Artillery Row

The Curious Case of RS Archer

What is it about fake online identities that is so appealing?

RS Archer is, apparently, a novelist who created the “David Saunders” book series. A man of many talents and diverse experiences, he also has “a background of military service” and is heavily involved in some kind of mysterious family business. His profile picture on his popular Twitter account shows him to have lean, Bondesque good looks.

Archer lives in France, in grand luxury. He is always reporting to his Twitter followers about how he is eating the best steak in Europe or drinking Château Batailley, Pauillac Grand Cru Classé from 2009. He has “a house in Switzerland” and ponders buying a 1968 Mercedes-Benz.

Does that story not sound a little too perfectly calculated?

Chiefly, though, Archer is known for his politics. He is ardently anti-Brexit and anti-Johnson — claiming, for example, that the Russian invasion of Ukraine “began with Brexit” — though he also mocks left-wing extremes of verbal sensitivity and trans activism.

Archer earned online attention with a Twitter thread in which he talked about his idiot Brexiteer neighbours who had “made no arrangements” for Britain’s departure from the EU and faced deportation. Their equally idiotic — as well as drunk and violent — son attempted to travel to France to bribe the mayor, with hilarious consequences. Archer’s thread was shared more than 50,000 times.

At this point you might have realised that something strange is going on. Does that story not sound a little too perfectly calculated for Remainer prejudices? How can an author, of all people, live in such grand style? Why have you never heard of the “David Saunders” book series? (Is that not a terrible name for a main character?)

Well, it doesn’t exist. As several observers have pointed out, there is no trace of “RS Archer” or the “David Saunders” book series beyond the Twitter account. The Bondesque profile picture is from a stock photo. The identity is transparently fictional.

But is it so transparent? Ninety thousand people follow Mr Archer and engage with his blatant fabrications. He claims to have met a Zurich banker who told him that US and European financiers were looking forward to selling off the NHS (6000 retweets). He reports that a new ferry service from Belgium will bypass England and go straight to Scotland (1000 retweets and, by the way, untrue). He makes up a “scathing comment” by a “US spokesman” saying there “are no winners with Brexit” (1000 retweets).

His whole persona is a kind of seductive fantasy

Yes, RS (it rhymes with “arse”) is a prolific purveyor of “fake news”. There is nothing unique about that, of course, but what I find fascinating is how he — or whoever is behind “him” — has manufactured a character. It is Remainer wish-fulfilment. Not only do his claims say exactly what middle-class liberals wish to hear, but his whole persona is a kind of seductive fantasy. He is rich. He is sophisticated. He is urbane. He is always “owning” dunderheaded Brexiteers and then laughing it up with cheerful, friendly continentals.

Of course, there is intrinsic comedy to this in that Remainers love to flaunt their superior intelligence and education, yet are being taken in — not as a whole, of course, but in thousands of cases — by such a blatant fraud. But something else is going on. It is a symptom of the parasocial nature of online life.

Parasocial interaction, wrote the sociologists Richard Wohl and Donald Horton in the 1950s, is “one-sided, nondialectical, controlled by the performer, and not susceptible to mutual development”. It is the “relationship” we have with celebrities, but also with people we follow on social media.

For Archer’s followers, if he is not living the luxurious, cultured life they wish they lived, he is the cultured friend they wish they had. He posts something insufferable about how his dinner consists of scallops, duck and soufflè and will be eaten “outside on the terrace” and his comments fill up with admiring, slightly wistful posts from his lonesome followers (“I’m not jealous”, “you got a spare seat available”, “u love just torturing us, don’t you”).

We should not get hooked on improving other people’s image of ourselves

But there is a sense in which the relationship is reciprocal. The real RS Archer, whoever they might be, is not eating duck and scallops on their French estate. They are much likelier to be eating microwaved pizza in Hull. They enjoy wallowing in their fantasy of high culture and high living, and basking in the respect and admiration that it brings them.

Perhaps, horrifying as it is to say, there is a bit of RS Archer in all those of us who have acquired any kind of audience on social media (or, indeed, in the media). Sure, we use our real names and our real faces, and we might not actually invent things about our lives or the world. But we tend to project an image of ourselves as being smarter, cooler, funnier and more sophisticated than we actually are. We seek, to varying degrees of extremity, the admiration and esteem of our followers.

There is nothing necessarily wrong with this. Everyone wants to impress people, whether it is on Twitter or in their local pub, and it would make for an odd kind of society if everyone flaunted their weaknesses, failures and bad habits. But we should not get hooked on improving other people’s image of ourselves rather than, well, improving ourselves. Otherwise we might wake up one morning, stumble to the bathroom, look in the mirror and see a stock photo gazing back.

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