I first heard of Peter Young when a reporter at the Daily Dot asked me if I was somehow involved in 2013’s “Ex-Vegans” stunt in which dozens of former vegans were exposed for having eaten meat. After dominating the media cycle for several days, the surprise left hook of the campaign landed: All the traffic and inbound links were redirected to footage of appalling slaughterhouse conditions. Hundreds of thousands of people were unwittingly exposed to the very unpleasantness that media attempts to shield from them.
I’m not a vegan, and I had nothing to do with the campaign—but I do have a lot of respect for its brilliance and execution and for the fact that it reveals a salient fact about our times. Today’s media system is a bit like an emperor with no clothes. Peter Young resembles nothing so much as Mathew Carpenter, the man who recently turned a stunt about shipping glitter to your enemies into $100,000. They both understand intuitively how the media works and have used it repeatedly to advance their interests. While they did what they did for very different reasons, I learned that they’d both read my book, Trust Me, I’m Lying, and it had influenced their actions.
I thought I would interview Mr. Young because he recently ran another campaign of media manipulation, in this case intended to reveal and expose problems with the TSA watch list (a system which he is intimately familiar with since he is, in fact, on it). In less than eight hours, his blog—which he had constructed entirely for the purposes of getting attention—was picked up places like Boing Boing, Techdirt and Forbes. And now he’s ready to explain exactly what he does to advance his ideology and how it works in today’s online-driven culture. He assures me the answers below and the stories on his site are 100 percent true. I’ll leave it to you whether or not you want to trust him.
“The unspoken conspiracy that you speak of, that exists between journalists and those seeking publicity is very real. If you have a story that provokes—real or not—they have the time. Give them the promise of traffic and a little plausible denial and you’re in.”
So tell us, are you really on the TSA watch list and how did that happen?
In 1998, I was charged with Animal Enterprise Terrorism for my role in freeing foxes and mink from fur farms. This amounted to cutting fences and opening cages at six farms. Under the weight of an 82-year maximum sentence, I became a fugitive for seven years, lived under several aliases, and was arrested at a Starbucks in 2005. I served two years in prison.
Because of the “terrorist” label, in the years since I’ve had my house raided by the FBI twice, been named as suspect in several animal liberations, found laptops with dead batteries fully charged when removed from storage a year later (do the math), had my garbage stolen by the authorities, and learned a woman who took me on trip to Moab was working for the FBI.
Of it all, the TSA attention is among the least intrusive.
Now, how does that differ from what was reported in the media and what you put up on your blog? Is there any part of the record you can clear up for us?
Before my anonymity as “the jetsetting terrorist” was compromised by Forbes, I described the crime that put me on the TSA’s watch list as an “activist-related property crime.” Animals are considered property in the eyes of the law, so this was accurate. As for the rest: It wouldn’t be possible to untangle all the misinformation reported in the media and elsewhere over the years. I can’t complain. I probably planted half of it anyway.
[Editor Note: From what Mr. Young told me when he originally reached out, he created the blog, uploaded the posts, then backdated them so it seemed older and more organic. And until this article was published, no outlet doubted the intentions/legitimacy of the blog.]
Tell us how and why you decided to make this something the media would pounce on? What did you do? How did it work? How much traffic /attention did it get?
The Jetsetting Terrorist was launched with the stated goal of going mainstream within two weeks. It took about eight hours. The specific end-goal was The Alex Jones Show. While culturally considered fringe, he has a larger platform than most websites and TV shows. And he hates the TSA. (Spoiler alert: Alex has yet to call me.)
My blueprint—straight from your Trust Me, I’m Lying playbook—was as follows:
- Set up an anonymous burner email account.
- Identify people (leftist/libertarian-leaning celebrities and public figures) with large Twitter followings, get their personal email addresses.
- Email them a link to the site and a two-line email about how this is the best site ever and how “surprised” I am they haven’t tweeted it yet. Pretty simple.
- Trade it up the chain until hitting something big.
- Leverage my anonymity to offer Alex Jones the exclusive on my identity reveal, for an interview.
Why Twitter? Better credibility-to-ease-of-penetration ratio. Here’s what I mean:
Writing a blog post is a time investment. Bloggers are selective of what they dedicate a post to. A prolific blogger might post once or twice a day. A Tweet is copy, paste, done. A prolific Twitter user might post on Twitter 20-plus times a day. But for the purpose of leveraging mentions to receive larger mentions, they are the same: A single tweet has a unique URL that can be sent to larger platforms needing some social proof before running a story. In short, baiting John Cusack into tweeting a link is lower-effort, higher-yield than coverage on a low-level libertarian blog.
I didn’t have to go far. Within a few hours of going live, I (anonymously) sent a link to Sean Bonner. Sean and I had spoken at the same conference once and met afterwards. I was a fan of his email newsletter, and he had a decent Twitter following. More importantly: He was a former contributor to Boing Boing.
As a major driver of virality, Boing Boing was a prized target. Going through a current contributor was like storming the gates. Going through a former contributor was sneaking in the back door. Sean tweeted it within minutes. With the anonymous burner account, I sent a link to the tweet to Cory Doctorow at Boing Boing. A few hours later, it was on Boing Boing.
From there I set up 10 more burner accounts and carpet-bombed the Internet with this email:
This is on the front page of Boing Boing right now but they just did a weak copy/paste job. Would like to see ____ cover this properly.
A white hipster writes hilarious stories about TSA encounters, and flying while on the terrorist watch list. Too good.
The author is anonymous, but worth a try.
I sent this to exactly 103 journalists. I tweaked it slightly to appeal to specific targets. My approach was not scattershot. The majority of emails were sent to journalists who had previously covered the TSA or other civil liberties issues. If done right, you’re adding value to the journalist. It is an equitable exchange.
Immediately thereafter, Forbes contacted me for an interview. In a follow up email, the reporter stated she had done a reverse-lookup of my cell number and determined my real identity. The story—outing me as “the jetsetting terrorist”—ran the following week, bringing attention to both the TSA and the bigger issue of classifying a broad segment of the population as “terrorists.”
Creating the site and content took three days. And it was methodically crafted to maximize virality.
The elements were:
Anonymity: Mystique is powerful.
It’s never been done: With so much talk about the TSA, no one had gone quite as public with their experiences on the TSA’s terrorist watch list.
Awesome content: There’s no shortcut here. I have a background as a writer, and while I wrote with haste, I put care into maximizing the impact of the prose. A collection of generic and poorly written TSA stories would have gone nowhere.
Riding the wave of an ongoing conversation: Controversy over the TSA was a regular part of the public debate. There was a pent up demand for a new angle on an increasingly stale subject.
Solid tagline: “I’m a convicted terrorist. I travel a lot. And the TSA won’t leave me alone. This is my diary of traveling as a marked man.” I spent a lot of time crafting that.
Going hipster: The original “about me” sidebar read “How a jetsetting hipster became a jetsetting hipster terrorist.” While subtle, portraying myself as a “hipster” was in all likelihood the determining factor in making this viral. When you get “terrorist,” “jetsetter,” and “hipster” in one place, It’s too absurd to not spread. You’re clicking that link. (This was, by the way, the only part I changed when my identity was revealed. Calling myself a “hipster” just isn’t accurate. And no one uses that word self-referentially.)
A powerful narrative: There are 1,000 ways to tell the same story. I put effort into maximizing chances of this getting picked up by utilizing timeless literary narratives, accentuating the underdog effect, the reluctant hero, and (subtle) revenge themes.
Niching down: The original plan was “The Hipster Terrorist”—anonymous (and 100 percent true) stories from a convicted “terrorist” documenting the humorous side-effects of life under the “terrorist” label. From stories about awkward dinner-table conversation when meeting a girlfriend’s parents, to the baristas at the Starbucks I frequent googling my name (hilarity ensues). While this would be a great blog (and a book I’ll probably write soon), it lacked any timely discussion to piggyback on. Niching down to the TSA was clearly the right move.
Before this, you manipulated the media with a stunt to drive attention to conditions in slaughterhouses and factory farms. Why do you feel justified in essentially tricking or circumventing the news process in order to get your message across? Is this something you think more advocates should do?
The game plan for The Vegan Sellout List was this:
- Launch a site that allowed people to anonymously submit the names and photos of former vegans, and the story behind their rise and fall from veganism.
- Pre-populate the list with 100 former vegans who have a platform (from celebrities to ex-vegans with high-traffic blogs).
Email all 100 with a link to their entry on the site, and bait them into mentioning it in a blog post or Tweet.
- Concurrently, generate buzz in the vegan blogosphere.
- Parlay all of this to successively bigger blogs, until it hit a huge site that generated serious traffic.
- Pull a bait-and-switch, forcing visitors to watch a video of slaughterhouse footage before entering.
“The Vegan Sellout List” was what the Internet craved: Offensive, provocative, shameless, and impossible not to have an opinion on. From launch the goal was Gawker. We would consider it a success if we hit Gawker. (We spent a considerable amount of time trying to identify writers at Gawker who were former vegans to provoke coverage by making it personal, without success. Gawker ran the story in under three weeks anyway.)
Our plan worked a little too well. We’d given ourselves a two-month window to build a buzz before getting it mainstream. It hit top-tier outlets like Fox News in under three weeks. When the traffic explosion hit, we weren’t prepared. It came so fast and at such volume, it crashed the server. The aborted plan was to utilize a plugin to compel a video view before entering, and with a crashed server the only remaining option was a URL redirect. We sent hundreds of thousands of people to a third-party site that autoplayed a graphic video titled “Meet Your Meat.”
In end, the results were massive: At least 200,000 people baited into getting their first glimpse inside a slaughterhouse. The Vegan Sellout List was vindicated by the results it achieved.
I have friends working for nonprofits who travel in vans to college campuses all year asking people to watch two minutes of slaughterhouse footage. On a good day, they reach 200 people. This is important and noble work. But consider that the Vegan Sellout List may have sent over 1,000 times as many people to the same footage for three days work. Even if only 10 percent of visitors watched the video, this is an incredible return on my time investment.
Everyone doing advocacy work owes it to their message to get acquainted with the concept of leverage, and ways to increase the impact of each unit of effort exponentially. As I asserted in my original statement on this stunt: Before this stunt, most vegans believed the temperature in Hell would have to hit 32 degrees before FoxNews.com would ever send tens (or hundreds) of thousands of their readers directly to graphic slaughterhouse footage. Regarding why these methods are justified: While the lines are increasingly blurred, I apply two different ethical equations to bloggers vs. journalists.
Bloggers: On the Internet, being vocally “offended” is the new “look at me I’m cool.” It’s like being 12 and putting a playing card in your bike spokes. I’ve met many of the bigger bloggers in the vegan space. Most of them are awesome people. A few of the more drama-centric ones are clearly acting out their own demons. Like, they couldn’t get a date in high school (or now), and it’s payback time. (To be fair, this is my take on a large swath of the Internet, and is not vegan-specific.) This is exactly the type of person The Vegan Sellout List was designed to agitate for traffic. If you’ve built a career around creating—or spreading—fake drama, then you’re fair game.
Regarding larger online media, it’s a more delicate equation. However in this instance it was simple: If they consider a list of former vegans to be “news,” they’ve forfeited all journalistic integrity and have left themselves wide, wide open.They’re for-profit businesses. I have a message. We’re both dealing in the traffic economy. In this instance, I just happen to beat them at their own game.
What have you learned about the media and its inner-workings from your campaign?
The unspoken conspiracy that you speak of, that exists between journalists and those seeking publicity is very real. If you have a story that provokes—real or not—they have the time. Give them the promise of traffic and a little plausible denial and you’re in. I’ve received tremendous insights from Trust Me, I’m Lying and your Creative Live course. I got to work on The Jetsetting Terrorist the day after finishing the latter. Your point that there is a harmony of interests between journalists and those who wish to hack the media is very powerful, and has proven true.
I’ve also learned that a big part of your playbook (i.e. manufacturing controversy to generate publicity) is given a nitro boost when executed in the activist realm.
I have to be careful here because it’s clear whose side I’m usually on, but there’s a small segment who are attracted to social movements because … let’s just say they have an emotional agenda. To use your term, they’re “rage profiteers,” reveling in the drama economy. And I’ve been the hidden hand instigating them for a greater good more times than I would admit. The best case study in this (which I had nothing to do with) was the recent “controversy” around a vegan cookbook titled Thug Kitchen. If you ever do a Trust Me, I’m Lying update, you have to get this in there. Thug Kitchen was an anonymous vegan blog, where vegan recipes were written in cartoonish “thug” language. It was funny, the blog became popular, and the (anonymous) authors got a book deal.
Weeks before the book’s release, the authors revealed their identity. Surprise: They were two attractive white people from Los Angeles. Within days, several small anarchist blogs were buzzing in outrage accusing the authors of “cultural appropriation” and “digital blackface” and calling for a boycott. They announced (and eventually delivered) protests at book signings. This went up the chain like wildfire, and hit Vice just before the book’s release. That was four months ago. It’s been the best-selling vegan cookbook on Amazon ever since.
I have no knowledge of whether this controversy was real or manufactured. But if the latter, it followed a recipe that couldn’t fail:
- Take a target appetizing to leftist and politically radical bloggers (attractive, white, sporty vegans).
- Assign to them some perceived misconduct that fits into one of the top three categories of Internet scandal (in this instance: racism).
- Seed excitable elements of the blogosphere with the fake scandal.
If I were the invisible puppet master orchestrating this, I would know that only 0.02 percent of people will be genuinely offended by the Thug Kitchen authors being white. But another 60 percent will feign outrage to look cool. And just about everyone else will quietly nod their heads in agreement for fear of being labeled racists themselves.
And what do the authors care? They get six-figures in free publicity. The anarchists get their flavor-of-the-week drama. Win-win.
Why should we believe you? This a question I get a lot myself—to which my answer is: Why should I lie? Lying was keeping it a secret—but I am curious to hear your thoughts. Obviously some people would say you undermine the credibility of the cause with these tactics.
My response is: What’s in it for me? I don’t have clients (cows in slaughterhouses don’t pay), and I don’t take credit (I was outed in both instances we’re discussing. This would be a longer interview if we got into the stunts I haven’t been caught for). If anyone has a point they think defeats the message that animals are exploited (or that the TSA targets people based on their politics), then by all means lay your evidence on the table.
But attacking a message’s delivery device and suggesting it undermines the message itself is the work of someone who lacks an argument. Credibility is everything, particularly when you’re the bearer of a message people don’t want to hear. Much different than artists, whose position I envy. When you’re an artist, there is virtually nothing that can harm your reputation.
Most media tends to be good media. With advocacy, it’s much more delicate. You have to honor the facts at all costs. The Vegan Sellout List utilized deception of intent, not deception of facts. It was exactly what it purported to be (until the link-redirect): A directory of ex-vegans. The Jetsetting Terrorist was exactly what it claimed: A collection of true stories about a convicted terrorist being harassed by the TSA. I employ Trojan horses, not deception.
Very little I would admit to.
Despite a compelling interview given by my female co-conspirator, it’s looking increasingly unlikely the No. 2 women’s magazine will ever run their “How a one-night stand with a radical vegan turned me into an animal rights activist” story. If it does surface, that was all us. While tasteless, a “sex confessional” is just about the only angle to get a message of substance into a publication like that. On the more frivolous front, an anonymous hip-hop project that will make License To Ill-era Beastie Boys controversy look amateur. And on the advocacy front, the stakes are too high to reveal my hand. But I will continue to provoke thought into our relationship with animals by any means necessary.
Ryan Holiday is an editor-at-large at the New York Observer and author of Trust Me I’m Lying: Confessions of a Media Manipulator.