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How An Indiana College Democrat Blew Up Political Twitter

Every good joke has a kernel of truth.

As news broke Wednesday afternoon that the forthcoming Borat sequel features footage of the ever-hapless Rudy Giuliani apparently preparing to engage with, ah… “Little Rudy,” in a *very* compromising situation, political Twitter went instantly, understandably, bonkers. The furor was stoked by a tweet from Nick Roberts, vice president of Indiana’s College Democrats, that seemed to confirm Giuliani’s guilt:

The former New York mayor’s gullibility, neediness, and technological illiteracy are well-known in political circles. It hardly stretched the imagination to think a savvy young person armed with Rudy’s well-worn cell phone number could have pranked him into such a confession. And like things do on social media, it spread like wildfire, earning retweets from reporters as high-placed as MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow. The only catch: It wasn’t real.

The screenshots were of an exchange between Roberts and his twin brother, meant, according to Roberts, as a joke at Giuliani’s expense. I spoke with Roberts this afternoon about how the prank came about, his original intent, and what it’s like to be on the wrong end of social media’s itchy trigger finger.

The following conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

So—did you actually text Rudy Giuliani?

Well, I had his phone number. But the conversation was between me and my brother. This whole joke dates back, like, a month ago. Because some other people on Twitter had his phone number, and they were tweeting out real conversations with Rudy Giuliani, right. The first one was a satire thing with my brother, which is the original thing in [today’s] tweet. But then, as the [Borat] thing happened, people were tagging me, and wanting me to follow up with it. So I put out a tweet that was pretty ridiculous. People who knew me thought it was a joke initially, but then the national people, thankfully, most took it with kind of a grain of salt, but a lot of other people have not done that much. I’ve been trying to contact the higher-level people that put it out, telling them it’s fake. And thankfully, most people have taken heed of that. Regardless, I think most will thankfully think it’s funny, and I hope it put some enjoyment in people’s life and brought them a laugh or two.

But given that Giuliani’s cell phone number was at least at one point basically public knowledge, as well as the fact that he’s not very tech-savvy, and that he’s … well, fairly thirsty to talk to reporters most of the time, you must have thought on some level that people would take this seriously.

I did. It was one of those things that was kind of … harmless fun. To me, it doesn’t really have much of an impact. People have texted him for months and months and months, and people know he’s always willing to talk to random people, to me it was just a funny gag. I thought it would be funny to put the random selfie of Ivanka in there, and the Rudy mannerisms in there, and just kind of follow up all of the other things people have been sending him.

When I saw the initial text, my first thought was, “Did he just Google ‘Ivanka selfie’ to make this?”

Yes, that’s exactly what I did.

Have you attracted any attention from the Trump campaign, or from Rudy himself?

I got followed by somebody that works in the War Room for Trump’s campaign, but thankfully not yet. A lot of them have tweeted that it’s a hoax. They’re saying it’s, you know, a liberal hoax or whatever. But to me, it’s just a joke in the first place. It’s really not that deep.

The fact that people immediately took it at face value at the very least says something about Giuliani.

That’s what’s so funny about it. If this was any other member of the Trump administration—Ben Carson, for example—no one would take it seriously. But the believability with Giuliani adds the fun layer to it. I think it says a lot about the untrustworthiness of this administration that people are just picking up on it immediately. Most of the people who follow me knew it was fake initially, although again, most of the reporters who messaged me have at least had extreme skepticism about it. But a lot of the random Resistance Twitter accounts, as they’re called, I think believed it was real.

When someone with Rachel Maddow’s platform retweets this, is there a part of you that goes “Oh, shit?”

That was part of the reason why initially I didn’t want to, like, dig in, because … my twin brother, I had this big conversation with him and he wanted me to say nothing about it. But I wanted to clarify that it was fake, because I don’t want these people to ruin their credibility, and thankfully, most people have just joked about it, but I don’t want them to ruin their credibility just for a joke. And I wanted to clear the air immediately. I didn’t want to go on a show or anything and say that it’s real when it’s not, because the last thing I want is to make it, like, fake news, right? You know, that whole narrative. Thankfully, most people just have laughed it off. There have only been a few people that have told me to take it down… People love to joke, they still think it’s really funny.

Have you tweeted explicitly yet that it was a joke, though?

I retweeted other things like that. I’m actually probably going to do that right now. I’ve mostly been messaging the reporters who have been messaging me about it first, but I think what I’m going to do right after this is over is just to clarify it right out of the gate. [Roberts deleted the original tweet and tweeted an explanation shortly after this interview.]

Did you think at all about, as you described, the “fake news,” or disinfo, dimension of this before you posted it, or did you just think it would be something for you and your friends to laugh at, and that it probably would have stopped there?

I honestly did not think about that angle as much as I am now. And to be honest, I’m still kind of thinking about it from that perspective as we’re speaking, I mean, this is a live event. I’m fielding interviews, like, five a minute. Let me just think of how to answer this.

I think I underestimated how much people would believe it in the first place. Part of that is that I know my page. I joke a lot. I post a lot of things like this. I’ve done it before. I tweeted once about Jeb Bush and how peas are his favorite. I made a fake with Joe Biden liking K-Pop. There are different things I’ve done that each got thousands of likes, but not that have blown up like this. So to me, it’s similar to the other ones in that way. And there was no negative backlash to any of those, so I really didn’t think it would blow up in this way.

When someone in the media retweets something like this at face value, is there a part of you that thinks “Come on, you’re supposed to be in the big leagues?”

Well, thankfully with Maddow, I think her [since-deleted] tweet about it was passable, I think she was kind of poking fun at it. But I do think if you’re at that level, you should immediately fact check those sort of things. Other people from MSNBC messaged me about it first, and I told them it wasn’t real. 

Is this experience going to change the way you think about doing these sort-of memes?

Obviously there’s misinformation, and I don’t want to be an actor in that. But, I mean, satire is protected speech in the first place. In some ways, it is harmless fun, but in other ways I do have to be conscious of the fact that I have a platform, I have 13,000 followers, I’m the vice president of the College Democrats, I have other things I’m trying to be responsible for. With 13 days before an election, I can see why people would be concerned … but I mean, there have been other things like this before, it’s not like I’m the first one to contribute to it. I hope people wouldn’t take it too seriously, one way or the other.

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