Two days after the third presidential debate, the right-wing internet is buzzing. The past week has been chock full of news fueling the rumors of an unfair election: The Podesta email dumps over the previous weekend were quickly followed by a video investigation into alleged bird-dogging at Trump rallies by DNC operatives, followed then by a report from the Center for Public Integrity titled “Journalists shower Hillary Clinton with campaign cash.” The Trump campaign’s new anti-corruption hashtag, #DrainTheSwamp, has caught on, and Representative Steven Smith, GA-15, wants to do his part to rally the base.
Using a photo editing app, Smith creates a collage of images familiar to conservative followers: a cartoon of Hillary Clinton being propped up by the mainstream media; an unflattering photo of the candidate mid-sneer; Clinton atop a pile of money. “It's a #RiggedSystem,” Smith adds as a caption. “But we can beat it at the ballot box. #DrainTheSwamp.” Pro-Trump and anti-media content, which Smith tweets out on average over 60 times per day to over 20,000 followers, has energized his Twitter feed in recent months: @RepStevenSmith is already at 11.3 million impressions in the past 28 days alone.
By afternoon, the tweet has racked up hundreds of likes from users with names like Noncompliant Patriot, and PepeTrump. It’s even earned a retweet from Eric Trump. But what the nominee's son may not realize — and what the dozens of everyday Twitter users calling for Smith’s resignation also don’t — is that Steven Smith doesn't represent Georgia's "15th District" in Congress because no such district exists. Nor does Steven Smith.
Twitter bots, doctored Tweets, and parody accounts are nothing new. In this election cycle, they — along with rampant deceptive Facebook pages — have become a normal part of the political internet. In some congressional races, opponents are using fake accounts to smear their rivals online. Some of these accounts caused high-profile embarrassments: Chuck Todd’s team fell for a parody Rudy Giuliani account after the first debate, quoting a fake tweet on-air. In an election where a major party candidate continuously repeats that the media is lying to the American people, fake Twitter accounts seem to be a natural fit in the narrative.
Yet these one-note, tactical "joke" accounts fall flat compared to the elaborately constructed, long-running prank contained in @RepStevenSmith. For the past three years, Rep. Smith has fooled some of the most prominent journalists and pundits in America into believing that he’s a real congressman, using a combination of guerrilla troll tactics, a Leto-as-Joker-like commitment to the character, and even a sidekick chief of staff account to help sustain the ruse. A stream of news articles outing the account doesn’t stop everyday users — and some VIPs — from regularly falling for it.
Now, the fun may be over: The rise of Trump has convinced the man behind Rep. Smith to transform his Twitter presence from a winking jokester to single-minded evangelist, devoted to spreading the “truth” about the mainstream media and Hillary Clinton’s corruption. And while his audience enjoyed the joke before, now that he’s being serious, they’re listening more than ever.
The real Rep. Smith lives over 200 miles south of the Florida-Georgia state line, in a cheerily stuccoed luxury apartment complex outside of Tampa nestled between cattle pastures and tidy shopping centers. The grass is manicured within an inch of its life and tiny lizards zigzag across the sidewalk and along the rim of the deep blue pool. It’s a sunny, muggy October afternoon and Jeffrey Marty, 41, scrolls quickly through an enormous list of the day’s Twitter notifications on his Galaxy Note. “It’s just endless,” he says. “I picked up, like, 500 followers in the past few days.”
Marty has the handsome, lined smile of a television star, and he’s dressed in sharp Florida weekend casual, in an Armani Exchange T-shirt, neat jeans, and blue boat shoes with embroidered white trim. It’s important, he says, to present yourself well when you’re a lawyer, especially defending people a jury wouldn’t necessarily expect to have a put-together defense attorney. It’s a curious contrast to the man in the Rep. Smith profile photos, who’s dressed in an ill-fitting suit with a tacky, too-wide tie.
Unlike his internet alter ego, who was born on a plantation and attended Oral Roberts and Liberty University — character details Marty added to give Smith the ultimate Tea Party credentials — Marty was adopted at birth by a lower-middle class family in Madison, Wisconsin, and raised with an adopted sister. While his adopted family is Republican, Marty says his first political leanings were toward liberalism. But as a Democrat and political science major in college at UW-Madison, he found himself increasingly annoyed with the elitism of the liberals surrounding him. Conservative talk radio provided a refuge where pundits didn’t take themselves so seriously. “I’d get out of class, put on my Walkman and listen to Rush Limbaugh cassettes,” he laughs over lunch on the porch of a Mexican restaurant where his new border collie, Buddy, who has separation anxiety, can lounge by his feet.
Marty speaks in a rapid-fire Wisconsin staccato, stopping only to take bites of his soft tacos. He moves seamlessly from topic to topic with the quick ease of someone used to being the smartest in the room. After law school at Marquette and a stint as a private insurance lawyer, he practiced as a public defender. “I’ll defend whoever,” he says. “I never made a choice not to defend someone based on their status.” The money is better in private practice, though, and he has a family to raise. These days, he works from home, splitting the time with his three kids with his ex-wife, who lives close by.
In 2008, Marty, who had switched his registration to Republican after college, was late to getting to the polls by 10 minutes. While he probably would have chosen McCain, his hatred of the candidate made not voting a blessing in disguise. It’s hard for Marty to hide his disgust for mainstream political dynasties and figures in power, from the Clintons to the Bushes to Paul Ryan. “All these guys — Democrat, Republican — they work for the same guys,” he says. “They’re just realigning the chess board.”
But it was personal tragedy that motivated Marty to create what began as a prank Twitter account: the suicide of a lifelong friend in the fall of 2013. “We used to do this kind of stuff all the time,” Marty remembers. “We did fake internet profiles on MySpace, stuff like that.” For Marty, the Rep. Smith account began not as a political protest, but as a memorial.
In October 2013, Marty brought his tribute to life, buying a set of profile photos from a stock website and 5,000 followers from the digital services site Fiverr. On a business trip to Georgia, he had noticed a town name he liked on a billboard: “Valdosta, Georgia, USA” became the location section of the profile. A few more clicks, and the fictional congressman was online. Marty’s plan was simple: Play the part of an ignorant Tea Party Republican for a few weeks, provoke some high-profile pundits, and expose liberal media bias towards conservatives while gently ribbing the GOP establishment and having a little fun in the process.
As one of his first acts of media sabotage, Smith responded to a tweet from Christiane Amanpour promoting an interview with the foreign minister of Germany. He suggested that the US should have spied on the Germans in 1939 to prevent World War II — an assertion Marty purposely made as ludicrous as possible. Amanpour took the bait, retweeting the fake congressman’s tweet and adding a “Seriously?” A fake internet star was born.
It became clear a few weeks later that Marty would not be able to keep the account quiet. After Marty wrote a tweet calling MSNBC’s contributor Touré “boy,” a media pile-on ensued. (Touré is black.) Ezra Klein and Zerlina Maxwell joined in to slam the racist congressman. A flurry of news articles followed in the days and weeks afterward: The Hill, Mediaite, and Slate reported this interaction, as well as Amanpour’s retweet, and exposed the Smith account as fake. The Touré incident also provoked media heavyweights like Jonathan Capehart and Sam Stein to tweet their own warnings about the account.
The buzz led Twitter to suspend the Rep. Smith account — the first of several times he was shut down, claims Marty. Usually, he says, his account was suspended after an interaction with a celebrity or pundit, and then reinstated once he reached back out to Twitter. (Twitter would not comment on this specific account but referred to its parody policy, which says that suspended parody users may be given the “opportunity to come into compliance.”) Marty defends the legality of his account: In creating Rep. Smith, he says, he was careful to locate the congressman in Georgia’s nonexistent 15th District. “If I said I’m the governor of South South Carolina, for example,” he says, “well, that’s not a real thing.”
For those paying attention, it’s easy to spot the Rep. Smith account as a fake — it’s not a verified account, and a quick Google search yields multiple news pieces on the scam. But the character has continued to fool journalists and celebrities in a slow drip throughout its years online, including Chuck Todd, Sally Kohn, David Sirota, Jorge Ramos, Rosie O’Donnell, Lizz Winstead, Harry Shearer, and even William Shatner. Many of these pranks have been reported breathlessly by Michelle Malkin’s conservative news curation site Twitchy. In a bizarre crossover to actual politics, Missouri Senator Claire McCaskill fell for the account last summer. (“I can't keep track of all the extreme far right in the House. #jokesonme,” she tweeted after she’d been set straight.)
Marty cites comedians like Sacha Baron Cohen and Andy Kaufman as favorites, and his own schtick is a fair tribute to their immersion into character. On the internet, his rich imagination has created a universe that expands beyond his Twitter feed, lending the Smith account a bizarre credibility based on years of repeated, intricate in-jokes. The congressman's platform positions include promoting a “#cleansexlife”; one of his greatest legislative victories was passing the fictional Carnival Safety Act of 2011 (which included fighting the “big carny” lobby). Smith is militantly opposed to marijuana and frequently bemoans his fictional pothead son, who even has his own account, Steve 420 Jr. (“My dad is a fascist,” the bio reads.)
The Smith feed is filled with upbeat references to Valdosta, in Georgia's (actual) 8th District, in the form of innocuous yet off-kilter politician-speak: Smith thanks a corporate concert series for bringing Nickelback to Valdosta, advertises a new Chinese restaurant (“#jobcreation #diversity”), and blissfully describes the town burning Madonna's album in a public ceremony and the women of Valdosta wearing “loose-fitting calico house dresses.” Smith promoted two fake exhibits at two real locations in Valdosta of the work of Jon McNaughton, a far-right artist whose realistic oil paintings depict Obama literally burning the Declaration of Independence.
Perhaps what makes the Smith account the most believable is his “chief of staff,” an account labeled as “COS TJ Mitch Johnson.” The Johnson account is run by an internet acquaintance, a 50-year-old engineer and father of three. “I started following after the Amanpour tweet,” Johnson says over Twitter DM. "I got 'it' immediately and thought it was hilarious.” Johnson will scout out tweets from reporters and celebrities to troll, snagging Marty’s attention by tagging him in a reply with an added “Boss, check this out.” For Johnson, much of the appeal of running his account lies in Marty’s quick wit. "I don't know how many times I've seen someone post 'he's not a congressman but he ought to be.'"
While Marty claims he only wants to bait the rich and powerful (“it’s more fun that way”), a glance at his feed shows that regular people are the majority of those caught in his net. Each day, he gets a series of replies on his popular tweets from everyday users: “Shame on you! You will be voted out for your stupidity!” or “I can't believe this idiot is a representative in congress.” The Smith character has even attracted its own dedicated internet police in the form of an account labeled Regor the Roach, whose chief purpose seems to be lurking in Smith’s mentions and alerting unsuspecting accounts several times a day that the congressman is a parody. (“I just live in GA and don't like that it sheds a bad light on us Georgians,” the user explains.)
Even some high-profile users who know that Rep. Smith is fake can’t seem to stay away. Newsweek columnist Kurt Eichenwald, who admits he’s been fooled by Smith twice, occasionally angrily engages with the account. But Marty is also followed by several surprising faces in the mainstream media who are in on the joke. Wesley Lowery, a race and justice reporter at the Washington Post and a Smith follower, has tussled with Rep. Smith a few times on Ferguson, but doesn’t share the same vitriol toward Marty as Eichenwald.
“His responses to the news and tweets to reporters almost always forecast the half-baked conventional wisdom that such reporting gets in response from many readers of certain political persuasions,” Lowery says via email. "Everything is the fault of a hopelessly biased media, race relations are worse currently only because the nation is talking about race, police are deeply embattled and any scrutiny of them amounts essentially to treason. Now, none of those things are true or fair, but the fake congressman is voicing opinions and reactions to current events that, whether you agree or not, are held by a not insignificant number of Americans.”
As to why he keeps tabs on the account, Lowery has a simple answer. “Because I appreciate a good joke, and he’s obviously put years into this one,” he says. “That’s dedication.”
At his condo, Marty pulls out his phone to check his Twitter notifications and pulls up a Rep. Smith retweet from Drudge Report on WikiLeaks and the mainstream media. “I just retweet something like this, and then add commentary.” He points to the added text above the retweet: “The @nytimes IS the scandal. #RiggedSystem.” In two hours, the tweet has already racked up dozens of likes and enthusiastic retweets.
Marty’s comfort with his identification with Rep. Smith waxes and wanes, ranging from slightly embarrassed surprise at the interest to smug excitement reminiscing about his most high-profile pranks to a manic commitment to spreading what he sees as truth. While he boasts about the traction his account has given to certain niche issues, he’s wary about how others may perceive him based on some of his followers. Marty feels that the mainstream media, especially in recent conversations about the “alt right,” corrals users like him into a corner with the avowed white supremacists who may follow his account. Even worse, they ignore liberal prejudice. “Like Rep. Smith has proven over and over again, people see ‘Georgia,’ ‘Tea Party’ and a white-looking guy in the profile picture, and automatically start with their own racist and geographic slurs,” he says.
When reminded about the Touré episode, he shifts uncomfortably and seems uncharacteristically lost for words. “I didn’t know he was black,” Marty reflects sheepishly. “That was unintentional — that was Rep. Smith talking.”
Marty’s 11-year-old son Nick races into the condo with Buddy in tow, flashing a charming smile against a perennial Florida tan and taking a seat at the kitchen island. Nick has been to two Trump rallies this year, in Tampa and Orlando, but the Orlando rally was too crowded to get into the arena so they had to stand outside. His older sister isn’t sold on Trump (“she’s not focusing on politics,” Nick says), and his younger sister calls him “the orange guy,” but Nick does hope that Trump wins.
“Hillary is linked to 46 different deaths,” Nick chirps, spinning his barstool around in circles.
“That’s something he saw on a YouTube video that I did not make,” Marty quickly adds.
“Yeah, he didn’t make that,” Nick says. “But my dad’s like, it’s true.”
“Well, it is true,” Marty hedges. “There are a lot of people that have died mysteriously around her. When they were supposed to testify against her — three or four different people. Within a week.”
Outside the Orlando rally, Marty took a picture of Nick making a thumbs-down in front of a group of Trump protesters; that caused an uproar among the outraged crowd. “He walked past the protesters and he was like, 'Dad, did they make these signs?’ He’s reading one of them, and then the lady goes, ‘Congratulations. You taught your son to read.’” Marty laughs.
“On YouTube, there was finally an ad about how Trump is good instead of Hillary,” Nick says. “I’ve seen, like, one Trump ad.”
“She outspends him, I heard, 46 to 1,” says Marty. “At one point it was 46 to 1.”
“That’s the same amount of deaths…” Nick trails off, and Marty laughs uproariously.
Nick is incredulous about Marty’s fame; like many 11-year-olds, he alternates between embarrassment and awe for his dad. “I know about his account but I don’t know that much. He doesn’t let me see Twitter or anything. I’m not old enough.”
“It’s really bad on there,” Marty says. “I wouldn’t want him to have an account.”
On Jan. 29, Marty pinned a new tweet to the top of the Smith feed. “After much consideration,” it reads, “I have decided to endorse @realDonaldTrump for President of the United States.” Smith’s false endorsement came nearly a full month ahead of Trump’s first real congressional endorsement, and earned a (since-deleted) retweet from Michael Cohen, executive vice president of the Trump organization and one of the candidate’s legal advisers.
Real GOP endorsements did not come easy for the Trump camp, and Smith’s fake one was no exception. Through much of the 2015 GOP primary, the Smith character had been running his own haphazard bid for the presidency under the hashtag #Smith2016, claiming to have “generous” backing from the Koch brothers. His platform positions, as stated on Twitter, included outlawing marijuana, safe carnivals, and a nod back to his “#cleansexlife” campaign. He attempted to perpetuate the rumor by doing things like tweeting at then-Politico journalist Maggie Haberman that he would consider Romney as a VP pick for Smith’s own 2016 run.
Until the endorsement, Marty used the #Smith2016 campaign to take aim at all candidates running — including Trump, whom Smith called out as the “combover candidate” and mocked by referencing the bankruptcy of Atlantic City. “Miss Valdosta criticized my role in closing the town's only ‘gay’ bar,” Smith chided Trump in response to a tweet about Miss Universe’s criticism of his immigration policies. “I didn't cry about it.”
Marty himself was also far from sold on Trump at first. “Initially, I was like: no way. No chance,” he says. “But it became really clear that he was not going to bow down to anyone, that he was going to say whatever he wanted to, whatever he believed, and let the chips fall.”
A few months after the Rep. Smith endorsement, Marty fell ill with a mysterious lung disease, landing him in and out of the hospital. He took a leave from his firm and required daily painful treatments. “When I was sick, I was laying on the couch…” He holds the smartphone close to his face, frowning and muttering to himself while miming drafting a tweet. “I’d sit there and just be tweeting all the time, and it just took my mind completely off it. Some days I’d do it, like, 16 hours a day. I had nothing else to do.”
In the height of his illness, which spanned both conventions, Marty hung out on trending hashtags creating incendiary tweets (“Hillary Clinton is a psychopath and unworthy to lead our military. No decent person talks this way. #ImWithHerNow?“) and responding individually to users who challenged his viewpoints with a link to the far-right documentary Clinton Cash. “For a little while, I was trying to convince people,” he says, shaking his head. “I was on a lot of medication. I know it’s pointless.”
Trump’s success and Marty’s illness seemed to have caused an irreparable shift in the Rep. Steven Smith world. The references to the deadbeat druggy son or “big carny” have become scarce, as have the kooky shoutouts to Valdosta. In July, Marty wrote a Daily Caller piece outing himself as Rep. Smith and sharing his personal insights into the election (“The media focuses on Trump ‘scandals’ because Hillary is too terrible to talk about”). Much of the feed these days is filled with news headline–style tweets and retweets that align closely with Marty’s personal views: “MEDIA CORRUPTION: Hillary Up 5 Points in AZ Poll That Interviewed Nearly TWICE as Many Democrats as Republicans”; “VIDEO PROOF That DNC and Hillary Camp Colluded with "Voter Fraud" GANG BUSTED in Undercover Sting.”
But this shift in tone seems to have drawn in even more attention than before. Marty now has over 20,000 followers — more than all but two actual House members from Georgia, and 10,000 more than Georgia Senator David Perdue. The momentum doesn’t show any sign of stopping.
Even before this sudden spike in popularity, Marty approximates that most of his dedicated followers were in on the joke. Interwoven with tweets from angry liberals in his mentions are messages of joking support: “Rep. Smith, we’re voting for you,” “Mr. Smith I wish you represented Ohio instead of our empty suit @PatTiberi.” Hundreds of followers participate in Twitter polls he creates, angrily making their opinions known about favorite Rep. Smith punching bags like Paul Ryan and CNN.
“There has been a strand of irreverence that has flowed through a conservative media from the start,” says Nicole Hemmer, assistant professor at the University of Virginia's Miller Center. Hemmer points out that many conservative news moguls who got their start in the ‘80s and ‘90s have roots in entertainment media, like Rush Limbaugh and Glenn Beck. For an audience raised on listening to talk radio for hard news, following an entirely fake Twitter account is the next logical step.
Just before the second presidential debate, a Rep. Smith tweet about Juanita Broaddrick was retweeted by a real congressman, former Rep. Steven Stockman of Texas. Stockman declined to comment for this story, but judging by his feed, it’s not clear if he’s in on the Rep. Smith joke — or if he cares. “media wins November 9th America loses,” Stockman tweeted recently. “Our media are sad disinformation agents. Congratulations America you've been played.”
“People are trying to look for a way to make sense of things, and having someone explain to you or give you the kind of information or misinformation you want to hear in order to confirm your worldview is really comforting for a lot of people,” says Hemmer. “It’s a widespread civic problem that we as a country are going to have to spend a generation trying to solve.”
Two nights before the third presidential debate, Rep. Smith tweeted a dramatic graphic of Trump, dressed in Roman gladiator gear, holding aloft a Medusa head with Clinton’s face. “TRUMP: MAKE AMERICA GREAT AGAIN,” reads the bottom of the image in movie-poster style, with the accompanying date Nov. 8, 2016. “IT’S GOING TO BE YUGE.”
A couple hours later, the image was gone — Marty deleted it. “It didn't seem consistent with the other stuff lately,” he says. “The old Rep. Smith test was whether it was really weird and outrageous and/or made me laugh. That would have been a top Smith post last year, but everything is too serious now.”
Marty says he’s tried to quit numerous times; he doesn’t like constantly being called a racist or a sexist. But something keeps calling him to return to the account — something higher than the internet. “I do believe in God, and I have an idea when I’m doing the right things,” he says. “It’s important for the future. I feel like this is a fight I had to be a part of.”
Perhaps Marty’s drive comes from the fact that the stories he retweets from the deep far-right web, generally ignored by the mainstream media, have been promoted in recent weeks on debate stages and rally platforms by Trump himself. As the candidate digs deeper into sources like Infowars and Breitbart for his talking points, Marty and his followers look less and less like fringe elements and more like predictors of the next mainstream story.
Or perhaps this commitment comes from Marty’s latest venture into investigative citizen journalism. In September, an internet friend alerted Marty to a Reddit user named Stonetear, who posted a request for help removing portions of a “VIP’s” email server. The friend also produced research linking the Stonetear user to the firm that managed Clinton’s server. Marty published a piece himself on the Daily Caller called “How Reddit Ruined the Hillary Clinton Campaign.” The Reddit posts are currently under review by the House Oversight Committee.
“Stonetear matters,” says Marty. “It’s a national news story. It’s corruption, destruction of evidence.” The day his Daily Caller post came out, Marty pinned a link to the top of his feed, adding “Parody” into the bio of his account so people would know to take this story seriously. He’s at work on a follow-up story about possible preferential treatment given to Clinton by the FBI during the investigation.
Marty’s not sure what will happen after the election, but he likes Trump’s chances. “People have no passion on her side,” he says. “Could be wrong, of course, but she seems like the Romney/Ryan of 2012 to me.” On Twitter, Marty has been particularly busy reposting articles related to voter fraud.
As for Rep. Smith, his future is unclear. While Marty claims tweeting isn’t hard — “I can just do it mindlessly” — now that his health is better and he’s back at work, he’s busier than ever. He’s thought about writing a book, channeling his creative energy that way, but he’s not sure if he’d be good at putting together lots of characters in a narrative. He’d like to spend as much time with his kids as possible.
Marty busies himself making a cup of coffee in his Keurig. He’s reminiscing about his late friend, one of their great pranks, creating fake profiles for an online biker community and infiltrating biker message board posts.
“We created two characters — I was, like, a one-percenter biker. He created the weirdest one that was, like, a private investigator, but he was very unethical.” He laughs.
“I think he’d love this,” he says, with a sad smile. “We had different politics and he was much more of a Democrat than I was, but he’d love this. He’d think it was the greatest thing.” ●