I Made a Twitter Parody Account and Here Is What Happened Next
Social media, laughter, and the six million
This is Men Yell at Me a newsletter about politics and personhood, written from the middle of America — in Iowa. If you want to interview me in a diner, you are buying the coffee. This week’s newsletter is about laughter and disaster. Never miss a newsletter by becoming a subscriber.
On Thursday night, I was snuggling in my bed with my children watching Bob’s Burgers when my phone buzzed. It was a friend texting me a tweet someone had sent from an account parodying Eli Lilly, the drug manufacturer responsible for making insulin. The tweet announced that Eli Lilly was making insulin free. The tweet had gone viral and forced the drugmaker to announce that, no, they weren’t making insulin free.
The announcement was parodied by other comics like Vinny Thomas, all of which amounted to highlighting the craven way drugmakers profit off of illness.
Some people on Twitter connected the parodies to a decline in Eli Lilly stocks. Although the relation appears only coincidental, not causal. But the point was, it was chaos. Absolute maniacal chaos. And chaos enabled by Elon Musk, the new owner of the social media site, who had hastily launched Twitter Blue — a service that allowed people to attain a verified Twitter badge with only an Apple account and $8.
And the result was an influx of people logging on to impersonate companies and politicians, mocking them. “I miss killing Iraqis,” a fake George W. Bush tweeted. A fake Tony Blair quoted that tweet, replying, “Me too.”
I was watching this carnival of sheer madness unfold, and I was cackling with glee.
I own precisely one Apple product — my 11-year-old daughter’s iPhone. So, I grabbed it and purchased a Twitter Blue and created an account mocking my senator Chuck Grassley, who had just been re-elected at 89 to serve his seventh term as senator. My kids were asking questions. “What’s a parody account?” “Why are you making fun of Chuck Grassley?” “What’s Weekend at Bernie’s?” Being a working mother who’s trying to make jokes online isn’t easy. Eventually, I told them to get ready for bed and then tweeted.
I’d spent the better part of seven months researching Grassley for a profile. I’d studied his tweets and read countless news stories about him. I’d gone to his hometown and talked to his childhood friend, brother-in-law, and family friends, who didn’t want to be quoted. I felt like I’d gotten very adept at understanding him. And I could tell when his characteristically erratically typed tweets were real or from his staff emulating him.
$8.17 (that includes tax) poorer, I joined in the melee.
Eleven hours later, at least one of the tweets had gone viral. And 11 hours later, after the tweet and many others using Twitter Blue to lampoon politicians and companies had gone viral, Elon Musk announced the end of the program. He plans to relaunch it again. After some tweaks.
Martin Amis, in his book Koba the Dread: Laughter and the 20 Million, recounts conversations he’d have while working at the New Statesman with his fellow writers Christopher Hitchens and John Braine. Braine would ask Hitchens, a Leftist at the time, why he wanted tyranny. Amis writes:
This was more or less the question I put to the Hitch.
“Rule by yob. That’s what you want. Why?”
“Yup. Rule by yob. That’s what I want. Berks in the saddle. Rule by yobs.”
It’s a glib way of describing the sentiment, but a powerful one. He wanted a country ruled by its people. Of course, Hitchens’ life and legacy are more complicated than just being a populist writer. I’ll leave that battle for someone else’s newsletter.
But Amis’ book, a short one, which I read multiple times in college while working on a minor in Russian history and literature, attempts to grapple with his father’s legacy as a supporter of the USSR. Hitchens, too, was a supporter. And Amis’ book caused a rift in their friendship because it attempts to show the tragedy of Stalinism. Hitchens panned it in The Atlantic. If Twitter had existed then, I’m sure the tweets would have been great.
Of that exchange quoted above, Hitchens notes that Amis clearly missed the joke that Hitchens was just trying to get him to shut up, by parodying back to him what he was saying: “Yup. Rule by yob.”
I bring this up not to rehash the dueling of male intellectuals so absorbed in their own legacies and worldviews and posh dining clubs to the point that their analysis is rendered inconsequential. Nor is my goal to grapple with the legacy of either man (Amis is overrated. I’m reminded of that when I re-read Koba the Dread, which could have been much better if it weren’t so solipsistic and vacuous — okay, never mind, I grappled with the legacy). But I bring it up because of laughter.
I love that exchange but not for reasons either writer would agree with. I love it because the exchange is a man writing about laughter, missing a joke. The other man, who once declared women couldn’t be funny, accuses the other man of not getting the joke. And all the while discussing the horrors of Stalinism, which in their rendering, is more about who can and cannot laugh than the realities of the deaths of 20 million..
There are so many kinds of laughter. The laughter of the distressed. The blurt laugh of awkwardness. The laugh-sob of deep grief. The laughter of pure joy. The cackle of schadenfreude. And the laugh you do when everything is falling apart.
When Musk took over Twitter, he declared that comedy was now legal. When he became the butt of those jokes, and the parody accounts began to cause trouble, comedy suddenly became illegal. The yobs were ruling. The berks were in the saddle. The powerful had become powerless. Musk wanted to live by the joke. But it’s clear he’ll probably die by it.
Musk’s interest in electric cars or Ukraine comes and goes, but the richest man in the world is constantly joking. A shameless punchline thief, he doesn’t discriminate between dad jokes or insult humor. On Twitter, he’s Beavis and Butt-Head, chuckling at everything.… Then people started making fun of him and you’ll never believe what happened next. Elon Musk, comedy savior, transformed into the joke police.
Parody for the past few years has seemed nearly impossible. Simply because life has also seemed impossible. A president who seemed to defy parody. A pandemic. Our own mass sense of loss as yet unmourned and grieved because the deaths seemed so invisible. As Stalin said, “The death of one man is a tragedy. The death of millions is a statistic.”
I discovered that over the past two years when I’d share the parody videos of the comedian Blair Erskin, and even some of my smartest friends would take them seriously. “It sounds like it could be true.”
Parody itself pokes at the permeable boundaries of social hierarchy. It’s the lowly mocking the higher-ups, bringing them down to their level. It’s also reality becoming unreal. But also, in the process, even more real. A comedian I love is Vinny Thomas, whose parody videos always seem so perfectly on point because they vocalize the subtext of the issues. In his Eli Lilly parody video, he plays a PR person for the company stating that insulin will remain expensive to punish people for the crime of diabetes. He delivers the lines perfectly with the pursed-lipped hesitation of someone trying to pretend they don’t understand how ridiculous it is what they are saying. Funny because it’s true. Parody pokes holes into the fabric of order, revealing how craven it all is.
What arose in those few hours of fevered Twitter Blue mockery was a desire to make fun of Musk and, in doing so, make fun of so many other rich and powerful people and entities. It was a carnival. Kings made into fools. And fools made into kings. This has always been one of the great things about social media. The way you could very well have your story retweeted by Chrissy Teigen or have Elijah Wood quietly like a dirty joke you made. Social hierarchies collapsed and rebuilt. Recently, Jenée Desmond-Harris tweeted that she loved Twitter because of the fear of backlash it instilled in the minds of the otherwise powerful and unbothered.
In his book Dostoevsky’s Poetics, Russian literary critic Mikhail Bakhtin noted that these carnivalesque elements in literature and life, that they are about freedom:
Carnival is past millennia’s way of sensing the world as one great communal performance. This sense of the world, liberating one from fear, bringing the world maximally close to a person and bringing one person maximally close to another (everything is drawn into the zone of free familiar contact), with its joy at change and its joyful relativity, is opposed to that one-sided and gloomy official seriousness which is dogmatic and hostile to evolution and change, which seeks to absolutize a given condition of existence or a given social order. From precisely that sort of seriousness did the carnival sense of the world liberate man.
I often think of social media when I think about Bakhtin, and I’m sorry, I do think about him. It’s a habit of spending so much time reading Russian literature, which, in a way, deals with the dark absurdity of humanity very adeptly.
I do worry my parody somehow invalidates me and my work as a journalist. Those sobering official lines between personal and professional that men seem to cross all the time, but for others are less permeable. I think of Hunter S. Thompson’s obit for Nixon and how Thompson himself was allowed to cross genres and yet still maintained a sense of gravitas and got paid. But that line of thinking is solipsistic, and I want to avoid pulling an Amis. I think we just have to do the best work we know how and have fun doing it. What I do want to say is this: I do not regret jumping into that crowing, wet, wild, wonderful mud puddle, even for a little bit. Because it was fun and funny and a break from the seriousness, and for a moment, seemed to get at a truth that could not otherwise be told or heard.