Mountain View Voice

News - August 9, 2013

Mock-police Twitter account fools press

Mountain View man tweets from 'alternate reality' MVPD

by Nick Veronin

A Mountain View humorist inadvertently duped a local news outlet into posting a real story about a made-up incident. It only took him 120 characters.

The story reported that a man — preoccupied with a YouTube video, which he was watching on his Google Glass headset — had walked into and broken a window in downtown Mountain View. That tweet was not pushed out by the official Mountain View Police Department Twitter account, @MountainViewPD. It was published on a satirical account run by a local computer programmer who tweets about an "alternate-reality Mountain View."

The story is at once humorous and instructive, according to Matt Basta, who runs a fake police Twitter account under the handle @MVPoliceBlotter.

Basta is a Mountain View transplant who moved here from Pennsylvania two years ago. He said the fact that his story was picked up says a lot about what people will believe and what people want to believe.

"I think it's pretty funny, but also sad that (a lot of) folks were so quick to believe a 140-character anecdote from an unverified Twitter account," Basta wrote in an email to the Voice. "Google Glass is a great piece of hardware, but there are a lot of people that are willing to pick up their pitchforks at the faintest whiff of controversy surrounding it."

The Aug. 2 tweet by Basta read: "Man wearing Google Glass breaks window after walking into it while watching YouTube on El Camino Real near Calderon Ave."

Three days later, on Aug. 5, a blogger with the Silicon Valley Business Journal posted a story under the headline "Google Glass claims first casualty: A window in Mountain View." The story was taken down several hours later and replaced with a brief correction: "That report was based on an unverified Twitter account for the Mountain View police department. We got punk'd."

Basta began tweeting as @MVPoliceBlotter less than two months ago — June 26 was his first tweet under the handle — but he has already sent out 112 pithy posts, most of them inspired by observations he makes walking around Mountain View.

He said he initially got the idea to start the account after being tickled by actual police blotter entries from the town of Atherton — which went viral earlier this year after residents from the wealthy community called police to report such uneventful happenings as a man whistling in an attempt to track down his dog, a woman who was "walking at an odd hour" and another woman who called to report someone had rung her doorbell and left (responding police found that a package had been delivered).

While Mountain View is no Atherton, Basta said it is still a relatively peaceful place where he has imagined — and perhaps observed — "tattle-tales that are compulsive about following rules, police enforcing oddly specific or otherwise pointless laws, and people that probably just need someone to talk to."

Some of Basta's tweets lampoon first-world problems and Silicon Valley neuroses, others are odes to the banality of day-to-day life in Mountain View. And some are just patently absurd. "The humor is in how completely uneventful and un-noteworthy Mountain View can sometimes be," he said. "Someone scratched the passenger-side door of a Tesla Model S in the Trader Joe's parking lot of the San Antonio Shopping Center," he tweeted on July 20. Six days later he posted the deadpan declaration, "Someone left their coffee on the roof of their car near Emmons and Alvin." And on July 30 he took a decidedly random tone when he wrote, "Man loitering behind Castro St. building found to be a person-shaped shadow.

Basta said he never intended any of his tweets to be taken seriously — and has at least once advised a follower to call 911 for tweeting him to report a dangerous driver on El Camino Real. All the same, he is enjoying the attention he has gotten as a result of the Silicon Valley Business Journal story.

"I've gotten followed by a lot of (Silicon Valley) CEOs after the tweet blew up," he wrote, also noting that several local news agencies took notice of his Twitter account in the aftermath of the SVBJ report. "I think that's just hilarious."

The tweet even attracted the attention of noted science fiction writer and Google Glass enthusiast William Gibson, who mentioned the satirical tweet and the @MVPoliceBlotter handle on his own Twitter account.

As for the real Mountain View police, officials with the department seem to be taking the satirical account in stride. Shino Tanaka, the MVPD's social media coordinator, called Basta's account "often funny" and identified it as a source of "comic relief."

However, Tanaka was also quick to remind Twitter users that it is important to recognize when a source of information is legitimate. "Whether you're a media agency or an individual actively participating on social platforms, take care to know where and from whom your intel originates," she said.

The Mountain View Police Department's official Twitter account, just like the official Twitter accounts of public officials and celebrities, displays a white check mark inside a circular blue seal. This is the social network's way of letting users know that a given account has been verified and belongs to the person or organization it is representing.

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