By James Wigderson for Wisconsin Media Check and Media Trackers
Randy Bryce, the Democratic challenger in the first Congressional District known for hanging with Hollywood celebrities, achieved more fame when the New York Times reported he purchased fake followers for his Twitter account. However, readers of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel could be forgiven for being under the false impression that the story was manufactured by Republicans.
The New York Times reported Saturday a company, Devumi, sells fake Twitter followers made up of automated accounts to puff up the purchasers’ Twitter account with retweets. Bryce was one of the purchasers.
“Randy Bryce, an ironworker seeking to unseat Representative Paul Ryan of Wisconsin, purchased Devumi followers in 2015, when he was a blogger and labor activist,” the New York Times reported.
Instead of leading with the facts, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel instead focused on the Republican reaction in an article with the unusually long headline, “GOP atwitter over report that Paul Ryan challenger Randy Bryce bought fake Twitter followers.”
“The Republican side of Wisconsin’s political divide shouted Saturday that Democrat Randy Bryce was a phony after reading in The New York Times that the ironworker paid money a few years ago to gain Twitter followers,” Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reporter Don Behm wrote as the lede.
Yes, the Republican side “shouted” Bryce is a phony, rather than just going with a lede that referred to the fact that Bryce paid for the Twitter followers. Behm even helpfully adds that Bryce was only mentioned once in the article. He then quotes Bryce’s spokesperson defending her candidate saying that the campaign has not purchased any Twitter followers before quoting any Republicans.
Republicans were also, “atwitter” according to Behm who could not resist the pun:
“Here is the sentence that set the GOP atwitter: `Randy Bryce, an ironworker seeking to unseat Representative Paul Ryan of Wisconsin, purchased Devumi followers in 2015, when he was a blogger and labor activist.’”
But, according to Behm, Republican enthusiasm for the issue was unfounded.
“The timing is before his campaign against Ryan,” Behm wrote. “Bryce, a U.S. Army veteran and union ironworker, is challenging Ryan’s bid for re-election Nov. 6 in Wisconsin’s 1st Congressional District.”
Bryce is also a three-time election loser, including campaigns for state Assembly and state Senate, unmentioned by Behm.
Behm also could have mentioned that Bryce’s purchase of the Twitter automated followers at a time when he had difficulties paying child support, as reported by his colleague Dan Bice, but that would have been the first and only time Behm would have let the facts cast Bryce in a negative light.
Behm does not even explore the question of whether it’s ethical for someone aspiring to be a public official (Bryce had run for public office three times by then) to purchase automated accounts to artificially inflate his the illusion of his popularity. If Bryce was willing to violate the terms and service of Twitter for a blog, what will he do for his congressional campaign?
Behm does not even explain the potential harm of buying the Twitter automated accounts. As the New York Times article explains, the fake Twitter accounts steal the names and even the pictures of other Twitter users. Bryce, unwittingly or not, was funding the theft of social media identities with his purchase.
Despite the headline and the lede paragraph, it’s not until the 10th paragraph, near the end of story, that a Republican is quoted criticizing Bryce:
“We all know Randy Bryce spends a lot of time on Twitter lobbing false attacks at Paul Ryan and pandering to his Hollywood base,” said Chris Martin, regional press secretary for the committee. “But according to today’s bombshell story from the New York Times, Bryce’s online presence is just as phony as his astroturf campaign.”
If the Republican attack had been the important part of the story, as the lede made readers believe, than it should have been at the top of the story.
But the important part of the story for Behm was to minimize it and ridicule the Republicans for trying to attract attention to yet another unflattering story about Bryce. And if he can do it without mentioning anything inconvenient about Bryce, so much the better.