Vic Berger IV is not — and this is going to sound weird, but bear with me — involved in an online pedophilia ring. If you take one thing away from this story, it should be that. Berger is a Tim & Eric collaborator and video editor who recently made something of a name for himself publishing surreal videos built mostly from presidential campaign footage. Yet a disturbingly large number of people have sent him hundreds of tweets and messages accusing him of being connected to a nonexistent Twitter pedophilia ring.
The reason for this is that Mike Cernovich, a leading alt-right and manosphere figure, has implied as such, over and over and over, in tweets and Periscope videos. He appears to have done so because he is mad at Berger over a Twitter fight. Berger has, indeed, repeatedly made fun of Cernovich. Cernovich has responded by escalating their insult war into accusations of horrible crimes, and weaponizing his hundreds of thousands of followers into a sustained campaign of harassment and threats. This is the 2016 internet.
Maybe the first thing to understand about Cernovich — in the context of this story, at least — is that he has a tendency to accuse people he dislikes, whether politicians or the subjects of his online disputes, of terrible sexual predilections. He does it really, really frequently, and is particularly obsessed with pedophiles and their enablers and cover-uppers: Cernovich believes they are absolutely everywhere, that the world is awash in pedophile conspiracies. Once he’s identified someone he believes is a sex criminal (or, in rare cases, an actual sex criminal), he will demand that various people in their orbit then vocally denounce that person. If they don’t, then as far as Cernovich is concerned they are suspect, too. News outlets that run stories about the science of pedophilia, meanwhile — and this is an active, important area of study for sex researchers — are “pro-pedophile.”
Here’s a partial sampling of Cernovich’s pedophilia-related tweets just since April:
Full disclosure: Cernovich gave me the same treatment, though he accused me of different sorts of predation and made a Google-threat:
Far from being an eccentricity on the part of a prominent commentator, the wild and far-flung accusations of pedophilia are a core component of Cernovich’s broader online strategy. In a New Yorker profile this year, he proudly touted his ability to make damaging rumors about people he doesn’t like go viral (he was one major source of the “sick Hillary” rumors that found their way into the mainstream media). On his blog, he wrote a post with a headline that stated that some of the leaked John Podesta emails “Reveal Clinton’s Inner Circle as Sex Cult with Connections to Human Trafficking.” In that post, he wrote that “we should focus less on Clinton Cash style corruption and more on the Clinton Foundation’s sale of children to Saudi pedophiles.” There and elsewhere in his online writings and Periscope videos, Cernovich helped push the idea of a massive conspiracy involving the Democrats and/or Clinton and child sex trafficking. That conspiracy, of course, helped fuel the more specific “Pizzagate” conspiracy theory that culminated in a gunman opening fire inside the restaurant earlier this month. (Cernovich quickly took to Twitter to dispute any connection between himself and Pizzagate, and there’s no evidence the gunman was inspired by Cernovich in particular as opposed to any of the many other online figures who helped spread conspiracy theories about Democrats and sex-trafficking and pedophilia.)
This gonzo conspiracy theorizing about Hillary Clinton, Podesta, and other big names in the Democratic Establishment (not to mention a number of other wild Cernovich beliefs, including attributing certain mystical properties to semen) was what first brought Cernovich to the attention of Berger, who last month made the Gorilla Mindset author the butt of a series of jokes and videos on Twitter. Cernovich, in turn, challenged Berger to a debate; Berger wasn’t interested, as he indicated cheekily in a response he posted on Twitter:
This exchange appears to have given Cernovich license to pursue his particular obsession; by Cernovich’s logic, the fact that Berger found it strange that Cernovich would call him a child molester out of nowhere could only be evidence that Berger was hiding something, so Cernovich passed this message on to his followers:
Berger was annoyed at the pedophilia tweets, but didn’t think much of them at the time – this was still firmly in the category of someone being a dick on Twitter during an ongoing squabble. Berger continued to taunt Cernovich; Cernovich blocked him; and then — in the manner of braggadocious Twitter insult wars of this kind — Berger encouraged his readers to contact Cernovich further.
That was it for a while. But “[o]ne month later,” wrote Berger in an email, “someone tells me I need to check Cernovich’s twitter because he was tweeting insane shit about me.” Insane shit, naturally, about Berger’s connection to a supposed online network of pedophiles:
(I should note that, over the weekend, before I had any plans of writing about this, Cernovich emailed me out of the blue three times in a little over two hours to ask me, as a “friend” of Berger’s, to “comment” for a story he was working on about all this. As I pointed out to Cernovich, I didn’t know Berger at all — I had never even tweeted at him, and he had never tweeted at me. Cernovich initially accepted this, but it wasn’t the last I would hear from him.)
This was an escalation far beyond vague “child-molester vibe” jokes: This was Cernovich, weeks after a man had opened fire in a pizza restaurant based on online conspiracy theorizing, openly drawing a connection between Berger and an “active pedophile ring.”
What was this “ring”? Well, it was a series of people who, after Berger tweeted encouragement for his followers to get in touch with Cernovich, DMed him crude, sometimes sexual insults involving a photo of his newborn child. @PedosforTrump, for example, sent Cernovich that photo and asked “did you rape this baby? asking for vic.” Then, two messages later: “oh and also much love from the Berger Bois.” @PedosforTrump also tweeted “cum” at Cernovich with a photo of his kid and some vaguely semen-looking streaks painted on digitally. Another user, @gurdubu, DMed Cernovich only the word “cum,” and more than a half hour later sent a photo of his kid — but one that had no sexual connotations whatsoever. (Cernovich would later claim, incorrectly, that @gurdubu had “captioned a baby pic” with the word “cum.”) In a DM, @gurdubu said — I’m clearing up the formatting a bit — “Oh, I just sent it to bug him and afterward I saw he tweeted that picture with his kid saying ‘mfw when people think I get mad online’ or something so I drew on that and sent it too almost an hour later then he acted like cum was a caption for that and had people threaten to doxx me.” This timeline is backed up by the screenshot Cernovich sent me (I’m blacking out the photo of his child):
Now, by any standard of normal behavior, none of this is defensible — it’s counterproductive, gross, and over the line. But those DMs aren’t from Berger, and as an experienced commentator on Gamergate like Cernovich no doubt knows, it’s common for trolls seeking to stoke drama to affect affiliation with groups or people currently engaged in online conflict, and say or do provocative things.
Nevertheless, on Periscope, where he unspooled his theories, Cernovich insisted on connecting what he says is a wave of pedophilic harassment to Berger. Over and over and over. The first video that follows is a highlight reel — for severe lack of a better term — put together by Berger, while the next three offer fuller clips of Cernovich’s rants about Berger.
“They’re connected to this guy,” Cernovich says in the second video, before spelling out Berger’s handle twice. “Stuff like this won’t intimidate me,” he insists, “but they might be harming children, right? They might be going after vulnerable people. They’re not going to get to me, get to me, bother me, I’m very conscientious about that. But who knows what the hell they’re doing? Do they live in a school zone? Are they around children ever?” At one point, he points the camera at Berger’s profile and says “So this is the guy, you know, thinks it’s funny — hahaha, cum, baby — you know.” The video is something of a call to arms: “We need to monitor these people, go through all of their notifications, find out what’s going on, who these people are, what their connections are.” Cernovich even suggests that Berger himself could be operating the accounts that are tormenting him. “We’re definitely going to bring the full resources that I have available to me — private investigator and everything — and investigate these people,” he assures his viewers. “Find out their backgrounds. There’s something going on.”
Cernovich is no dummy. He’s been a social-media personality and men’s rights commentator for long enough to know that a call to “investigate” a group of people has a completely different valence than Berger’s more tongue-in-cheek exhortation for his followers to ask Cernovich to unblock him. But in the videos, Cernovich repeatedly insists this is more than just standard troll wars: “This isn’t, Oh, I got trolled, I got trolled, they got me. This isn’t about me — this is about, are these people ever around children? Are they ever around children and those are the types of questions that we need to ask. Who are his friends? Who are Vic’s friends? Do they all know that he is surrounding himself with pedophiles? That’s what we gotta know, that’s definitely what we gotta know.” There is, of course, no evidence Berger is “surrounding himself with pedophiles,” and even this is a serious accusation, but Cernovich doesn’t let that stop him.
All the videos and tweets had their inevitable effect: A wave of people attacked Berger as a pedophile. “I’d say at least 200 - 300 tweets,” he said in an email. “It was a lot. These tweets were people calling me a pedo, threatening me, asking me to ‘prove I’m not a pedo,’ death threats and people saying they hoped I was killed, people mocking me and laughing at me for being upset that Cernovich was calling me a pedo, people saying they have my home address, people telling me they’d be hacking my website and so on. I got messages on Facebook, Instagram, my email, YouTube comments on my channel, some guy made a Craigslist ad in my name as if I were looking for sex.”
Berger wrote that as for “actual death threats, I’d say 4 or 5 that legitimately worried me. I count the one where he said he’s going to stab me in the eyes so I should watch my back as a death threat. I got a few ‘watch your back, pedo’ messages. Some guy told me he can’t wait until I end up dead under a bridge.”
Cernovich, meanwhile, maintains that Berger is the aggressor. In one of his emails to me, he said that Berger had @-mentioned Cernovich after Cernovich had blocked him, “in violation of Twitter’s TOS.” But in actuality there’s no mention of the word block or any of its variants in the Twitter terms of service. In emails to Berger, Cernovich also pointed out that someone had doxxed him, albeit at an old address, and has demanded Berger no longer @-mention him and only contact him via his lawyer. “I currently view you as a threat to myself and my family,” one email concludes, “as your followers have sent me pedophile messages and attempted to ‘dox’ me.” Cernovich also sent me another email on Sunday in which he complained about my “dishonest” tweeting. “Do forward our email to NY Mag’s legal department,” he wrote. “It’s time for adults to talk about this, as you clearly are not one.” I genuinely didn’t understand why he was asking me to forward our correspondence to lawyers, so I didn’t do it — but in light of his mention of lawyers, I sent a request for comment not to Cernovich, but to his attorney. Neither Cernovich nor his attorney responded. Earlier this week, Cernovich posted a Periscope video with the title “When is someone responsible for what his or her fans do?”
Berger, meanwhile, now has to deal with the reality that a corner of the internet — a corner whose members tend not to score strongly in the critical-thinking department — thinks he may be involved in a pedophile ring. He said his employer, the online video network Super Deluxe, recognized that the hit to his image may reflect back on the company and has taken his concerns seriously. Berger also said he had his lawyer send a letter to Cernovich asking him to stop implying he is a pedophile.
In one sense, this exchange highlights the total-war ethos of the alt-right. Think of how this all went down: Berger said Mike Cernovich is an idiot — go tweet annoying things at him. Oh, and here’s a video of him cut with fart noises. LOL. Cernovich, in response, launched an “investigation” into whether Berger is maybe part of a sprawling online pedophilia network. The two sides were not operating on the same level, and that’s a microcosm for how these fights have gone down in general. Cernovich and Berger were both, to be fair, hit with online abuse as a result of the spat, but only one side was hit with the sort of abuse that can do real damage to one’s career and reputation.
Perhaps more important, this incident demonstrates, in a rather disturbing manner, just how easy it is these days for anyone with a big audience to, well, Pizzagate someone they don’t like. Pizzagate’s disseminators conjured, out of thin air, an insane conspiracy theory from fragmentary “clues” that only extremely conspiracy-addled people could construe as evidence of a giant pedophilia ring run by some of the most powerful people in the country.
On the internet, there’s never a shortage of conspiracy-addled people. So Cernovich did the same thing to Berger — he Pizzagated him. He just repeated outrageous half-truths and innuendo over and over and over and over, likely knowing that eventually, his viewers and readers would start to believe them. We seem to have reached a point where anyone with a big enough microphone can make up anything about anyone, and some people will believe it. Some of those people, terrifyingly, will have guns.
Cernovich, for his part, just can’t seem to shake his fixation on the pedophile ring that his fertile imagination had birthed:
So you can bet there are more tweets and videos and blog posts to come. Given that we’ve already seen one instance of gunfire discharged inside a pizzeria as a result of the conspiracy theories Cernovich has helped to spread, it feels safe to say that, eventually, someone is going to get hurt.