We Worked Together on the Internet. Last Week, He Stormed the Capitol.
“Platform metrics guided his politics,” reflected Andrew Gauthier, who was a top video producer for BuzzFeed and who later worked on Joseph R. Biden Jr.’s presidential campaign. “You always think that evil will come from the evil movie villain, and then you are like – oh no, evil can just start with bad jokes and nihilistic behavior fueled by positive reinforcement on different platforms.”
And so Mr. Gionet’s story is not exactly the familiar one of a lonely young man in his bedroom who falls into a rabbit hole full of videos that poison his worldview. It is the story of a man who is rewarded for being a violent white nationalist and for getting the attention and reassurance that he is apparently desperate for.
We spent a lot of time at BuzzFeed thinking about how we could optimize our content for an online audience. he optimized himself.
When he was arrested last month in Scottsdale, Arizona for spraying maces in the eyes of a bouncer, an official reported that Mr. Gionet “informed me that he was an” influencer “and had a large following in the social Media added “to a police report. He was released at his own discretion, a Scottsdale police spokesman said, pending trial. Even so, he shouted “ACAF” in the Capitol – all cops are friends (although the original meaning of the acronym is less friendly).
Because of its story, I wonder what guilt those of us who pioneered the use of social media to deliver information deserve right now. Did we work with the makers of these platforms to help open Pandora’s box?
I didn’t work with Mr. Gionet directly. But in 2012, I hired a writer named Benny Johnson who cultivated a voice that combined social media expertise and right-wing politics. I mistakenly viewed his policies at the time as just conservative. And I imagined it would thrive, as conservative writers have done for generations in mainstream newsrooms, sharing their peers’ interest in finding common facts.
I slowly realized that his interests were not journalistic or even ideological, but aesthetic, enthusiastic about the images of raw power. In the tradition of authoritarian propagandists, he was impressed by neoclassical buildings, weapons, and later by Donald Trump’s crowds. And after we fired him for plagiarism in 2014, he ran the content arm of Mr. Trump’s youth wing Turning Point USA and hosted a show on Newsmax. Last week he was cheerleading attempt to overthrow the election (although he backed off when the violence started and later blamed leftists for it). He’s also selling his “viral political storytelling” skills, which we worked on at BuzzFeed, to a generation of new right-wing figures like Rep Lauren Boebert, who drew attention for vowing to put her gun to work in the Bring Congress. (Neither Mr. Gionet nor Mr. Johnson responded to email inquiries.)