The great Twitter hoax

News that German theorist Jürgen Habermas had joined Twitter generated a buzz on the site, the likes of which was not seen since Bill Gates signed up.

It was all a hoax, of course, and within a few days the profile name “JHabermas” had changed into “fake Jürgen Habermas”.

Habermas is a German sociologist and philosopher who is famous for his concept of the public sphere, a subject he tackled in the seminal work, The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere. In his rather dense text, Habermas defined the public sphere as a virtual community, that doesn’t necessarily exist in any identifiable locale, in which ideas are subjected to debate.

I first learnt of Habermas’ presence from a tweet by Alan Rusbridger, the editor of the Guardian. Within a few days, Habermas had 6  000 people following his tweets. His first tweet was a credible one, something you would expect the theorist to say: “Audio of the debate on religion and the public sphere among Habermas, [Charles] Taylor, [Judith] Butler and [Cornel] West”. Some of his posts were in German: “Sprechen Sie Deutsch, bitte?” (Do you speak German, please?) he asked. “Vielen Dank. Heute wohne ich in Frankfurt” (Many thanks. I now live in Frankfut).

“My paper in The Journal of Political Philosophy, “Equal Treatment of Cultures—and the Limits of Postmodern Liberalism,” “Habermas” , posting a link to an article he had written for a journal, was another of his early tweets.

He was not yet following anyone on Twitter because “I’m still trying to learn how to use this tool”. However, a suspicious blogger tracked the intellectual to his base at the University of Frankfurt. When the blogger asked the real Habermas if he had an account on the social networking site, the German was unequivocal: “no, no, no. This is somebody else. This is a misuse of my name”.

The detective was surprised to find out that the father of the public sphere didn’t quite know what Twitter is all about: “my email address is not publicly available,” he told the cyber-detective.

His posts in English were written in the long-winded prose that scares many students away. On the benefits of the internet, “Habermas” wrote: “It also counterbalances the deficits from the impersonal and asymmetrical character of broadcasting insofar as it reintroduces deliberative elements in communication. Besides that, it can undermine the censorship of authoritarian regimes ...” Continuing, he pointed out that “the rise of millions of fragmented discussions across the world tend instead to lead to fragmentation of audiences into isolated publics”.

The internet super sleuth soon posted the denial by Habermas and the fake Habermas, proverbial tail between his legs, was apologetic.

“Sorry you all for this,” he/she began, “actually, this started as an attempt to share professor Habermas’s papers (as you see in the 3rd person early tweets) But of course, I couldn’t resist the temptation. But in any case, I never wanted to take this very far…”

Perhaps Habermas should begin thinking about an appendix to The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere on the role and effect of impersonations in the public sphere.

Percy Zvomuya

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