Parody Twitter accounts are increasingly a semi-official part of political campaigns

February 27, 2018

Parody Twitter accounts are increasingly a semi-official part of political campaigns

CLEVELAND, Ohio — One account teases a Democratic governor candidate for his quirky, idiosyncratic tweets.

Another, purporting to be run by a state representative candidate’s dog, frequently encourages his owner to set him free.

They’re parody political Twitter accounts, and they’re increasingly a semi-official part of the campaign playbook for races across Ohio.

Occasionally, a parody Twitter account can be an effective part of a cross-platform campaign strategy. U.S. Sen. Rob Portman’s 2016 campaign created an account for “Retread Ted,” an anthropomorphic tire that poked fun at Ted Strickland, the former governor and that year’s Democratic Senate nominee.

Hi @Ted_Strickland #ohsen pic.twitter.com/STb0WqmEeu— Retread Ted (@retreadted) October 26, 2016

Corry Bliss, who ran Portman’s campaign that year, said he came up with the idea during a brainstorming session before Strickland had officially declared.

“We launched that website literally the day he announced — the moment he announced,” said Bliss, who now runs a national Super PAC backing congressional Republicans. “I think it did a very good job at playfully capturing his candidacy that he was rewriting history, and he was hoping people had forgotten his record.”

But more often than not, parody accounts are unsanctioned, and are competitive politicos’ way of amusing themselves by trolling the opposition. They rarely attract many followers, although those who do follow them tend to be political professionals and journalists.

Every so often, like in the case of a top Ohio Republican Party staffer who during the 2016 presidential campaign apologized for making a crudely named account mocking the state campaign director for then-candidate Donald Trump — the author is uncovered and forced to explain their actions.

“They’re humorous, and they’re ultimately a way for frustrated campaign staffers to blow off some steam,” said Matt Borges, the former Ohio Republican Party chairman who himself has been parodied with a fake Twitter account — and been accused of creating them. “But why anyone would let that get to them is beyond me.”

Of the 2016 Twitter account, Borges said: “Anyone who was actually offended by it either has a thin skin or no sense of humor.”

Jamie Callender, a former Lake County state representative who’s running for his old seat, recently got a call from county Republican Party Chairman Dale Fellows about a fake Twitter account.

The account, @BimmerPuppy, is a send-up of Bimmer, the chocolate pitbull-mix owned by Callender’s Republican primary opponent, Willoughby Hills Councilman John Plecnik. Its mocking — and sometimes offensive and vulgar — tweets often include the hashtag #freebimmer.

Arf! Arf! People are starting to see what I have to endure. I’m working on trying to understand, @plecnik #TaxProfessor’s Willoughby Hills’ LawDirector legislation is antithetical to conservative values. #standby. #FreeBimmer— Bimmer the Puppy (@BimmerPuppy) February 25, 2018

The real Bimmer makes frequent appearances in Plecnik’s campaign materials. In fact, Plecnik’s website describes Bimmer, pronounced “Beamer,” as Plecnik’s “best friend,” and touts “Puppy Polka,” a song Plecnik wrote and performed with a local band.

“He asked me if I had seen it. I had not,” Callender said.

Callender said he asked a handful people helping with his campaign, including people working for State Rep. Larry Householder, about the account. (Householder is backing Callender in a primary that’s part of a larger battle to pick the next Ohio House speaker.)

Callender said making fun of an opponent’s pets is “way out of bounds,” similar to bringing in an opponent’s family.

“I think it makes me look bad as much as it makes him look bad,” Callender said. “Someone who sees it and doesn’t know might think that it’s a political thing that my campaign was involved with, and that’s bad for my reputation.”

Plecnik said he suspects Callender or someone close to him is responsible for the account.

“I take a little humor in it, because if the best thing they can come up with is ‘your dog hates you,’ even though there are so many pictures of you taking him for a walk and him hanging out with you... I think it shows they have pretty much nothing to go on,” Plecnik said.

Another recent brushfire over parody Twitter accounts broke out last week among operatives working for State Rep. Christina Hagan and Anthony Gonzalez, two leading Republican candidates running for Ohio’s 16th District congressional seat.

Officials with Hagan’s campaign posted tweets accusing her primary opponent’s campaign manager of running a “sexist” parody account mocking her. They produced a screenshot — which cleveland.com could not independently authenticate — showing the account tweeting a selfie featuring Gonzalez campaign manager Tim Lolli and several of his young family members.

The account, @Hagan_Not, had been posting messages for weeks mocking Hagan. Among its followers was the official account for Dave Joyce, a Republican congressman from an adjacent district and Ryan Stenger, a politically connected Republican lobbyist from the 16th District. It since has been deleted, as has another account, @hagantwoface.

Lolli strongly denied posting the photo, pointing out anyone could have lifted it from his personal Facebook account. He also pointed out the tweeted message that accompanied the photo described it being taken “almost two years ago,” when the actual photo was taken and posted nearly three years ago.

“Christina Hagan’s staff should spend more time trying to revive her failing campaign and less time photoshopping fake tweets,” Lolli said in an email.

And then there’s @JackCordray. The account is a reference to Jack Handey, a humorist made famous in 1990s-era Saturday Night Live segments in which he shared nonsensical aphorisms presented as inspirational, thought-provoking observations. The account pokes fun at Democratic governor candidate Rich Cordray’s idiosyncratic, sometimes meandering tweets.

Have you ever thought about the word “diner?” It can mean a place, but also a person - and to me, that’s a powerful idea. When people think of Ohio, I’d like them to think of the place, but also a person, and I’d like that person to be all of us.— Jack Cordray (@JackCordray) January 9, 2018

Ohio has a unique and pleasing shape, I have always thought. Kind of a pentagon or home plate, with straight sides, a meandering river boundary below, and a partly straight top with a friendly bite mark out of it on the northeast side from Lake Erie.— Rich Cordray (@RichCordray) January 9, 2018

A Cordray campaign manager didn’t respond to a message seeking comment. But the parody account’s 88 followers include Bob Klaffky, a lobbyist who is among Gov. John Kasich’s closest advisers, Scott Borgamenke, who plays a similar role with Republican Secretary of State Jon Husted, who now is running for lieutenant governor, and Bill O’Neill, the campaign account for former Ohio Supreme Court justice who’s now running for governor as a Democrat.

Kevin Bingle, a Republican political consultant who manages Kasich’s digital operations, said fake Twitter accounts can be a real problem, like in the instance of Russian-controlled bots that caused havoc during the 2016 presidential campaign. There’s also the issue of enthusiastic supporters who claim an affiliation with a campaign while posting unsanctioned content that goes against campaign strategy, like by attacking opponents.

“There are people who think they’re supporters out there with this kind of stuff, but they’re really not being helpful at all,” Bingle said.

But when it comes to parody Twitter accounts run by political operatives trolling their opponents, Bingle said he barely pays attention. He said fake accounts are allowed under Twitter’s policies — as long as they clearly identify themselves as parodies.

“My guess is that these are [run by] younger people who haven’t been in the trenches of the campaign enough to know these things hurt more than they help,” Bingle said. “I don’t know who these people are, but from my vantage point, I generally completely ignore them.”

Bingle recalled @LegoJohnKasich, which was first active in 2015.

“5TH PLACE?!! AT LEAST I BEAT JEB!! RIGHT?! WHAT?!? AHHHH! CMON!” @JackTorry1 @OhioPoliticsNow pic.twitter.com/aT5shqRFV6— Lego John Kasich (@LegoJohnKasich) February 21, 2016

“I don’t pay attention to it. Although sometimes they’re funny,” he said.