If you’ve been watching West Virginia politics play out on social media this election season, you’ve probably noticed some pretty vitriolic rhetoric. Some of it comes from the usual suspects--like candidates and their parties. But, some of it--it’s not clear where it’s coming from. Not surprisingly, there are those who contribute to the state’s political discourse through the veil of anonymity.
Byrd's Finger: A Contractor for the Republican Party
When it comes to politics on Twitter, one of the most active accounts in West Virginia is Byrd’s Finger. It’s an obvious reference to the late Democratic senator Robert C. Byrd. But, there’s no question it’s coming from a Republican point of view.
With help from a few others, Byrd's Finger is operated by Rob Cornelius. Aside from working as a full time sports broadcaster, he's a contractor of the state Republican Party.
--Rob Cornelius, contractor for the West Virginia GOP
Mothman: A Write-In Candidate for U.S. Senate?
While Cornelius and Byrd's Finger use vitriol and personal attacks against Democratic candidates, there's another account that uses satire as their chosen tactic: Mothman for U.S. Senate.
Of course it’s not really the Mothman—you know, the supernatural legend out of Point Pleasant that’s said to have collapsed the Silver Bridge back in 1967. But, if you look at West Virginia Public Broadcasting’s Facebook page, you’ll see him all over the place. Both there and on Twitter, he argues there’s no difference between U.S. Senate candidates Rep. Shelley Moore Capito and Secretary of State Natalie Tennant. (You'll notice in the video below, he's dubbed Tennant's voice over images of Capito speaking.)
So who’s the person behind the Mothman account? It’s a 34-year old man from Charleston named Jeremy Brannon. I know this because when I tried calling him back a few weeks ago, it went straight to voicemail and the greeting message revealed his real name. (So, sorry, Jeremy.)
Analysis: Scholars and Researchers Explain Anonymous Accounts and Political Discussion
There are, of course, other anonymous (or quasi-anonymous) social media accounts chiming in on West Virginia politics--and it should be of no surprise. While some--like Cornelius and Brannon--find it difficult to remain anonymous online, the tactic is part of a long-standing tradition in American politics, according to Lee Rainie of the Pew Research Center's Internet Project.
“It’s a pretty common element of politics throughout American history that’s now sort of amped up in an online environment because online tools allow people to do things even more quietly and without identification with their real names if they choose to do that,” he said.
“It was very clear that you had a significant number of folks who were tweeting who were portraying themselves as one thing—as just kind of average, unbiased observers of politics who were tweeting various things–when, in fact, it was very clear they were hired guns,” said Dr. John Parmelee, department chair of communication at the University of North Florida and author of Politics and the Twitter Revolution.
Parmelee also says that word of mouth communication, including on social media, can be as effective as a multimillion dollar TV ad buy.