Milo Yiannopoulos, the far-right website Breitbart’s formerly Twitter-verified, possibly-44-intern-having troll, is in the midst of his “Dangerous Faggot” college tour (he has given his straight readers permission to use this slur, and if you poke around at his fans’ social-media presences, they enjoy taking advantage of this opportunity). At college after college, university after university, he is telling packed halls full of primarily white and primarily male student fans of his what they want to hear: It is time to fight back against the feminists and social-justice warriors and diversity-mongers who control the world both behind the scenes and in the halls of academia.
Yiannopoulos is, by design, an infuriating figure. He thrives off attention and reaction to his constant offensive remarks. But if you can set that aside — and set aside both his and Breitbart’s numerous ethical and journalistic lapses — it’s hard not to be impressed at what Breitbart is pulling off in its coverage of this tour. It has created a rich, reinforcing feedback loop of predictable outrage generated by young college students, outraged coverage of that outrage, and, in turn, ever more attention for its most controversial writer.
Here’s how it works: Yiannopoulos goes to a college. He says dumb and offensive trolly things. Students react with outrage and sadness, either during the talk itself or in gatherings afterward. Inevitably, some of them either freak out or burst into tears, because college students are college students. Breitbart and other right-wing outlets then trawl for student-paper coverage, footage of angry students, or both, and then cover these reactions as “proof” that everything Yiannopoulos says about colleges and modern society — something something free-speech SJWs feminazis lesbians — is true.
There has been a steady stream of these stories on Breitbart — every Yiannopoulos stop results in some degree of campus-activist wackiness: “Posters Vandalized, Protest Planned for Milo Yiannopoulos Talk at American University”; “Pitt Students ‘In Tears’ and Feeling ‘Unsafe’ After Milo Yiannopoulos Event”; “Rutgers Students Hold Group Therapy Session After Milo Yiannopoulos Visit”; “Milo Mocks Student Protesters Who Claim His Presence Is a ‘Threat to Their Physical Safety’ at UMass.” The student meltdowns bring Yiannopoulos and his tour more coverage, bringing out more attendees, bringing out more protesters, increasing the likelihood of confrontations and meltdowns, increasing the likelihood of coverage of the outrage, etc.
This dynamic was on full display Monday night at UMass Amherst, where Yiannopoulos shared the stage with Christina Hoff Sommers and Steven Crowder during a talk that was frequently interrupted by jeering protesters. For Yiannopoulos’s speaking segment, he got up, made a joke about being fabulous and — in response to an accusation that he is racist that was shouted from the crowd — having sex with black guys, and then entered into his prepared remarks: “Feminism is cancer.” Then he sat back down.
This enraged some in the already volatile crowd, and Sommers, who spoke next, tried to calm things down. “What Milo meant to say,” she started, launched into an attempt at a more nuanced treatment of the subject, and then turning to Milo: “Right, Milo?” “No, I meant that it was cancer,” he responded, egging on the protesters further. (“I am here to provide some adult supervision,” Sommers said at one point of the 30-something man sitting to her left.)
Here’s where video shot by Campus Reform — I don’t want to link to it for reasons I’ll explain — comes in. It shows a young female college student who is very, very upset by what’s going on: She shouts out things like “Keep your hate speech out of this campus!” She comes across as extremely angry. She is, well, a young person overcome with emotion. Anyone who has been that age can relate. But it’s 2016, and kids no longer have the luxury of being kids once social media intrudes.
Now she’s an unwitting “star.” The Campus Reform video has been watched 850,000 times. There was a post about her on the Rebel, a right-wing blog. If you search for “Umass protester” on twitter, you can find a couple blog posts in which she is identified. Yiannopoulos decided to tweet to his 200,000-plus followers a link to one of those posts, written by someone who found what appears to be her online dating profile: “If you show up to one of my events and make a spectacle out of yourself, chances are someone will know who you are!” Conservative Twitterers have dubbed her “Trigglypluff,” a combination of the name of a rotund Pokemon— she is overweight — and “triggered,” and as I write this the #trigglypuff hashtag is being tweeted at least once every few minutes. She is in for weeks or more of harassment for the crime of being a young college student who got upset during an era of ubiquitous cameras and social media inexhaustible appetite for people to ridicule.
Her loss is Breitbart’s gain, though — from the site’s point of view, this is exactly the sort of content that boosts Yiannopoulos and the website itself, that uses outlier examples to “prove” that Yiannopoulos’s message is important and meaningful. Every time some random college student melts down, it creates a wave of attention for a guy who doesn’t actually, if you listen to his addresses, really say anything. There just aren’t that many healthy, normal adults who would bother engaging with a sentiment like “Feminism is cancer.” But because of the unfortunate feeling in certain progressive circles that an offense like this must be swiftly and vociferously responded to, rather than ignored — and the unfortunately common belief among a small subset of activists that offensive speech does real psychological harm, and therefore must be fought tooth and nail — Yiannopoulos can create endless smoke despite a lack of much actual fire.
This is all basically a different version of the Irrelevant-GIF Outrage Cycle I wrote about yesterday. There have always been overwrought college students, so the fact that today we can capture their overwroughtness on cell phones (and then, you know, humiliate them indefinitely) doesn’t actually tell us anything — the actual empirical case that college kids today are more coddled or psychologically troubled than ever before is highly overstated. But for Breitbart viewers and Yiannopoulos fans, it’s a fact that SJW wackiness has taken over academia, and that college students are all whiny little “snowflakes,” and that it’s time for a reckoning, for some aggressive pushback from the steely-eyed rationalists aiming to stand athwart history, yelling, uh, “Feminism is cancer.” This cycle is just going to go on and on and on, fueled endlessly by overreaction and overreaction to overreaction. This could be a long tour.