Earlier in the direct message conversation, the @BullyNews account suggested the Carver parody operator contact SPD in regard to its investigation of identity theft.
"I think you may wanna (sic) call the number I gave you. May want to contact them soon before this goes to (sic) far," @BullyNews wrote. "Up to you but I can assure this is a solid source. You may be innocent but if a court order is signed you can't take that back."
The Carver parody operator responded by calling the @BullyNews' bluff, screen captures of the conversation show.
"You're not looking for a story. You're trying to end an account protected by free speech laws and in compliance with Twitter's parody policy."
"No the story will happen regardless. Actions are being taken in Circuit Court as we send these messages. I was trying to get you ... in touch with the investigator before it goes to (sic) far is all," replied the @BullyNews account. "I find the account funny but others do not. Just word to the wise."
The person operating the Carver parody temporarily closed the account, the source said, due to fear of prosecution shortly after local media outlets reported the investigation. Before starting the account, the source read up on Twitter's parody rules and marked the outlet as such.
According to the social media company's usage policies, parody accounts are allowed as long as the creator of the account makes it clear the account is not the same as the subject of the parody.
The owner of the @BenCarverPrays account currently notes the account is a parody in multiple locations on the account's profile page.
"I shut it down for fear. There's no real way to get around it," the source said. "When the police come out and say they're actively investigating a possibility of criminal charges -- identity theft -- it's like, 'Whoa, I'm not hacking into someone's credit card information. I'm just telling jokes."
The @BenCarverPrays account went silent after July 31. It began tweeting again Friday.
"I want to thank everyone for their prayers. I've missed you all. But as a political prisoner, I'm currently on the lam. #FreeBenCarverPrays," the account tweeted Friday.
"Where are my Ward 1 folks at? Throw your hands up! Or put them together," it posted Monday, referencing Carver's admission that he prayed about the Spruill move before the board took action in July.
"After a while, when I didn't get any notification from Twitter that I wasn't following their guidelines, I started thinking, there was a reason I started this account," the @BenCarverPrays account manager told the Dispatch on Friday. "A lot of people really enjoyed it. I wanted to see what the response was and whether people had forgotten about the things that went down with the board and Lynn Spruill."
"It's more of a social experiment. Starkville is a small enough town that you can have a Twitter parody account of an elected official and only have 100 followers," the source added. "It was a local story, but the investigation turned into a regional and national story."
When the Dispatch asked the source who runs the @BenCarverPrays account if the parody account had any comment it wanted to make to the real-life Ward 1 alderman, the source said: "That's a tough question. I don't know, considering SPD, its investigation and the direct messages from that one account, if I should comment on that. I don't have anything to say other than what I've tweeted."
Two hours after confirming the interview via social media, the parody account tweeted a quote attributed to the revolutionary guerrilla Ernesto "Che" Guevara: "Cruel leaders are replaced only to have new leaders turn cruel."
Twitter parody accounts exist and satirize state-level officials -- Gov. Phil Bryant, for example -- to local officials, including former Starkville Mayor Dan Camp (@DistrictDan).
To the Dispatch's knowledge, the Camp parody, which is clearly marked as fake in its biography, has not received police scrutiny or complaints from the former mayor.
Carl Smith covers Starkville and Oktibbeha County for The Dispatch. Follow him on Twitter @StarkDispatch