Netflix has a great documentary called The Social Dilemma about how social media companies are using algorithms and artificial intelligence to manipulate and addict us in order to make money. They might not have developed artificial intelligence to the point where it is better than human strengths, but they have already achieved increasing mastery over manipulating human weaknesses. This fundamental change in how people communicate and what we spend time thinking about is remaking society and has led to a rise in extremism everywhere. In some places it has even caused genocide.
Ben Smith has been an eyewitness to this transformation of our media ecosystem as one of the founders of BuzzFeed because BuzzFeed was a pioneer at using social media to get attention. He tells the story of two of the most successful social media stars at BuzzFeed who moved on to become influencer entrepreneurs of the sort of right-wing voices that caused the assault on the capital last week. This story tells a lot about how the profit-seeking social media algorithms that thrive on pushing emotional “engagement” have produced this new political phenomenon that led to the riot in the capital building.
He fit in as well as anyone did at our Los Angeles studio, a place full of ambitious misfits with an unusual gift. They knew how to make web videos people wanted to watch.
His real name was Anthime Joseph Gionet, though he preferred others. His value to BuzzFeed was clear: He’d do anything for the Vine, the short video platform that had a brief cultural moment before being crushed by Instagram and Snapchat…
Once, he poured a gallon of milk on his face and a clip of it drew millions of views, back when mostly harmless stunts amused millions of American viewers on the platform.
He was, in that way, a natural for BuzzFeed when he arrived… and his job mostly consisted of editing down to six seconds the silly, fun videos… Within months, he took over a BuzzFeed Twitter account, too, drawing on his same intuition for what kind of video people would share.
We were better than anyone in those days at making things for social media… occasionally spectacular live streams, most famously the one where two of my colleagues exploded a watermelon, one rubber band at a time.
And so the language I heard from Mr. Gionet, now 33, on his livestream last Wednesday was familiar. “We’ve got over 10,000 people live, watching, let’s go!” he said excitedly. “Hit that follow button — I appreciate you guys.”
Mr. Gionet was standing inside the trashed office of Senator Jeff Merkley of Oregon, streaming from one of the few platforms yet to ban him, alongside other Trump loyalists who played with the telephone receiver and draped themselves over the furniture. It seemed an apt conclusion to a recent career arc that some might see as trolling or internet pranks, but is probably best described as performative violence.
After I saw Mr. Gionet, I called up some of my old colleagues, who recalled him with a mixture of perplexity and repulsion. He was sensitive and almost desperate to be liked, they said, once getting extremely upset when someone made fun of his thick mustache and blond mullet. Two of his closest friends at the office at the time had different ethnic backgrounds and gender identities than he did, and they sometimes bonded over a sense of being outsiders. One… remembered him as a sad character who didn’t really express political views beyond the broadly bro-ey and insensitive culture of Vine, and… confided that he was haunted by a lonely childhood in Alaska. He seemed, three of them said, to be missing something — to be hollow inside.
As the 2016 election took hold, he started to flirt with a political persona. He first put a Bernie Sanders portrait on his desk…. Then, he moved on to wearing MAGA hats around the office, which raised eyebrows among his… fairly apolitical, co-workers, though that was when some people still imagined the far right could be “ironic.”
When he left BuzzFeed… to work as the “tour manager” for Milo Yiannopoulos, a darling of the racist and anti-Semitic “alt-right,” colleagues were momentarily shocked…
Still, it’s not clear what Mr. Gionet actually believes, if anything. And really, I’m not sure I care.
…I can’t muster much pity for a guy who, before he was attacking his Capitol, spent his time shooting some kind of bottled irritant (he called it “content spray”) into the eyes of innocent people for YouTube views and shouting at store clerks who asked him to wear a mask.
To me, this story is about something different, a sort of social media power… that can exert an almost irresistible gravitational pull.
If you haven’t had the experience of posting something on social media that goes truly viral, you may not understand its profound emotional attraction. You’re suddenly the center of a digital universe, getting more attention from more people than you ever have. The rush of affirmation can be giddy, and addictive. And if you have little else to hold on to, you can lose yourself to it…
[For] Mr. Gionet… The only through line was his desire to build an audience. He was boosting Bernie Sanders before he was chanting anti-Semitic slogans in Charlottesville, Va., then temporarily recanting those extreme views and later committing violent crimes to get views on YouTube. He built an audience among coronavirus deniers and then, when he apparently contracted the disease, posted the screenshot of his own positive test to Instagram with a tearful emoji. A few weeks later, he joined the pro-Trump uprising in the Capitol.
“His politics have been guided by [viewing] metrics,” reflected Andrew Gauthier…
“You always think that evil is going to come from movie villain evil, and then you’re like — oh no, evil can just start with bad jokes and nihilistic behavior that is fueled by positive reinforcement on various platforms.”
And so Mr. Gionet’s story isn’t quite the familiar one of a lonely young man in his bedroom falling down a rabbit hole of videos that poison his worldview. It’s the story of a man being rewarded for being a violent white nationalist, and getting the attention and affirmation that he’s apparently desperate for…
When he was arrested in Scottsdale, Ariz., last month for spraying mace into the eyes of a bouncer, an officer reported that Mr. Gionet “informed me that he was a ‘influencer’ and had a large following on social media,” according to a police report. He was released on his own recognizance, a Scottsdale police spokesman said, and is awaiting trial…
I didn’t work directly with Mr. Gionet. But in 2012, I did hire a writer named Benny Johnson who was cultivating a voice that blended social media savvy and right-wing politics. I thought, wrongly, of his politics at the time as just conservative…
I was slow to realize that his interests weren’t journalistic, or even ideological, as much as they were aesthetic, thrilled by the imagery of raw power. In the tradition of authoritarian propagandists, he was awed by neoclassical buildings, guns and, later, Donald Trump’s crowds. And, after we fired him for plagiarism in 2014, he went on to lead the content arm of Mr. Trump’s youth wing, Turning Point USA, and host a show on Newsmax. Last week, he was cheerleading attempts to overturn the election (though he pulled back… and later blamed leftists for it). He’s also selling his skills in the “viral political storytelling” … to a generation of new right-wing figures like Representative Lauren Boebert, who has won attention for vowing to bring her handgun to work in Congress…
While we were refining the new practice of social media at BuzzFeed, we were slow to realize that the far right was watching closely and… imitating us… Steve Bannon, who ran Breitbart, recalled to a writer… that he was surprised we hadn’t turned BuzzFeed to pure Bernie Sanders boosterism, as Breitbart did for Donald Trump. He noted, probably correctly, that the traffic for a pro-Sanders propaganda outlet would have greatly exceeded what we got for fair coverage of the Democratic primary…
I’m already hearing what seem to be two competing explanations of what happened in Washington last week: that the overwhelmingly white, sometimes overtly racist, mob embodied old, deep unexpurgated American evil; or that social media reshaped some Americans’ blank slate identities into something radical.
But Mr. Gionet’s story shows how those explanations don’t really conflict. A man his colleagues saw as empty and driftless turned his identity into a kind of a mirror of that old American evil, and has become what many Americans told him they wanted him to be.
At one point in Mr. Gionet’s livestream during the siege of the Capitol, an unseen voice off camera warns that President Trump “would be very upset” with the antics of the rioters.
“No, he’ll be happy,” Mr. Gionet responded. “We’re fighting for Trump.”
This story helps explains why the mob attack on the capital was so performative and so many participants were wearing GoPro cameras and carrying selfie sticks. Many were obsessed with selfies and live streaming for their followers on social media who were egging them on. But the result was not just theatrical. It was deadly. Their attack in the capital building left five people dead and at least 50 police officers injured. By comparison, the last mob assault on a federal building that killed people was in Benghazi. The Benghazi attack actually resulted in fewer Americans getting killed and much fewer injuries. The failure to protect Benghazi led to over two years of congressional inquiries and was still a major issue during the 2016 presidential election, four years later.
It is fortunate that the mob of misguided Trump fans who broke the law to seek attention at the Capital weren’t enabling more hard-core terrorists. If it happens again, the hard-core terrorists will be better prepared to take advantage of the situation and we might not be so fortunate.