In the chaotic year of our lord 2020, nothing is off the table — not even a failed conservative politician pretending to be a Black gay man on Twitter, which is exactly what yesterday’s main event seemed to be about. But then, like most things in 2020, it turned out to be something else entirely and ended with legend Patti LaBelle’s name being dragged into a...very weird mess. If you have no idea what I’m talking about, that’s ok — I’m not totally sure either, but I will try to explain it.
For those who weren’t online yesterday to watch this all go down in real-time, here’s a quick recap: Dean Browning, a former member of the Lehigh County Pennsylvania Board of Commissioners and a conservative politician who lost his primary in a bid for Congress earlier this year, was not happy about Joe Biden’s presidential victory. “What Trump built in 4 years, Biden will destroy in 4 months,” he tweeted on November 8th. Someone replied to Browning’s tweet critically, saying, “You mean what Obama built in 8 years.” But it wasn't until after this brief correspondence that things got very, very strange.
Browning replied to his critic: “I’m a Black gay guy and I can personally say that Obama did nothing for me, my life only changed a little bit and it was for the worse,” he tweeted. “Everything is so much better under Trump though. I feel respected — which I never do when Democrats are involved.”
But here's the (first) mic drop: Browning is, by all accounts, a white, heterosexual man. Occam’s razor would have us believe that the most likely scenario was that Browning had a burner account in which he pretended to be a Black, gay Trump supporter and had forgotten to log out of his main account when posting his reply. Twitter users then scoured the Internet to try and find the suspected burner when they landed on @DanPurdy322. The account, belonging to a man named Dan Purdy, was created in October and replied to Browning quite regularly, often citing his credentials as being Black and gay. Purdy even posted a video in which he confirmed who he said he was, and confirmed that he sent Browning the message (and this is also what Browning claimed in his apology).
If this seems like an open and shut case, wait for the celebrity twist. Internet sleuths working overtime in 2020 discovered something familiar about Dan Purdy, whose account has since been deactivated: the man in the video had other social media accounts and identified himself as either Byl Holte or William Holte. And this is where you don't need to be a sleuth to find out some answers, because William Holte — along with the same person whose face appeared in the video — is listed online as Patti LaBelle’s son. But wait, there's more: shortly after Holte was declared to be the real Dan Purdy and LaBelle's son, new information showed that he actually might be her nephew. This confusion tidbit stems from the fact that LaBelle adopted her sister’s children, including Holte, following her sister’s death in 1989.
Are you confused yet? Because same. It’s a wild story and, to watch it unfold in real-time was like watching one door after another open for increasingly absurd reveals, eventually ending with Patti LaBelle. But what is really chaotic about this Twitter tale is the fact that Republicans are so quick to claim fraud when they regularly engage in lying and deception. Even though in this one particular instance it turned out that there was an actual person behind the suspected sock puppet account, it wouldn’t have been out of line to expect Republicans to be running burners, or for Browning himself to be operating in bad faith.
Back in 2016, massive networks of pro-Trump bot accounts were identified. Clemson University social media researcher Darren Linvill has found more than two dozen Twitter accounts claiming to be Black Trump voters. And even before the Trump years, Black feminists created #YourSlipIsShowing to unmask accounts pretended to be women of color in attempts to discredit social and racial justice work online. And of course, the GOP is now known to have paid fake whistleblowers to say they saw massive ballot fraud or knowingly placing misleading ballot boxes all over California.
Browning himself has been spreading falsehoods online, claiming without evidence that the election was stolen and continuing to ride the Trump train as it careens off a cliff, so sadly, the mistaken tweet isn’t even the most embarrassing thing going on for Browning this week.