In late 2015, David, a Newcastle father of two in his mid-40s who works in the construction industry, decided to get a Twitter account. David wasn’t really a social media person — he has a Facebook account he rarely uses other than to “look at pictures of family [events] and my nephews.” For the most part, he only uses his desktop computer to manage his finances and watch the odd TV show on the BBC. He’d heard of Twitter before — in newspapers, usually involving a politician saying something stupid or a celebrity accidentally posting a nude. His friends at work also used it to keep up-to-date with the Premier League and their corresponding fantasy soccer leagues.
It was the election of Jeremy Corbyn as leader of the U.K.’s Labour Party — the most left-leaning leader in the country’s modern history — in September 2015, that finally did it. David describes himself as a “centrist” who voted for Tony Blair and Gordon Brown before switching to the Conservative Party in 2010. He has a “soft spot” for Labour, but was nervous and worried about Corbyn’s victory. “He’s a bloody traitor!” he writes over Instant Messenger. “The man is a lunatic, and he hates this country. He’ll let anyone in, ban everyone he dislikes — proper communism. How anyone of your generation can support him is beyond all reasonable thinking.”
David needed an outlet to vent his frustrations. In his office and at the pub, he couldn’t talk about his political fears without being told to shut up by his co-workers and friends. And so, he felt he had no choice but to turn to Twitter.
David originally set up an account with his real name — David is a pseudonym to protect his anonymity — and a low-res image of himself on a beach vacation wearing sunglasses, the same picture he still uses on his Facebook account. But it didn’t take long for David to get into fights online. For the most part, he started them, too — mainly by agitating verified left-wing commentators and personalities with right-wing memes, usually either pro-Trump or pro-Brexit. “Things that would get them angry,” David recalls. Eventually, his aggressive posts got him later suspended from Twitter.
Unable to be himself, he instead decided to set up an anonymous account based on his favorite animal: A duck.
“My first anonymous account was called @Angryoldduck, which I set up in November 2017. It was really based on the fact that a lot of my childhood memories are about feeding ducks. It reminded me of British culture and identity. Also, ducks are cute so I thought I’d come across as less aggressive and maybe more people would engage with me.”
“Alts” — or alternative Twitter accounts — are nothing new. For the most part, they’re a way to remain anonymous online, but still participate in fandom or niche subculture. (In some cases, right-wing trolls also use anonymous accounts fronted by anime avatars or Pepe the Frog pictures as a signifier of their political positions on 4chan and Reddit message boards.) But this was the first time I’d ever seen anyone tweet as waterfowl.
“Middle-aged people are more likely to be cautious about what they want to put online, and if you’re going to make provocative political opinions or basically say some fucked-up shit, you’re probably going to be anonymous,” says Katie Notopoulos, a senior technology editor at BuzzFeed News and a co-host of the Internet Explorer podcast.
When I ask Katie why David might have chosen a duck as his alt, she suggests it could just be a form of humor similar to other alt accounts that make up “weird twitter” sub-communities. “It’s almost like the early weird Twitter guys, how they all had stupid user handles like @fart, @dogboner and @weehitler. When they got into fights with some political commentator, they could always laugh like, ‘HAHA, YOU’RE TWEETING AT A GUY NAMED DOGBONER.’”
“In the same way,” she continues, “it’s sort of ridiculous to see someone have a heated political argument with a duck — it’s like fireproofing yourself from getting owned.”
To complicate things, a few weeks into using his new account, David found out — amazingly — that he wasn’t the only right-wing leaning duck on Twitter. In fact, he found more than 10 accounts, just based in Britain alone, with names like “Mr_Duck_Esquire,” “Ugly Bloody Duck” and “That Bloody Duck.” Not to mention, the “Racist Duck,” a name that, according to its user, is purely ironic, even if that irony is lost on most.
The ducks posted similar content to David, too: Anti-Corbyn and pro-Brexit articles, videos from right-wing YouTubers and the odd image of a duck from the Duck of the Day Twitter account (all cute duck photos, no politics). “I was curious and wanted to find out more,” David says. “So when I first made contact with another duck account, I said hello, and the response I received was just a ‘quack.’”
The same thing happens to me when I try to interact with other duck accounts to figure out why this group of middle-aged men gravitate toward the duck as an alt. Some respond to me simply with “quacks,” or they warn other duck accounts not to send me “duck pics.”
John (again, a pseudonym) was one of the few duck accounts to get back to me to explain the phenomena in more detail. “Part of assuming the duck identity is for anonymity,” he says of his three duck accounts (including Mr_Duck_Esquire). “But there’s also something libertarian about the duck. A duck sets off in flight. If another duck thinks it’s a good idea, it joins, too. Otherwise the first duck just carries on. The same with ideas. I don’t care if everyone agrees or not. If they like my ideas, they will embrace it. If they don’t, they’ll fly off.”
I ask John whether part of those “libertarian” values include online harassment, which is often Islamophobic, misogynistic and directly targeting vulnerable groups on Twitter. For instance, in most cases, these attacks targeted trans women with slurs and insulting comments about their appearance. John responds by vowing that he’s never personally targeted any individuals and that his comments are mostly about politics and “just out of humor.” He admits, though, that he wouldn’t make the same remarks using a personal account, or if he met any of the commentators he tweets at in real life.
At the same time, John says that in private, the duck account has helped him talk about issues that are still personal to him, mainly around mental health. “The semi-anonymity allows easier expression to tackle issues that can be quite raw,” he says, recalling his battles with self-harm and suicidal thoughts and tendencies. “Talking about my mental health from a persona is helpful because I feel I can talk more. Even during the hard parts, the image of the cute duck will always take the malice out of it.”
For other duck accounts, however, assuming the identity is just a way of having conversations online. Steve (also a pseudonym), a 45-year-old father living near Bristol, tweeting under the account @racistduck, tells me that many guys gravitated to ducks simply because of their “silliness.” “Who doesn’t like ducks? They get fed in parks, waddle and stick their butts in the air,” he explains.
At the same time, Steve adds that assuming these identities partially came out of the “assumptions people make when you’re a man on Twitter — they assume you’ll be aggressive. It tends to be alpha males who are the duck accounts, and it tones down the perceived aggressiveness with a cute duck picture. You can cool down heated debates, on things like immigration and Brexit with humor. This account allows me to do that.”
Steve has had several duck accounts that have been suspended and shut down. In fact, his current account is his fourth duck reincarnation. He knows some of his posts can be provocative, which he says is a deliberate effort to maximize his support for “free speech” than it is for any deeply held political or social convictions. But, like David, his continual return to Twitter is for the space to have political conversations he wouldn’t be able to have anywhere else. “As a duck,” he explains, “people are more reasonable and don’t assume my agenda. On this account, it’s difficult for people to make judgements about me before we start.”
David doesn’t post much on Twitter these days. He feels the platform has become too confrontational, even for him. He now spends his time on his duck account lurking, reading more conversations and occasionally speaking to other ducks via DM, where they’re more likely to share cute images of ducks, and talk about the minutiae of their lives than right-wing politics. “If we do talk politics,” he says, “it’ll usually be in the way that we’d imagine ducks would think about our political situation. I think they’d find it bizarre and quite stupid — and probably be thankful they’re not humans!”