Tuesday night, I rewatched Columbo, the mystery procedural I loved as a child, and felt, alas, deflated. The easy certainty of TV cop shows satisfied my boyish palate for good guys stumping bad crooks but my grownup brain is permanently spoiled for foolish plots. I couldn’t enjoy the premise of a wisecracking detective besting colleagues and suspects alike when I understood how stupid the larger ruse was. Columbo wasn’t a Sherlock Holmesian savant; he was just good at stating the obvious and dragging that out before famously asking “just one more thing” to finally catch crooks entangled in their own, obvious lies and misdirections.
That same night, Dean Browning, ex Lehigh, Pennsylvania county commissioner and “proud pro-life & pro-2A Christian conservative,” played a dull villain to the internet’s Columbo by evidently forgetting to log out of his main account before firing off a racist post from his burner. Browning is a one-man legion of online trolls, operating his 50,000-plus follower account to deflect and deny enemy logic and “play devil’s advocate” wherever progressive views live. But like so many before him, he also assumed the visual identity of a Black person to lend validity to his bigoted guff. With one five-word qualifier, Browning went down in internet history as one of its greatest frauds—one who may have to Dolezal himself into oblivion as amateur gumshoes peel back the layers of his goofy stunt.
The original Browning Tweet read “what Trump built in 4 years, Biden will destroy in 4 months.” That post clocked thousands of engagements and would have stood by itself as a rallying cry to conservatives, who are steeling themselves for resistance politics in the wake of a massive loss. Browning, nonetheless, couldn’t quit while he was ahead. The now-infamous DanPurdy322 reply said: “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.” But it came from the Dean Browning official account, not his “Dan Purdy” impersonator handle. As the internet heard Browning’s internal “Oh shit!” he scrambled to scaffold his lie. First, he claimed that an anonymous “black gay guy” had written him a personal message that he’d then quoted in a Tweet but… under his own name… and without quotation marks. Sure, Jan.
To borrow that construction, and please pay no mind to the picture of me at the top of this article: I’m an Asian woman, and I can personally say that DanPurdy322 does not pass the smell test.
The case swiftly turned bizarre in the way only internet stories can: with screenshots, absurd alibis, and a celebrity tie-in. An explanation tweet from “Dan Purdy” complicated things, if for a moment, by producing a red herring: The “black gay guy” was real, and appeared in the (digital) flesh to support his surrogate in a speech that, for all its earnestness, sealed the bit as a scam. “No, he’s not a sock puppet. No, I’m not a bot,” proclaims the man in the video, in an awkward pronoun flip. The thousands following the case revealed the man to be William “Byl” Holte, a real person and the nephew and adopted son of Patti LaBelle.
Of course, there are questions, starting with—“just one more thing”—why Holte was writing as “Dan Purdy” and why the words of “Dan Purdy” would show up under Dean Browning’s name.
Writer Brooke Binkowski answered some of those questions by posting results from a quick search of the “I’m a black gay guy” intro and displaying a flood of tweets with the same exact sentence as Browning’s bogus reply—strongly suggesting that Browning was using “sock puppet” accounts to enlarge himself. Byl Holte’s face and account seem to match Facebook and LinkedIn profiles for a man with the same name but still doesn’t explain why Byl Holte began his intended-to-absolve video with “Hey guys, my name is Dan Purdy.” The “Dan Purdy” account is currently suspended for spreading misinformation. Dean Browning’s account, however, is alive and well.
Washington Post reporter Philip Bump answered another of those questions: “You know who replies to Dean Browning a lot? ‘Dan Purdy,’ a gay black Trump supporter who joined Twitter in October,” and whose avatar (the account was suspended after this all blew up) had been a cartoon of a Black man set against a Trump 2020 logo and who posted things like “black women will be the death of America.”
It’s an open secret that Blackness buys clout on social media. Major corporate accounts bend their language to steal the shorthand of Black slang. TikTok stars and YouTube celebs affix curly-haired wigs and paint makeup contours to imitate Black features and popularity. Where Browning’s fun-house mirror image of that hustle failed at novelty, it succeeded at audacity: The boldness of his lie isn’t enough to get him banned or even suspended by Twitter.
While it’s not a crime to pretend to be someone you’re not or then to double down with shadow accounts and misdirection, it’s unethical and obscene. As America struggles with the reckoning of white lies, we’ll never survive if bemused by cheap tricks.