“#Barbershopgate” appears to be bunk.
But the mini-controversy that swirled around a well-known Elizabeth Warren surrogate who was accused online of fabricating exchanges at black barber shops in South Carolina shows just how quickly an inconspicuous tweet can turn into a meme and even a full-blown conspiracy theory.
The rumor started after Frederick Joseph, a writer and marketer campaigning for the Massachusetts senator tweeted out an exchange following Warren’s breakout performance in the Nevada debate.
“Just left the barbershop and everyone was talking about Elizabeth Warren,” Joseph tweeted. “‘Yoooo ya girl bro! That’s that heat we need for Trump!’ When you are getting talked about in the barbershop — you know it’s real.” As of this publication, the tweet’s been retweeted nearly 10,000 times.
Joseph said this exchange took place at his regular barbershop in New York. “When I came in the guys at the shop were like, ‘Warren was amazing, she was on fire, this is how you beat Trump,’ because most of those people in there follow me on social media and know I’m with Warren,” he said.
But not everyone took him at his word:
So Joseph responded to skeptics with a few photos of him campaigning in barbershops in other parts of the country, including one which had various sports jerseys representing different teams hanging on the walls. That’s when things went totally off the rails.
Stefan Grant, a Florida realtor who’s verified on Twitter, called into question whether one of the barbershops was even real. “Creating a fake barbershop to finesse the Black vote might be more egregious than any hypothetical Russian interference,” Grant said, then pointing out all of the things that he found “weird” with the photos.
(“I was being sarcastic,” Grant later tweeted in the same thread. “This barbershop shit still fugazi & now they’re pulling out the ‘blame black men’ playbook.”)
Regardless, Grant’s thread got hundreds of retweets and thousands of likes. Joseph then responded to Grant’s claim as well as others speculating that the visit was faked. “Black Trump supporters have started spreading a lie that the Warren campaign created three barbershops in South Carolina to take pictures,” Joseph tweeted. “Lmao? Disinformation at its finest.”
From there, things snowballed into the absurd. “At least for the sake of advertising, who wouldn't want to give out the name of their business?” one Twitter user asked. Another zoomed in on a business license on the wall. Others questioned the lack of mirrors in one of the shops.
Like a lot of conspiracies, the underlying fake storyline was just plausible enough, particularly among those already looking to cast stones. For one thing, Warren just doesn’t have much support in the black community. Recent South Carolina polling shows Warren running behind Sen. Bernie Sanders, former Vice President Joe Biden, and billionaire Tom Steyer who’s been bombarding the state with ads for months. She’s going to need to turn that around in South Carolina in next week’s primary if she wants to stay relevant in this race. (The Warren campaign didn’t immediately offer comment.)
And so as outrageous as any of this seems, conspiracy theorists at least had a motive, and for some, the urge to “cancel” Warren and her surrogate online was just too tempting to resist.
But the question remains: What actually happened?
Joseph explained that he was campaigning in South Carolina because he has family in the state, and thus would be a good surrogate for the campaign there ahead of the February 29 primary. “Beaufort, especially, is a bit more rural, so not a lot of campaigns send surrogates there,” he said. ”And there aren’t a ton of barbershops in Beaufort who are willing to have people come here to talk about this.”
Joseph visited three barbershops and a nail salon in the towns of Beaufort and Bluffton, South Carolina on Saturday, February 15, according to an itinerary for the weekend he provided to VICE News. VICE News confirmed the existence of two barbershops and the hair salon, including the one questioned for the jerseys on the wall and apparent lack of a mirror, via Google Earth and Yelp. The three barbershops VICE News called didn’t answer, but a part-owner of the hair salon answered a phone call to a listed number for the business.
Though the woman said she wasn’t aware of a Warren surrogate coming to her business, she said that she wasn’t there that day and didn’t know for sure. “You can tell your people that it does exist, though,” she said, laughing.
Additionally, Joseph offered a series of video clips to VICE News, which he said proved the meetings took place in real locations. One of the clips he provided matches up with pictures taken of the same studio and posted on Yelp.
That shop doesn’t appear on Joseph’s itinerary; when asked, Joseph texted: “I think it was a last minute change I believe.”
The incident could be taken as an example of misinformation in the 2020 election, or the dangers of internet sleuthing, as a recent incident involving a top Pete Buttigieg aide and a Nigerian man who apparently just really loves Pete Buttigieg showed earlier this month.
But not everyone believes any of it was ever that serious. “Oh my God,” Domise responded when contacted via Twitter. “This started out as a joke.”
“It was a bunch of us laughing about how inauthentic Joseph's quotes from the barbershop sounded, and a few of us started clowning how bad the haircuts must be at those joints,” Domise, who’s contributed to VICE Canada in the past, explained. “Then somebody noticed one of the shops appeared to have no mirrors (and the wack décor) and it snowballed from there.”
“The joke was more about the fakeness of social media personalities pretending to have authentic connections to the Black community, and the engagement dying somewhere in the middle of the Uncanny Valley,” he continued. “We were roasting him, and I doubt anybody really believed the Warren campaign actually set up Potemkin Village barbershops.”
Whether it started as a joke or a serious accusation, Joseph believes it serves as a warning of how quickly untrue information can spread stripped of context. “I think that this is a direct example of the threat of misinformation around politics and the 2020 election,” he said.
Joseph also believes it’s detracting from more important conversations surrounding the election.
“Instead of the focus being on black outreach, for better or for worse, it’s focused on debunking something that’s not even plausible,” he said.“It’s time and effort that’s being taken, and resources, from the actual important things that are impacting the community that we’re trying to have engagement with.”
Cover: Fred Joseph talks to the owner and a patron of a Talk of the Town Unlimited Barbershop in Beaufort, South Carolina. (Photo: Joyce Rose Harris)