Last Sunday Brandon Wardell, the 27-year-old comedian and co-host of the podcast Yeah, But Still, logged onto Twitter and saw that people were talking about how the (sadly) presumed Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden had effectively disappeared from public discourse. The former Vice President was nowhere to be found, save for a lone emoji, left as a comment on a DJ D-Nice livestream, so Wardell decided to change his Twitter photo to Joe Biden’s and start screwing around on the internet.
Wardell, who’s an outspoken supporter of Sen. Bernie Sanders (“I’m not affiliated with the campaign in any direct way,” he specified), tweeted “ughhhh im dead” as “Biden,” before following it up with, “I am dropping and endorsing Bernie Sanders for president because I died.” Within minutes, he had gotten locked out of his account for a week. Nothing strange there; changing your account to look like someone you’re not and then proceeding to tweet something incredibly stupid is a classic Twitter bit, a joke that can only be consummated by being put in Twitter Jail. That’s usually the end of things like this.
And so it would have been with Wardell’s joke, if it weren’t for the journalist and researcher Caroline Orr, who came across his tweet and took it as an earnest attempt to trick people into thinking that Joe Biden was dead. She proceeded to offer a “deep dive” on the comedian, painting him as a shapeshifting disinformation artist in a way that was convincing enough for some to declare him an official representative of the Sanders campaign or an agent of Russian intelligence. Chalk it up to a combination of the extended internet war between centrist Democrats and leftists and the coronavirus that there are more people online than usual.
I have always wanted to talk to a spy, so I called Brandon up to talk about getting kicked of Twitter for a week, what he learned from becoming the subject of a minor conspiracy theory, and the experience of appearing in an episode of Curb Your Enthusiasm for 10 seconds. Our conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
joe biden hacked my account and im the one that gets crucified ? ok— Brandon Wardell (@BRANDONWARDELL) March 30, 2020
Walk me through what happened. From my perspective, I got on Twitter one day and I was like, “Wait, when did I follow Joe Biden?” And then I realized it was you like 10 seconds later.
Brandon Wardell: Did you think Joe Biden had gotten hacked?
Yeah, I briefly thought that somehow I had followed Biden and that he’d gotten hacked, but then I looked at the Twitter handle and thought it was you or saw it was you.
I don’t use Twitter a ton now, because I used to use it so much when I was like, 23. I feel like most tweets should be deleted. Most tweets don’t need to exist forever.
So I’m not really on there a ton, but since quarantine I have definitely been on there a lot more. And so last Sunday, Bernie had just raised $2 million for corona relief and Joe was seemingly nowhere to be found, and everybody was like, “Oh, where’s Joe Biden?”
Just on a lark, I thought it would be funny to download Biden’s profile picture and then just change my display name “Joe Biden (text ‘join’ to whatever).” I tweeted, “ughhhh i’m dead [yellow thumbs-up emoji]” because there that whole IG Live thing where his profile hopped on DJ D-Nice’s Instagram Live and [presumably] some staffer used that same emoji and that was all we had heard from him those past couple of days. So I did that and then right after that I tweeted, “I’m dropping out and endorsing Bernie Sanders for president because I died.” A dead guy wouldn’t tweet this. And then 30 minutes later I got suspended so I had to change my shit back.
Did they tell you who reported you or if you got reported?
They didn’t tell me who, but I just assumed that it was the people who were replying to me saying, “Reported.” I think some “Resistance” people, namely a journalist named Caroline Orr, got mad. I’m not the first or last person to pretend to be another person on the internet — it’s a tentpole of joking around on Twitter.
More tweets from the account that "jokingly" impersonated Joe Biden for the afternoon, while "joking" about dying from coronavirus.— Caroline Orr (@RVAwonk) March 22, 2020
Meanwhile, people actually are dying & millions more are afraid they'll be next. But hey, don't let human suffering ruin a (bad) joke, amirite? pic.twitter.com/NXuJyykE1p
What did you think of being turned into a conspiracy theory by people who claim to be fighting disinformation?
I don’t know, I just thought it was very, I thought it was very silly. And it was weird watching it happen from Twitter jail. I’m just a dumbass. I’m just some comedian making jokes. But it’s a long thread, like a long Russiagate-style thread where it’s very “red string on the wall.”
By the way, I never said [Biden] died from coronavirus. I also was literally just tweeting as a dead guy, being like, “Hey guys, vote for Bernie. I’m dead.” Besides the two that I sent as Joe Biden, all the tweets she screencapped were just tweets that I sent as myself that retroactively had Joe Biden’s face on them.
I guess if I were to offer a charitable reading of her thread, the point she was trying to make was that even if they were old tweets, in the new context of them looking, at a cursory glance, as if they were from Joe Biden, those posts inadvertently become disinformation.
She could just Googled me once and seen like, “Oh yeah, this is, like, some dumb comedian. Who cares?” It’s very funny that she made an entire thread.
What degree beyond that did you receive criticism?
I’ve received my fair share of criticism in the past for just being annoying when I was 23. But this was some shit where I think the majority of the people that knew about it were like, “Oh, ha ha,” and then moved on. I feel bad for accidentally aiding the toxic “Bernie bro” narrative, but, for the most part, it was just her followers being like, “Wow, I think this is definitely a Russian bot.”
Are you familiar with the term context collapse?
Well, it’s what happened to you, I think. Basically, on the internet, when something gets posted that makes complete sense in one particular context, if it gets too popular, it’s like a rocket ship leaving the Earth. Once it’s left orbit, there’s no atmosphere to protect it, and people who weren’t the original target audience start projecting their own meanings and contexts onto a post that they have no frame of reference for.
Yeah, if you remove the context of me being some niche comedian, then it seems like some sort of targeted attack on the Biden campaign.
Especially when people don’t see it’s a joke and instead just see you telling people to vote for Bernie Sanders.
There’s so much room to be misinterpreted and so I do think the more followers you have, the less you should say. But a couple of weeks ago, I very earnestly tweeted about how much I care about Medicare for All because I’m a diabetic and there are so many people in my same position that are less fortunate and are not able to afford meds and have to ration them. That breaks my heart.
How would you react if you woke up tomorrow and Joe Biden was pretending to be you?
Oh, I think that would actually be great for me because I’d kind of be the sole beneficiary there. Most people don’t know who I am.
More generally, does being in a time of crisis change what people make jokes about or what jokes people want to hear?
I don’t know if I know yet. I don’t know how long it’s going to last and I don’t know how to really define what the new normal is yet. I think everybody’s sort of figuring it out. For comedians, there aren’t any standup shows so there’s more of an impulse to post because it’s like, “I’m suffering from this lack of attention. I’ve got to fucking post.” I don’t know what the mainstream comedy response to coronavirus is going to be. We’re so in it right now, I don’t think we can know the full effects.
Tell me about being the selfie stick guy on Curb Your Enthusiasm.
I was kind of hyping myself up like, “Oh man, this is my shot! I’m going to be the guy that gets into a big argument with Larry David and it’s going to be this whole thing!” And then it was a very... It’s a very brief scene. It’s one line. But it was a fun thing. I got an email from my doctor with the subject line “Lab Results” and it said, “Hi, Brandon. Great to see you last week. Right after our visit I saw you in the opening of the season premiere of Curb Your Enthusiasm. Short but sweet, ha ha. See attached for your finalized lab results. Negative (normal) for chlamydia, gonorrhea, syphilis and HIV.” That was a very, very wild email.