It seemed like an ordinary Sunday when we first heard about Chinedu, a Pete Buttigieg supporter from Nigeria who loves wine and dancing. It’s a convoluted story, as most internet mini-sagas are; he first rose to public awareness in the replies of a tweet thread about actor Keegan-Michael Key, of Key and Peele fame. The Buttigieg campaign had, at first, claimed that Key would be endorsing the South Bend, Indiana mayor’s bid for the presidency, but, hours later, CNN journalist DJ Judd tweeted that Key was only making a public appearance to promote voter registration.
This was a bad look for Buttigieg, who has a history of literally faking black supporters — his campaign once put out a press release touting endorsements from black leaders who had actually not endorsed him, with a stock photo of a woman in Kenya used as the the campaign website’s image. In the replies to Judd’s tweet, typical bickering ensued over Buttigieg’s lack of black support.
Then, one user discovered some strange information about another. @FeralHogs420 pointed out that @easychinedu, who had been defending Buttigieg’s honor, appeared to have accidentally given away an alter ego. One of the latter account’s tweets seemed to be written, for some reason, in the voice of Lis Smith, Buttigieg’s senior communications adviser. “Team Pete. Hey. It’s Lis. It’s Phase 4. Time to leave it all on the floor. Phone bankers, we need you,” @easychinedu wrote on January 30th, 2020.
BRUHHHHH pic.twitter.com/5nNF55IJNF— Taryn Jay (NOT run by Lis Smith) (@FeralHogs420) February 16, 2020
To some amateur sleuthers, this tweet seemed to reveal a hilariously ironic secret, evidence of the cynical presidential bid being run by Smith, a political strategist with a growing Beltway track record of aggressive politicking: that the campaign veteran had started an account posing as a Buttigieg supporter in Nigeria and had accidentally used the fake account in her real voice. (To be fair, this would be consistent with the Buttigieg campaign’s history of inventing black supporters and using African nationalities for no good reason.)
But then, @easychinedu turned up to defend himself. “Wow, this is hilarious,” he tweeted at 11:07 a.m. EST. “Today I woke up and became Lis Smith’s burner account. Bernie bros are hilarious.”
Many observers immediately noticed that it was not morning in Nigeria, but 5 p.m. Chinedu said that he had just woken up from a nap, which could seem like a feeble attempt to cover his ass. Sleuthers, from shitposters to actual journalists, soon began to uncover all kinds of suspicious behaviors in Chinedu’s timeline. He had seemed to be paying all too much attention to American politics for a foreigner. He wrote in a distinctively American dialect, using words like “y’all” and “chutzpah.” People found accounts purportedly belonging to him on Instagram and LinkedIn that painted a picture of an eccentric individual. Lis Smith herself soon got wind of the situation and denied involvement, which made her seem more guilty. The @easychinedu account was promptly locked, which also made the whole thing seem more suspicious. It was a nice little scandal, if a bit esoteric, on an otherwise boring winter day.
But, I have to admit, I had trouble enjoying it. The prevailing narrative — a notoriously Machiavellian campaign aide gets caught in a lie — was persuasive, but the details weren’t lining up.
It is frankly not so shocking to imagine that there are people in the rest of the world who like a particular Democratic presidential candidate, given that America is the world’s major superpower and its elections are a matter of global consequence. In fact, anyone who has spent much time overseas knows that people in other countries fucking love to have opinions about American politics. If they find out you are American, brace yourself for an onslaught of thoughts about our government. But even if this wasn’t the case, it wouldn’t be unheard of for someone to pay close attention to a political contest in a different country, for whatever reason — there is probably considerable overlap between left-leaning Twitter users who were convinced Chinedu was Smith and those who were vocal supporters of British Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn (despite not living in Britain). It might have even included peripheral fondness for Corbyn’s own trusted adviser, shadow chancellor John McDonnell.
Instead of pulling back the curtain on the corrupt heart of American politics, the Chinedu affair may say more about the limits of our perspective. English is the official language of Nigeria; people all over the world are fluent in American English. There are black people and Jewish people all over the world, too — African-American Vernacular English and Yiddishisms know no borders. And there’s nothing unique about Chinedu’s Sunday afternoon naptime. All over the world, particularly in hot climates, naps are an ordinary part of the day. When my family visited Pakistan in my childhood, I spent many afternoons bored out of my mind while everyone else took a nap, something my internal clock could never pull off.
Most importantly, the tweet that first drew suspicion wasn’t quite so clear-cut. “It’s Lis” seems to me to have the literally opposite implication than that it is literally Lis Smith. If Smith thought she was tweeting from her own account, why would she say that? It is not uncommon to come across tweets in “[Bernie voice]” or something like that. I’ve seen tweets like this. I’ve written tweets like this. I’m not saying it was a particularly good joke, but it could be a crack at one.
I was agonizing over all this when I got a DM from an account called “flat smile emoji sent with loud effect.” It belonged to Perry Leibovitz, a researcher at the University of Florida. “I know chinedu irl and am Facebook friends with him,” he said. “It is definitely his Twitter account.”
“Seriously?” I asked.
“I just got to Aldi and am holding a baby but I’ll screenshot the fb msg,” he said.
A few minutes later, he sent me a screenshot of a conversation he had with a Facebook account under the name Chinedu. The screenshot had a photo that matched the photos I had seen going around on Twitter, and seemed to be a discussion about how Chinedu should handle his newfound fame. It included the text of an email he sent to “Jane” — presumably Jane Lytvynenko, a Buzzfeed journalist who soon published a brisk piece on the whole affair. Leibovitz added that he and Chinedu had once had breakfast together in 2011, as academic colleagues.
I asked Leibovitz if he’d put me in touch with Chinedu, and he said he’d check. With Leibovitz as conduit, I assured Chinedu I had no intention to “doxx” him, whatever that meant to him. I offered my contact information and waited.
I finally got a message on WhatsApp from a number with a Nigeria country code. “Hello,” it said, “this is Chinedu.” He appeared nervous about continued public exposure, and was uncertain how to demonstrate his identity without exposing it to a hostile public. “I’m a bit of a luddite lol,” he admitted.
After I made clear I had no intention of violating his privacy, he initiated a video chat. I saw, right in front of me, a face I recognized from all those screenshots. It was undeniably the same person. I was kind of starstruck, to be honest.
“I just wanted you to see for yourself that I’m real,” he said, in a Nigerian accent that was also close to an American one. Corroborating Leibovitz’s account, he told me he had studied in the United States (which I’ve confirmed through independent research and learned was in the field of food science).
Chinedu told me he first started becoming invested in American politics during Obama’s 2012 campaign, which took place while he lived in the US. In 2016, he said, he vaguely supported Sen. Bernie Sanders’s bid for Democratic nominee. “I felt he had the right diagnosis of the problems,” he said. “I have a lot of friends struggling with debt. I have a lot of friends struggling with health insurance.” But Chinedu didn’t pay close attention until Trump really reared his head in the general. If it seems like he’s only getting back into politics four years later, that’s not so different from most Americans.
Chinedu began following Buttigieg's campaign as he first emerged on the national stage, initially coming across him in a YouTube video. He felt that he seemed more “pragmatic” than Sanders and “could probably accomplish more.” Chinedu pointed out that at that time, as Buttigieg himself is fond of repeating, the candidate “started out with four people in a little office.” For Chinedu, this meant that vocal supporters of Pete had to do what the campaign couldn’t: aggressively argue his case online.
This, again, seems plausible to me. If you’re an English-language internet user, particularly one who is interested in politics, there’s no way you can avoid discussion of the U.S. Democratic primary these days. In our brief conversation, Chinedu struck me as an eager conversationalist, and I’m not surprised he dove in. He does insist he has never had any kind of contact with the campaign, other than Smith responding “Thanks” to one of his tweets.
When I asked Chinedu if he lived in Nigeria now, he answered with some befuddlement. “Yes, this is Nigeria,” he said. He scanned his phone around a bit to show me his room, as though it would look like a Nigerian room rather than any room anywhere. He’s aware that his presence is something like “if there was an account from Cambodia that supported Bernie Sanders, or an account from Ukraine that supported Biden.” Nonetheless, he is bewildered by the cultural clashes taking place over his tweets. “It’s not a strange phenomenon to take a nap,” he protested.
It’s a cliché to say that the truth is stranger than fiction, but that is what seems to have happened here, on an otherwise quiet day in the midst of the Democratic primaries. Extremely online observers of American politics will already know that there is an account dedicated to an ongoing aggressive defense of Neera Tanden, director of the think tank Center for American Progress. Isn’t that already weirder than an extremely online Nigerian guy taking a position on the Democratic primary?
If I were to believe this was a conspiracy, not only would I have to believe that Lis Smith made a sock puppet account, but that the Buttigieg campaign hired an actor to put on a private show just for me, in order to convince me of their story. It would mean they gave him an extensive backstory scattered across multiple accounts online, and in various institutional records, going back more than a decade. It’s nice to imagine I’m that important, but I’m not. Chinedu is a real person, not a figment of Smith’s imagination. Is he being paid to promote the Buttigieg campaign? If he was, it would have been a waste of money — his tweets didn’t get much traction, and he had only a couple hundred followers.
I’ve taken some heat lately for writing that the fictional nature of conspiracy theories shouldn’t be taken as refuting an overall analysis of power in society. Whether or not the details of individual theories are literally true, it’s generally the case that the scales are tilted, that powerful people are allowed to operate with impunity and in secrecy. The same thing holds here. Chinedu is real, but that doesn’t mean that Buttigieg didn’t make up black supporters, it doesn’t mean he isn’t catering to powerful financial interests, and it doesn’t mean you have to like him.
Some of Chinedu’s academic work was on fruit juices, and he really is the wine lover he described himself as in his profile. He told me he is pursuing a career in importing wines. This is one aspect of his persona that he recognizes creates grounds for conspiratorial speculation. “Late last year, there was this controversy over the wine cave thing,” he said. “I felt like, I probably am the prototypical Pete Buttigieg flack.”