The New Yorker recently profiled a web site operator and contributor and alt-right tweeter named Mike Smith (note: not, as you might expect, his real name; his name doesn’t really matter, plus The Curmudgeon sees no value in giving such a bottom-feeder any more public attention than he already receives, so “Mike Smith” shall suffice for our purposes today. If you really want to know his name, this article gives you more than enough information to find it on your own. Don’t: he’s not worth the effort.) as an example of the new ways in which misinformation is maliciously created and spread and takes on a life of its own. The article, appropriately enough, is titled “Trolls for Trump.”
Let’s start with some of the 2016 election “reporting” Troll Smith concocted and spread through various internet and social media means.
The afternoon before Clinton’s speech, Mike Smith… opened the live-streaming app Periscope on his iPad and filmed a video called “How to fight back against Sick Hillary and the #ClintonNewsNetwork.” By “Clinton News Network,” he meant CNN and other corporate media outlets. The word “sick” described Clinton morally and physically: Smith was among the first to insinuate publicly that Clinton had a grave neurological condition, and that the media was covering it up. By “fight back,” he meant, basically, tweeting.
Smith, of course, isn’t a reporter and had no sources with verifiable information about Hillary Clinton’s health. That didn’t matter to him: he didn’t pretend to have sources with verifiable information. To him, it’s okay just to make it up.
Smith covered the Reno speech on Periscope. “Is she gonna fall?” he said, watching live footage of Clinton approaching the stage. “She’s grabbing the handrail!” He tweeted, “Sick Hillary grabs handrail as walking up steps.”
Because using a railing to climb stairs is always, at least in the eyes of some, a sign of physical infirmity.
In March, he tweeted, “Hillary’s face looks like melting candle wax. Imagine what her brain looks like.” Next, he tweeted a picture of Clinton winking, which he interpreted as “a mild stroke.” By August, he was declaring that she had both a seizure disorder and Parkinson’s disease.
Again with the unsubstantiated medical claims. Why do any reporting when you can just make up stuff?
So why did Smith focus on Hillary’s health?
“There are a million things wrong with Hillary,” Smith told me. “She’s a documented liar. She’s massively corrupt. She wants to let in more so-called refugees, which makes her an existential threat to the West.” (He calls the Syrian refugee crisis a “media lie.”) “But I was looking at the conversation online—what was getting through to people and what wasn’t—and none of that was sticking. It’s too complex. I thought that the health stuff would be more visceral, more resonant from a persuasion standpoint, and so I pushed that.”
In other words, why bother attempting to engage in reasoned discourse on an issue when you can just make up stuff?
And this stuff apparently reaches a lot of people:
In September, Smith’s tweets were seen more than a hundred million times. When he bragged about this on Twitter, one of his followers replied, “Guerrilla Mindset: How Mike Smith waged war on journalism and won.”
And does his “work” have an impact? You bet it does.
Before closing his laptop, he checked his direct messages on Twitter, and found a tip alleging that, in 2014, a Reddit user had asked for help removing a “VERY VIP” e-mail address “from a bunch of archived e-mail.” The tipster claimed that the Reddit user was Paul Combetta, one of Hillary Clinton’s I.T. staffers. Smith clicked the link to the Reddit thread and noticed that it had been deleted. “Son of a bitch!” he said. “This might actually be true.”
It’s hard not to notice how enthusiastic Smith is about the possibility that he might be able to mix some facts into his fantasy. That’s pretty foreign territory for this professional prevaricator.
He returned to muckraking mode. “We’re going to make a whole new news cycle about her fucking e-mails again!” he said. “This poor fucking woman.” He started a new Periscope video. “What do you guys want to do for a hashtag?” he said. He decided on #HillarysHacker. It was trending before he finished the video. That day, more than forty-two thousand tweets were posted with the hashtag.
I returned to Smith’s house the next morning. By then, the Reddit story had been covered by Vice and New York, and a congressman had asked prosecutors in Washington, D.C., to look into it. Smith had tweeted dozens of times since I’d left, including at 1:30 A.M.
So what kind of person is this Smith? The New Yorker provides some interesting perspective.
Smith often blogs about fitness, and he publishes self-help books for men. He also writes about how to build a personal brand online; his maxims include “Conflict is attention” and “Attention is influence.”
So right away you get the sense that this is a guy who’ll do or say anything to get attention.
On the Internet, he represents himself as a “Pulitzer-worthy journalist” who runs Smith Media, a “global worldwide brand.” When we first spoke, on the phone, I asked him whether he worked from home or in an office full of employees. Chuckling, he said, “It’s definitely just me, dude.”
Pulitzer-worthy journalist? Who knew they now award a Pulitzer for crap?
Smith trained as a lawyer… On his first blog, which he started in 2004, he offered a libertarian critique of prosecutorial overreach, emphasizing free speech and false rape allegations. He launched his current blog, Danger and Play, in 2011, after his first wife filed for divorce…
“Right now, a hundred and twenty-eight people are reading Danger and Play,” he said…Nowadays, the blog is mostly a platform for pro-Trump spin, but at first it was about how to pick up women…Early posts included “Misogyny Gets You Laid” and “When Should You Compliment a Woman?” (Answer: “During or after sex.”)
Early in Shauna’s relationship with Mike, she read Danger and Play, including such posts as “How to Cheat on Your Girlfriend.” She said, “I would come home from work crying—‘How can you write such rude things?’ He’d go, ‘You don’t understand, babe, this is just how guys talk.’ ”
This is “just how guys talk?” Gee, where did we hear that phrase this fall?
And Smith’s own relationships with women?
“My first marriage was ruined by feminist indoctrination,” Smith told me. He married his first wife in 2003, when they were law students at Pepperdine. Initially, he said, the “power arrangement” was “fifty-fifty.” Then came a realization: “What she actually wanted was for me to be more assertive, to be the man in the relationship. So I would be more assertive, and she’d be happier for a few days. Then she’d go, ‘No, I need to be in charge,’ and we’d butt heads.”
And maybe he ended up feeling a little inferior, maybe even a little…emasculated?
After law school, his wife became a successful attorney in Silicon Valley. But Smith was not admitted to the California bar until nine years after getting his law degree. In the meantime, he says, he got by with “freelance legal research” and “appellate stuff.” Smith’s wife earned millions of dollars in stock from an I.P.O.; he told me that he received “seven figures” in the divorce settlement. This seems to have been, and might still be, his primary source of funds. (He insists that book sales provide his main income.)
And then there’s this:
Smith says that during college, at the University of Illinois, he was socialized to be submissive. “I was friends with a lot of girls who had crushes on me, but I was too polite to fuck them,” he said. After his divorce, he reinvented himself as an alpha male. His self-published 2015 book, “Gorilla Mindset,” is a manual for men who want to “unleash the animal” within them.
And his approach to his “work.”
On his blog, Smith developed a theory of white-male identity politics: men were oppressed by feminism, and political correctness prevented the discussion of obvious truths, such as the criminal proclivities of certain ethnic groups. His opponents were beta males, losers, or “cucks”—alt-right slang for “cuckolds.” “To beat a person, you lower his or her social status,” he wrote on Danger and Play. “Logic is pointless.”
In other words, this is not a guy who’s ever going to play nice when playing not nice is an option and is so much easier.
And supporting Donald Trump was by no means this guy’s first foray into the public arena:
Smith realized that a meme could reach more people than a newspaper story, without having to cross an editor’s desk. With savvy framing, an alternative voice could seem as authoritative as the nightly news. He decided to become one of those voices.
“Without having to cross an editor’s desk,” of course, means “Without needing to demonstrate that there’s any truth to what you’re writing.”
He had already insinuated himself into public conflicts in order to gain followers. (“Conflict is attention.”) And in 2014 he became a champion of GamerGate, a vicious campaign against feminists in the video-game industry. He goaded his opponents on Twitter: “Who cares about breast cancer and rape? Not me.” Smith’s affiliation with GamerGate made him, he said, “toxic in the eyes of a lot of people,” but he calculated that the exposure was worth it.
He picked fights with celebrities on Twitter. (Seth Rogen took the bait; Smith called him “Cuck Rogen.”) “I’m not a pure troll,” Smith told me. “Pure trolls are amoral”—they post swastikas, he suggested, not out of an allegiance to Nazism but because they enjoy riling people. “I use trolling tactics to build my brand.”
Wait: this guy is claiming he’s NOT amoral? Or is he saying that amorality is okay if you’re, you know, building your brand?
And this is the perspective that appears to underlie Smith’s vocation:
These days, Smith’s primary target is the “hoaxing media.” He told me, “The mainstream media has lost so much legitimacy at this point that if they reported, ‘We just saw Trump beat the shit out of a guy on the street,’ skeptical people like my readers would go, ‘Really? Is there video? Was the video doctored?’ ” Such casual cynicism, of course, redounds to Trump’s advantage. For his part, Trump may have changed his mind about almost every policy proposal and campaign strategy, but he consistently maintains that journalists are scum.
The Curmudgeon doesn’t have to tell you how truly appalling this is; you get it. What he finds surprising, though, is that someone who’s so utterly contemptuous of the mainstream media would invite a publication as mainstream as The New Yorker to trail him around and learn about what he does and why he does it. It’s hard not to suspect that this is a guy who craves recognition and respect more than anything else, but lacking the tools needed to gain such respect through conventional means – you know, things like ability, work ethic, and basic human decency – is looking to create a side door through which to pursue that respect in a different way. In the meantime, his fantasy blogging is like the temper tantrum of a three-year old: a sad cry for attention and a protest that life isn’t giving him everything he wants and everything to which he believes he’s entitled.