On Aug. 12, former Republican presidential candidate Herman Cain tweeted from beyond the grave. An ardent opponent of mask-wearing protocols, Cain had died from COVID-19 complications two weeks prior. His verified Twitter account, however, ventriloquized his criticism of Sen. Kamala Harris. He died of an illness he may have contracted at a Trump rally, but he remains a loyal Trump supporter even in death. Since then, Cain’s account has continued to tweet.
Many observers found it unnerving. Some compared the use of a dead man’s Twitter account to spout pro-Trump propaganda to the digital resurrection of dead celebrities like Tupac Shakur, whose music and image continue to earn massive amounts of money decades after his murder, most famously as a hologram at the 2012 Coachella festival. As tech journalist Kara Swisher put it, the whole affair is peak 2020.
Despite the ghoulish optics, Cain is not a zombie. People close to him took control of his Twitter account after he died. The account is now known as “The Cain Gang” to differentiate it from Cain’s personal, living account, and the Twitter bio says it is “supervised by his team and family. The mission continues.”
On Twitter (and other platforms), the dead often linger. Ephemeral, real-time communications can become memorials with emotional value. Death can sow discord between people and platforms, which might disagree over how digital remains should be managed.
While Twitter’s current memorialization policy involves deactivating the profiles of the dead at the request of close kin, removal is a thornier problem when it comes to public figures. Deleting the accounts of politicians or celebrities would be an erasure of history. Institutions such as the Library of Congress, which is now selectively preserving tweets, and the Internet Archive have been instrumental in preserving tweets for posterity. But even they cannot reliably preserve every tweet; the Library of Congress, for instance, initially planned to do just that, but has since limited the scope of its preservation efforts, and the Internet Archive is itself a vulnerable nonprofit. The Twitter accounts of the dead may be important political and historical artifacts, and it’s unclear which tweets or accounts will be the most significant in the future.
If deceased profiles are going to persist, however, people should be able to effectively distinguish the profiles of the living from those of the dead. Verification, in particular, becomes a more fraught subject after someone dies. Should the account remain verified, or should it lose that status to better reflect the memorialized state of the account? If Cain’s account was associated with Cain, the mortal and singular entity, then how can the same account, now monitored by his family members and associates, have the same label?
From the perspective of Twitter as a platform, verification is aligned with both status and authenticity. In theory, verified accounts are of public interest, perhaps belonging to a celebrity, brand, or influencer. The blue check mark is a symbol of prestige (as well as an insult in some corners). But when an account is verified, the badge also signals that the person behind the account is really who they claim to be, staving off impersonators. One argument against removing the blue check mark from dead accounts is that impostors can always meddle, causing confusion or heartache for grieving loved ones; RIP trolling is a real phenomenon. There is already at least one Herman Cain impersonator out there.
Generally, one person is imagined to author the tweets associated with a Twitter handle. Many public figures, however, rely on entire social media teams to manage their online presence. Death exposes the networks of people behind singular social media presences. A celebrity or influencer, just like a corporate brand, may have a rotating group of people, or in some cases bots, running the account. After many people freaked out about Cain’s postmortem tweets, the Cain Gang account tweeted about its collective nature.
Other public figures have passed their accounts on to loved ones when they die. Fans were shocked when film critic Roger Ebert’s Twitter account suddenly appeared active again in 2015, two years after his death from thyroid cancer. Chaz Ebert, his widow, accidentally posted what she intended to be a private message as a public tweet from his account. Chaz Ebert had in fact taken over some of his Twitter and other social media duties before Roger Ebert’s death. (As I have discussed in my own research, family members often post on behalf of sick, dying, or dead loved ones.) At her spouse’s request, Chaz Ebert continued to monitor Roger Ebert’s highly visible social media presence after his death. Similar to Cain’s new “Cain Gang” handle, Chaz Ebert eventually created a new Twitter account, Ebert Voices, to keep it separate from Roger Ebert’s more or less preserved Twitter account.
When it comes to digital remains, kinship-based duties collide with commercial concerns. There are potential conflicts between Twitter’s terms of service and various state laws regarding the right of publicity, which determines who may control or profit from the commercial use of someone’s likeness. Legally speaking, people are not supposed to pass accounts on to their next of kin. Accounts should be deleted, deactivated, or, for platforms that have dedicated memorialization policies, put in a memorialized state. Companies worry about impersonation and legal issues that could result from accounts moving from one owner to another. Contracts are with one person, and that contract dies with the individual.
Cari Cohorn, an intellectual property and entertainment lawyer, explained some of the problems with passing on rights of publicity involving social media accounts. While publicity rights are most closely associated with celebrities, figures like social media influencers blur that boundary. Typically, next of kin would inherit publicity rights. But it’s possible that some public figures would leave the rights or control of accounts to paid staff members instead. Family members and staff might disagree on how a person should be represented after their demise, but they might all have access to the account. Furthermore, how can other parties determine what a dead person would have wanted? Do people have static personalities that can be speculatively replicated over time? There are also legal issues depending on location. In some states, publicity rights last for 70 years after a person’s death, but in others the statute ends after 10 years. Because of all the discrepancies between different states and various platforms’ terms of services, Cohorn says, “People are going to be litigating this stuff for so many years to come.”
Twitter has employed various strategies to prevent undead accounts from causing confusion. In late 2019, Twitter put out a statement saying the company would delete inactive profiles. From Twitter’s perspective, deleting inactive accounts would encourage user engagement while also protecting against bots, trolls, or other shadow accounts. In theory, it would make Twitter more trustworthy while freeing up underused usernames. To the company’s surprise, many users responded in anger. Craig Jenkins, a music critic for New York magazine tweeted, “Please do not scrub the dead homies’ accounts.” Twitter backtracked and apologized, promising that they would only delete inactive accounts after they had found a proper way to memorialize the accounts of the dead.
Megan Yip, an estate planning lawyer who specializes in digital assets and has experience working for Twitter, explained the tension between Twitter’s intended purpose and its role in preservation: “Historically, Twitter has not seen themselves as a keeper of tweets,” with its flow model more akin to the ephemeral Snapchat than Facebook’s timeline.
On many social media platforms, the dead intermingle with the living. Sometimes this indecipherability causes pain. For instance, having Twitter prompt you to follow a dead spouse is upsetting, to say the least. While many people are comforted by interacting with digital remains when they choose to do so, such as writing on a dead loved one’s Facebook page on their birthday, mourners may be less open to receiving algorithmically determined reminders.
Dominion over the dead, especially dead public figures and celebrities, has long been infused with politics. From Lenin’s body to Evita’s, corpses continue to have cultural afterlives. Instead of being backed by state officials and monuments, however, digital remains are often managed by platforms. Personal experiences of grief are increasingly attached to globally extended corporate platforms. Each company has a different method for dealing with the digital dead. Facebook has implemented various policy changes over time, now offering a Tributes section, and LinkedIn has a new memorialization policy in the works. The legal and policy routes for handling digital remains don’t always match up, which is why startup companies attempting to deal with death have coincided with the rise of social media use. Some startups even promise to tweet for you after you die, allowing you to shitpost in perpetuity. Other companies employ avatars that mimic your behavior and interact with your loved ones after your death.
As the dead become more visible on social media platforms, perhaps eventually outnumbering the living, public figures like Cain tweeting from beyond the grave might not seem so strange after all.
Future Tense is a partnership of Slate, New America, and Arizona State University that examines emerging technologies, public policy, and society.