Last night, someone handed some Columbia Universities protesters a banner and asked them to unfurl it. The protesters, there to express their displeasure that Mike Cernovich, the far-right news figure, had been invited to give a talk by the Columbia University College Republicans, did as they were asked, and before they knew what had happened, they were touting a banner that read:
NO WHITE SUPREMACY
NO PEDO BASHING
NO MIKE CERNOVICH
As Jake Offenhartz recounts in a compelling write-up in the Gothamist, he snapped a photo of the sign and, in the hopes of preventing this stunt from gaining legs, tweeted out that it had been the work of counterdemonstrator tomfoolery:
If you think that that was the end of the story, you haven’t been following the far-right gonzosphere lately. Offenhartz writes:
In quick succession, Cernovich, [Jack] Posobiec and other Alt Right luminaries swiped my photo, sending their own tweets without any mention that the banner was planted. The image was removed from Cernovich’s Twitter once I reported the copyright infringement, though that only fueled the firestorm: Paul Joseph Watson, a writer at InfoWars, then claimed that Twitter was censoring the #NAMBLAANTIFA image. As of this writing, his censorship-alleging tweet has been shared over 12,000 times, and liked by 10,000 people — including Donald Trump Jr.
Naturally, of course, those numbers are now significantly higher:
This is a prime example of effective — sorry — “memetic warfare.” The alt-right understands the current far-right gonzo ecosystem, which doesn’t fact-check at all, and how potent a weapon it can be. Cernovich himself built a big following by understanding these dynamics. As a revealing New Yorker profile of him by Andrew Marantz showed a year ago, he deliberately tries out different sorts of messages — Hillary Clinton is very sick! These “refugees” I saw in Europe weren’t really downtrodden! — with no regard for their truth value, only for how well they will spread, flash flood–like, through the channels and gullies that have been carved out by @PrisonPlanet, Infowars, and Patriot U.S. News Today Now Real Web Site for Truth Definitely America Based. Cernovich and the other most effective purveyors of this garbage know exactly which sorts of outrageous content is most likely to echo — it’s not an accident that Cernovich went after Vic Berger, one of his more persistent internet enemies, by falsely calling him a pedophile late last year.
It’s always been the case that people believe and spread false rumors. It’s a baked-in aspect of human nature. But we’ve reached a point where it would be difficult to accurately grasp and describe the full scope of what has been uncorked by social media. The threshold for fake news to catch on is now so, so low that even a cheap, five-second stunt like the one pro-Cernovich counterdemonstrators pulled off last night can almost instantly launch an international conspiracy theory.
Think about the broader stakes here. This isn’t just about the spread of dumb, bizarre, eminently unbelievable conspiracy theories about liberal college students marching to defend pedophiles. We may be approaching an epistemic breach unlike anything the United States has seen before. What is going to happen when Robert Mueller’s investigation is done? Or when a new Trump scandal, bigger than anything that has previously come out, drops? It may well be the case that an untenably high percentage of the country will not believe any news, no matter how well-supported, that casts their side in an ill light, and will believe any news, no matter how impossible-seeming, that denigrates their ideological enemies. How do you run a country in which 30 or 35 percent of the population believes that Democrats ran a secret child sex ring out of a pizza parlor, that ISIS controls certain towns in the Midwest, and that Columbia students are openly marching in defense of pedophilia? Where does all this madness drag us?