Much – indeed, probably too much – has been written in recent days about the journalist and self-described “comedy character” and narcissist Milo Yiannopoulos, now banned from Twitter following allegations that he incited racist abuse against Leslie Jones, a black American Hollywood comedian and actress currently starring in the remake of Ghostbusters. Along with this particular controversy, attention has also focused on his role as a leading presence in the “Alt Right” at the recent Republican National Convention, where he arranged a “Gays for Trump” party that was addressed by the anti-Islam and birther conspiracist Pamela Geller and the Dutch politican Geert Wilders.
Dozens of articles and commentary pieces have appeared, arguing over whether Twitter acted rightly to remove an abusive presence from its service or did so because it is biased against conservatives. There have also been pieces debating the merits or otherwise of Yiannopoulos’s various provocations (at Spiked, Tom Slater refers to “sociopathic wind-up merchants”), as well as general backgrounders in various languages: “Qui est Milo Yiannopoulos, journaliste pro-Trump banni de Twitter ?”, asks Le Monde, while the Dutch Vrij Nederland has a piece on “Milo Yiannopoulos: de ‘ultieme troll’ op wiens feestje Wilders sprak”. Among the best of the crop is a first-person account by the left-wing journalist Laurie Penny of attending the RNC in Yiannopoulos’s company – in her words, “a story about how trolls took the wheel of the clown car of modern politics” and about “the insider traders of the attention economy”.
Given this feeding frenzy, there seems little to add other than to note that this has been a particularly weird career trajectory for a son of Chatham (Kent, UK) whose journalistic break was with the Catholic Herald, and that his rise to international prominence is a depressing example of how the sheer force of narcissistic personality in an entertainment culture can make questions of honesty and integrity apparently irrelevant. However, there are few points that, although not new, may be worth highlighting:
(1) Yiannopoulos’s “provocation” antics formerly included using the name “Milo Wagner”, at which time he dropped “is he being serious or not?” hints of Third Reich adulation. Screenshots and commentary were presented in early 2013 on The Blog that Peter Wrote (since deleted but archived here). It seems to me that this ought to be problematic for Geller and Wilders.
(2) The focus on whether Yiannopoulos was responsible for crude racist abuse sent to Leslie Jones by others has overshadowed his specific strategy of engaging in personal destruction through intrusion, misrepresentation, and outright fabrication. An article by Leigh Alexander (who opposes the Twitter ban for making Yiannopoulos a “martyr”) has the background:
Trying to make it look as if the target deserves abuse is a classic far-right tactic Yiannopoulos has been instrumental in helping create – the mobs dig into a target’s personal life, family relationships, old online profiles and more to find any snippet of information, however stripped of context, that could isolate the target and prohibit sympathy. For example, when a writer I had worked with was critical of Yiannopoulos and his “movement”, they responded by digging up childhood chat logs they could use to make her look as though she were a pedophile. Their goal was not to express themselves through speech; their goal was to remove her support network and to get her employers to distance themselves from her.
This is a key distinction. In the case of Jones, Yiannopoulos disseminated fake tweet screencaps purporting to be from the actress wherein she expressed antisemitic views, for the purpose of rationalizing further racist abuse from his followers.
The screenshots included a bogus Tweet that had a “delete” option at its base, which proved that it had been made by someone who was logged into the fake account that was being screenshotted. It appears likely that Yiannopoulos was himself the creator of this impersonator sockpuppet account.
(3) Several years ago, Yiannopoulos established an online media presence through a start-up called The Kernel. It did not end well, as Charles Arthur reported in the Guardian at the end of 2012:
London startup blog the Kernel is to close after its parent company Sentinel Media could not satisfy bailiffs’ demands for payment of £16,853…
One contributor won an industrial tribunal; further:
In emails seen by MediaGuardian, Yiannopoulos threatened to publish what he claimed were embarrassing details and photographs of one contributor who sought repayment, and said “I can’t ignore the fact that the majority of damage to The Kernel can be traced back to you and your childish, capricious behaviour”.
Further details were published by Max Dunbar.
Yiannopoulos apparently claimed that payment would soon be forthcoming due to a family inheritance. Arthur’s probing here led to a threat of violence from a Twitter account which identified itself as being run by Yiannopoulos’s father (it was also confirmed as such by Yiannopoulos himself, although whether this is true is anyone’s guess). Just three Tweets were posted, confirming the inheritance and adding “I wish i could meet Mr. Arthur I’d like to shake hands with his windpipe but i am not sure he would enjoy the meeting as much as i would.”
Point 1 above relates specifically to Yiannopoulos; points 2 and 3, however, are of interest because they encapsulate a wider online malaise that goes beyond just “a classic far-right tactic”. A media project crumbles amid financial scandal and threats against those owed money, yet personal stock continues to rise. Threats of violence are made, but fail to generate interest or censure. A supposed journalist fabricates screenshot evidence, yet his main outlet – in this case Breitbart, where Yiannopoulos is technology editor – does not fear losing credibility, and indeed revels in his antics. There’s a lot of it about.
As is well-known, Yiannopoulos’s legal name is (or was) Milo Hanrahan. A longer and more difficult surname combined with a short and less common first name has had the effect that he is now often referred to as just “Milo”, and that the name “Milo” is currently synonymous almost exclusively with him. It is worth the effort to avoid colluding with this kind of thing.
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