“Mike, did you do it?” Mike Rowe’s mother asked as he prepared to board a plane out of Kansas. “Your father and I are very concerned. If you need money, you should have just asked.”
“Mom, what are you talking about?” he replied distractedly into his cellphone.
“Go check your Facebook.”
It wasn’t Rowe but his doppelgänger—a blurry yet nonetheless recognizable version of himself convincing enough to fool his worried parents. “People were posting all over my page,” Rowe tells me, “saying that there’s this guy who looks like me robbing a bank.” The police put out a tongue-in-cheek arrest warrant, prompting Rowe to write up a bemused Facebook post on the plane, explaining that it wasn’t him in the photo, and just in case there was any doubt, he could prove he was nowhere near the state. His flight landed in Baltimore, he disembarked…and walked right into a media shitstorm. His post had blown up and gone viral.
The game of meeting your Internet doppelgänger has become its own thing, ranging from social media experiments to feel-good stories about amazing coincidences, like that time those two bearded men met on a plane. But Rowe’s situation exposes the darker side of having a virtual twin. In his case, it led to a mild case of mistaken identity, its absurdities more Sedaris than Kafka. But as facial recognition programs proliferate and biometric passport photos become the norm, what will happen when your digital identity supersedes the version of you that grows old and wrinkled over time? For some, that sounds terrific. DNA testing and fingerprint analysis and all that technology stuff is objective, they declare confidently. The machine cannot be fooled. Until that day it scans your data and decides you’re that criminal everyone is looking for, and so you are, even if you’re innocent. Because machines are truthful. Humans lie.
With Michel Foucault’s construction of “man” as a self-aware historical actor in mind, the problem of proving your identity is as old as modernity itself. Histories such as Natalie Zemon Davis’ “Return of Martin Guerre” probed the ramifications of impersonating someone else in a preindustrial, illiterate 16th-century French society. For documented cases such as Guerre's, the chaos of war afforded rare opportunities for ambitious and desperate men to change their lousy fates. Subsequent military conflicts and the diaspora of the world wars have provided the plot twist for umpteen novels and fabulist films such as “A Very Long Engagement.”
Today, by contrast, the transactional rapidity of social media means that disposable selves are not only routinely stolen, but crafting a convincing hoax has become a form of kitsch performance art. Everyman David Cicirelli created a fake online life so compelling that he got himself a book and movie deal; comedian Nathan Fielder asked his fans to pretend they were drug dealers and text their parents, an interesting wrinkle — faking the self instead of the image. Either way, unlike poor Guerre, who was executed for his deceit, impersonating someone else online isn’t a crime worthy of punishment. This time around, the law is on the impersonator’s side, because participation in contemporary society requires us to impersonate ourselves.
For the virtual has already redefined reality, even as Roland Barthes’ notion of simulacra and simulation now sets the conditions of postmodern existence. In the manner of “The Matrix,” we now all lead double lives, one as mortals on a troubled earth, and the other as avatars in whitespace.
Whitespace is easily mistaken for utopia, that word itself being Latin for no-space. Last year, however, even as reported stories about the extent and severity of online harassment of women and people of color began to garner serious attention, so too did stories about the growing trend of “digital kidnapping” begin to proliferate. Parents were horrified to discover that their children’s photographs were being lifted from their social media pages and posted to strangers’ accounts, often with elaborate fictions enmeshing that child inside the thief’s online life. This practice is creepy, with scenarios ranging from relatively benign to deeply disturbed. But posting photographs to social media typically means the photographs are public, therefore for strangers to appropriate them feels unethical but remains legal. The solution, then, is to make all your personal photographs private, yes? Not quite. Because many professions require a public headshot, and that’s susceptible to being lifted, too.
In 2013, this is how Jesse Bering found himself the surprised object of female affections. The author of several bestselling nonfiction books including “Why is the Penis Shaped Like That?” and “Perv,” Bering is not only a brilliant writer, he’s also gay. He eventually figured out that his headshot had been stolen from his column for Scientific American, and posted in a “romance scam."
In an email to me, Bering said: “Several women have emailed me over the years to alert me that my image is being used in various scams, and although it's not logical for me to feel this way, at some level I still felt guilty, which is odd. On the other hand, some made me feel slightly culpable, as though it was my responsibility to put a stop to it. But what could I do?” Bering's photo is still being used for fake Facebook profiles under different names, and therefore isn’t considered identity theft. Even though he’s “notified FB many times,” the use of his photo without his permission doesn’t violate their policies.
Bering thinks his face was used as a “catfish lure because it's believable -- I'm not exactly Brad Pitt,” he writes. “If the guy is too good-looking women would realize it's a scam. It's the friendly smile, and I guess I don't look like some testosterone-addled douchebag taking a selfie in the mirror.” For similar reasons, I would hazard, trolls decided to steal my boyfriend’s headshot and use it to tweet at Ann Coulter.
On the one hand, it’s sort of funny that trolls apparently think he’s the stock image of Republican Man as they send fake-conservative/Colbert-style tweets to her. On the other, it’s also sort of horrifying that someone else’s words are being thought-ballooned from his digital mouth.
I’m worried. My boyfriend isn’t. He mostly thinks it’s hilarious. So does Fox & Friends weekend host Tucker Carlson, who told me, “They stole his picture? That’s bizarre and also kind of hilarious and flattering. I’d take it as a compliment.” Because I insisted, my boyfriend grudgingly alerted Twitter, whose response boiled down to: Sorry. Nothing we can do. Since then, more trolls using his photo have popped up like mushrooms, all busily mocking Coulter.
At this point, I pretty much don’t believe that anyone is who they say they are online — this from a woman who met said boyfriend online from halfway around the world, even though his dating profile didn’t have a picture. I wasn’t in his life yet to make him post one, as I later made him do for Twitter…making it possible for trolls to steal his headshot. Oh, the irony. Even when famous people are “verified” by that little check mark next to their handle, I figure the actual person doing the tweeting is an assistant, a P.R. person, or a 20-something intern who knows how to correctly use “bae.” Last week I got into a Twitter chat with a famous actor, and I’m still not 100 percent sure if it was him or a staffer. I suppose that what matters is that people think it’s him--which, in the simulated world, amounts to the same thing. Yesterday afternoon, was I really talking to Mike Rowe on the phone? It sure sounded like him! But my hearsay isn’t proof. The phone records are.
I talk to many people but claim to know very few, and those few would be family or friends from childhood. Because I am not a teenager, it makes me rather uncomfortable, this collapse of the traditional spheres defining the spaces of “domesticity” and “work,” “private” and “public,” and other binary interpolations of contemporary Western social relations. But because he lives on television, Rowe is used to the discontinuities and gaps, as he must be to do his dirty jobs, just as he is used to finding his image and words being used without his permission.
He doesn’t complain, because in the broader scheme of things, these are annoyances rather than crises. His bank-robber story also has a happy ending for him, because his celebrity exonerates him, as does his affable white maleness, making the whole thing a sort of semiotic peekaboo game taking place across computer screens and phone lines and no physical face-to-face.
But it’s always a violation to be appropriated or manipulated in various ways, he observes. “The question is degrees”--and yes, he’s been pornified. (I didn’t Google it; I asked him.) He’s mostly embarrassed because his mother calls him about these naked “Mikes,” which is mortifying no matter how old you get. When he finds himself quoted out of context or otherwise attacked, his response is to try to turn it around and rise above it, because you can’t control what others believe, only how you respond, even when your skivvies are off. In the end, everyone has a birthday suit.