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The incredibly bizarre Dean Browning and “Dan Purdy” Twitter drama, explained

A politician was accused of using a fake burner account for a gay Black Trump supporter. That’s when things got weird. 

Rebecca Jennings is a senior correspondent covering social platforms and the creator economy. Since joining Vox in 2018, her work has explored the rise of TikTok, internet aesthetics, and the pursuit of money and fame online. You can sign up for her biweekly Vox Culture newsletter here.

Dean Browning, a former commissioner in Lehigh County, Pennsylvania, confused Twitter users on Tuesday when he replied to his own tweet claiming to be a gay Black man who voted for Trump. In reality, Browning is a white man who describes himself as a “proud pro-life & pro-2A Christian conservative,” as his Twitter photo and bio clearly illustrate. None of this makes sense, but don’t worry, it will make even less sense soon.

Here is what happened: On November 8, Browning tweeted, “What Trump built in 4 years, Biden will destroy in 4 months” — a standard sentiment percolating on the MAGA internet right now. On Tuesday, November 10, when another user argued that, actually, it was Obama who built what Trump takes credit for, Browning came back with a retort.

“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 wrote. “Everything is so much better under Trump though. I feel respected — which I never do when democrats are involved.”

To anyone who has spent enough time watching pro-Trump conservatives and #resistance liberals argue on the internet, it seemed extremely clear what had taken place. Browning was the owner of another Twitter account, one claiming to be a gay Black man who loved Trump, and he simply forgot to log in to it before posting the reply (this is often called “sock puppeting” online). Immediately, users began to flood into the discussion, calling out Browning’s accidental exposure of his fake burner account.

The situation seemed to remain a mystery to Browning, who left the tweet up for several hours. Later in the day, though, he said that it was actually all a misunderstanding. “Regarding the tweet that is going viral from my account — I was quoting a message that I received earlier this week from a follower,” he wrote. “Sorry if context was not clear. Trump received record minority votes & record LGBTQ votes. Many people won’t say it vocally, but do in private.”

Though Browning attempted to use the “silent majority” argument, most people didn’t buy it. Within the span of just a few minutes, Washington Post journalist Phillip Bump claimed to have found the smoking gun: the fake account in question. “You know who replies to Dean Browning a lot? ‘Dan Purdy,’ a gay black Trump supporter who joined Twitter in October,” wrote Bump, including screenshots of Purdy’s frequent replies to Browning.

@DanPurdy322 is an account with a cartoon of a Black man wearing a beanie as its avatar and a Trump 2020 logo as its header. As people on Twitter soon discovered, it also has a history of posting extremely racist and sexist remarks. Sample tweets include “Black ppl can’t count” and “black women will be the death of America,” among many others, in Purdy’s short time on the platform.

If Browning turns out to be the man behind the account, this is not a new phenomenon, particularly among conservatives. As far back as 2016, experts were identifying huge networks of pro-Trump bot accounts for people who didn’t actually exist. In October, Clemson University social media researcher Darren Linvill told the Washington Post that he’d identified more than two dozen Twitter accounts claiming to be Black Trump voters who’d gained hundreds of thousands of “likes” and retweets in the span of just a few days, sparking major doubts about their identities. Many used photos of Black men from news reports or stock images, including one in which the text “black man photo” was still watermarked on the image. White nationalists have also had a history of disguising as “antifa” online to sow fear toward leftists.

The Browning-Purdy plot thickened, however, when the account posted a video shortly thereafter of a Black man claiming to be Purdy himself. “I sent that message to Dean, Dean accidentally posted it somehow, that’s the end of the story,” he said. “No, he’s not a sock puppet. No, I’m not a bot.”

Many of the replies to the video asked questions like, “How much is he paying you?” and accusing him of being a hired actor. Internet sleuths like Jon Hendren (better known as @fart on Twitter) used Google to discover that “Dan Purdy” was also the name listed on a suspended account that had a history of several other aliases — including “Pat Riarchy” and “White Goodman.”

In yet another twist, people noticed similarities between the avatars — and faces — of the man in the video and William Holte, otherwise known as Byl Holte, otherwise known as the adopted son and nephew of music legend Patti LaBelle. Holte has indeed written several articles on Medium complaining about feminism and anti-racism in the media and proudly calls himself an “anti-feminist TV critic.”

However horrifying the tweets from “Dan Purdy” may be, the fiasco has offered, for some, a welcome distraction from the news. Much like the objectively hilarious Four Seasons Total Landscaping ordeal, the idea that a small-time Republican politician is posing as a gay Black man on Twitter — who may also be Patti LaBelle’s actual son — is too juicy to ignore. “Congratulations to Dean Browning, today’s main character,” tweeted Chris Geidner. “I really needed this … LMAO” added Yashar Ali.

Browning, meanwhile, continues to, as they say, “tweet through it,” while Purdy’s account has been suspended. Vox has reached out to Dan Purdy and Dean Browning and will update with more info as it comes in.