The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The curious saga of the deceased Herman Cain’s living Twitter account

Former presidential candidate Herman Cain addresses the Conservative Political Action Conference in Washington in 2012. (J. Scott Applewhite/AP)

Former GOP presidential candidate Herman Cain died on July 30. So it naturally came as a surprise when, two weeks later, his Twitter account tweeted a link to an anti-Joe Biden video with the caption, “Just in case you thought Biden’s candidacy was going to be anything other than completely nuts, team Trump has released a new video. #JoeBiden #KamalaHarris.”

It was the account’s first tweet since announcing Cain’s funeral on Aug. 7.

At the time, the account still bore Cain’s name and photograph. It looked as if the man himself had tweeted. He began trending, with outrage appearing alongside the many “Weekend at Bernie’s” jokes.

“Come on @Twitter @jack!” tweeted journalist Lois Romano, referring to Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey. “You’re ok with dead people attacking others?”

The account soon changed its name to the Cain Gang and changed its bio to “Official Twitter for Team Cain. Formerly run by Herman Cain, now supervised by his team and family. The mission continues.”

After the initial bout of confusion, the account continued tweeting generally about politics, to little fanfare. On Sunday, however, it again made headlines, for sending out a tweet, which has since been deleted, reading, “It looks like the virus is not as deadly as the mainstream media first made it out to be,” with a link to the conservative political website the Western Journal.

Many users quickly noted the irony of the tweet, given that covid-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus, caused Cain’s death. Others wondered whether someone else tweeting under Cain’s former accounted violated Twitter’s terms.

“Is it against Twitter TOS for the staff of a dead man to tweet from his verified account?” one Democrat-supporting user tweeted. “ … Disgusting given that Herman Cain died of COVID.” University College London professor Brian Klaas called the tweet Act IV of “a tragedy in four acts.”

Cain’s estate did not respond to The Washington Post’s request for comment by press time. His daughter Melanie Cain Gallo wrote a blog post on Aug. 11 stating that the newly named “Cain Gang” would anchor his website and all his social media accounts.

“This is a timely reminder: The Cain Gang consists of different writers who have their own opinions. We all lean right, but we’re also individuals,” Cain’s account tweeted on Aug. 13. “Each piece reflects the opinions of that writer. That’s how Herman wanted it to work. But we agree on this: We love you all!”

Not everyone thought the new posts were a good idea. “People were mostly careful and respectful when Herman Cain passed away from COVID-19, and boy that is going to disappear quickly now that his family and comms team have decided to keep tweeting out new political content under his name,” tweeted Donald Moynihan, a professor of public policy at Georgetown University.

Twitter spokesperson Trenton Kennedy told The Post, “The account you referenced is currently not in violation of the Twitter Rules,” and pointed to “the updated profile information and profile image indicating who is managing the account.” In other words, since the name and the bio changed, the account could keep on tweeting — and remain verified.

The story of Cain’s Twitter account isn’t unusual in the social media age. Roger Ebert’s wife, Chaz, for example, took over his account following his death.

Many, though, find it unethical for an account run by someone other than the original account holder to remain “verified” — as depicted by a blue check mark — which, according to Twitter, “lets people know that an account of public interest is authentic.” Novelist Michael Marshall Smith tweeted at Twitter Support and Dorsey, “People are using a dead person’s verified account to talk trash. This place has some standards, right? A little bit?”

But even living celebrities and politicians often have a team tweeting on their behalf. As Slate’s Tamara Kneese put it: “Death exposes the networks of people behind singular social media presences. A celebrity or influencer, just like a corporate brand, may have a rotating group of people, or in some cases bots, running the account.”

Many people already know this, but the responses to Cain’s continued tweeting suggest some don’t like it. “Herman Cain got the coronavirus after attending Trump’s indoor Tulsa rally without wearing a mask nor social distancing. Then he died. Now people are using his Twitter account” to claim the virus isn’t very deadly, tweeted physician and scientist Eugene Gu. “This is just so wrong.”