Before falling asleep on Monday night, I tweeted a plea from my iPhone: “Guys what I gotta do to get to 900 followers.” (I had 889 at the time, which was tantalizingly close to a round—if only microscopically more impressive—number). The universe was about to brutally and publicly answer my poorly punctuated question.
Let’s paraphrase Kafka to describe what happened the following day: An automated Twitter widget must have been telling lies about Abraham Riesman, for without having done anything wrong, he was accused of being a Texan rapist one fine morning.
At 8:41am on Tuesday, while eating cereal in my boxers before heading into work, I received a tweet from someone whose username was unfamiliar to me:
“@abrahamjoseph @khou shows your feed next to article about rapist whose name happens to be Abraham Joseph. http://bit.ly/RLwPwS Sorry, man.”
I debated the merits of clicking the link. After all, spam tweets often feature alluring copy along the lines of “look at this embarrassing picture of you lol,” then link to mail-order Croatian bride services. But this seemed a little too intricate to be fake. I decided to risk it.
I found myself at the website of KHOU, Houston’s local CBS affiliate. They’d posted a deeply upsetting story about the aforementioned Mr. Joseph, a former Houston cop who had raped a waitress in the back of his patrol car. On Monday, Joseph was sentenced to life in prison for the crime. And on the right-hand side of the page was an embedded widget with tweets related to the story.
Here was the problem: Online, in an attempt to avoid misspellings of my last name, I use the Twitter handle “@abrahamjoseph.” Twitter wasn’t seeing much discussion of Joseph’s sentencing. So, in an automated rundown of tweets related to the name “Abraham Joseph,” the widget’s only contents were my banal ruminations (references to Dune, thoughts about my coffee-brewing process, and so on). To anyone looking at the story (and upward of 2,000 people had shared it on Facebook), it looked as though @abrahamjoseph was the Twitter handle of a convicted rapist, apparently tweeting from a rather cushy prison.
First came panic over the possible defamation of character. I called the station, but no one picked up. I emailed them, tweeted at them, and mentioned them on Facebook, but still got nothing.
And then, I’m a bit disgusted to say, I was overcome with glee.
I live, for the most part, on the Internet. By day, I’m a communications consultant for a digital media firm, and on my off hours, I’m a freelance journalist and videographer who primarily gets his work published online. So I know that quirky stories about “fails” are blood in the water for bored people with itchy trigger fingers for Facebook Like buttons.
I didn’t know exactly how this would all play out, but I, like all Americans, want to be famous, and I had a feeling this could bump my stock up.
I tweeted about my plight, and somehow, NPR’s influential Twitter oracle Andy Carvin saw what I’d written. He quoted my tweet, prefacing it with the following analysis: “Oops.” I wrote a Tumblr post about what was going on and then shared it on Facebook. The likes and comments from friends and family started to roll in.
Within the hour, I was on the phone with a tech reporter from the New York Observer, who had seen Carvin’s retweet. While I was giving her quotes, she refreshed her browser screens and saw that a) KHOU’s Twitter embed had been taken down and b) I’d passed the 900-follower mark. Over the course of the day, CNET, CBSNews.com, and the Houston Chronicle picked up her story, leading to more tweets and shares from onlookers. Still, there was no word from KHOU.
Here’s the surreal part: Despite headlines about my newfound “infamy” and Facebook comments about how “tragic” my situation was, absolutely nothing negative happened to me.
To be honest, all the sympathy has me feeling a little guilty. The very kind news director of KHOU gave me a call this morning and seemed more than a little upset that his station had caused me any harm (which, of course, it hadn’t). Ultimately, the whole thing was just a digital-age meta-story. We all got excited about a plunge into digital shame that never happened. The real Abraham Joseph and his victim will likely never hear about me. My life remains fundamentally unchanged.
Less than 48 hours after my Twitter account was mistakenly embedded, the story is long over. All I can boast are 47 new Twitter followers, Google search results for “abraham riesman rapist,” and an aching sense that I, like so many Internet “stars” before me, will stop at nothing in my empty quest for ethereal notoriety.
Which reminds me: Can you make sure to share this article? Or at least retweet it?