I should open this piece by saying that I don’t agree with Mike Cernovich. I’m not saying that to disavow his views out of political correctness, I’m just saying it because it’s true. Politically, we do not agree. We’ve had words a few times on Twitter and when I went to contact him for this interview, I actually discovered that I’d blocked him and forgotten about it. But deciding to interview him for this column had nothing to do with agreeing with Mike and a lot more to do with curiosity.
How does a self-published author of self-improvement books and former lawyer build a Twitter audience that can do as many as 100 million impressions in a month? How does someone with no direct affiliation with any political party create a hashtag that was used by the Republican nominee for president and the Green Party nominee? Why did the New Yorker decide to profile him and why does their headline call him a “Troll for Trump?” Is he actually a troll or has he just figured out the media better than many ‘professionals’ and is now using it for his own agenda?
Instead of speculating about these questions or judging from afar, I prefer just to ask. Why not? You don’t get infected when you interact with someone you disagree with—or have at times found obnoxious or offensive. In fact, you can usually learn something. Specifically: what makes them tick and how they do what they do (the latter being the most important).
With that, I’d like to present my interview with the notorious Mike Cernovich, whose alt-right videos, tweets, blog posts and books have made him a new breed of media figure. He’s not an official cable news campaign surrogate, he’s not a pundit, but he’s more than just a troll. He has a real audience. What he produces can have real impact—not always directly, but when filtered through the media system it reaches people who are totally unaware of the source or the way in which news can spread. Nor is he the only one of his kind—on all sides of the spectrum, there are individuals like Mike, shaping what we read, setting the Overton Window in our political debate, stirring things up and laughing (and profiting) as we freak out about it. Which is why you should study how and why he does what he does.
Tell us a bit about who you are and how you see yourself. Are you an author? A political operator? An agitator? An activist? A pundit? A troll? A marketer? All of the above? How did your unique position as a media figure and public personality come to be?
My identity is based around being a writer. I can’t not write. It’s a compulsion. Every day I write about whatever is on my mind, and that’s what complicates the story.
People who read Gorilla Mindset can’t believe some of the political stuff or edgy Tweets I write. There’s no unifying brand about me other than I’m a writer who shares my thoughts. Sometimes my thoughts are designed to help people, and other times my thoughts are designed to change the political system and challenge those who need a good fight.
Before a long road trip in the late 90s, I stopped by Barnes & Noble. At the time I was “depressed” or “lost” in that existential, angsty sort of way. I found How to Stop Worrying and Start Living by Dale Carnegie in the audiobook section. That book changed my life. I thought to myself, “I’d always like to write a book that will change someone’s life.”
What is your story or the story of anyone else? You likely help your friends while also feeling jealous of others. There’s resentment, hope, fear, anger, and a desire to make a difference on the world.
None of us are good or evil, and that frustrates us because we want to see others as wearing a white hat or black hat. My hat is grey.
The only difference between me and my critics is that I don’t lie to the world about who I am. People are complicated and often seemingly hypocritical. Embrace the diversity of your mind.
The big knock against the media is that it’s controlled by powerful elites, that it is corporatized or fake. How does a single individual like yourself—with no direct affiliation to any organization or outlet—manage to have an impact? Whether people agree with you or not, I think there is interest in knowing how you’ve managed to create a large platform and have a monthly reach in the nine figures.
Peter Thiel lays out the applicable first principle in his must-read book Zero to One. “If you want to create and capture lasting value, don’t build an undifferentiated commodity business.”
You work in marketing and publishing. What do you tell writers? You tell them to find their own value proposition through differentiation. How do you stand out? Be different.
Most media is the same. If you read WaPo, then you don’t need to read the New York Times. If you read BuzzFeed, you don’t need to read Vox or Gawker or Vice. You’re going to be served up the same generic slop.
If 90% of mainstream media went away, no one would notice. You’d have fewer sites to visit, but you’d still read the same stories. You’d read the story one time rather than re-worded 100 times by 100 “writers.”
Individual writers do not stand out. They have a bylines as “prestigious” publications, but no one goes to those websites for the writer. Most writers today are commodities. They are fungible. There’s a surplus of 24-year old English majors who all think and write the same.
One of America’s only original thinkers is Naval [Ravikant]. He observed, “The Internet commoditized the distribution of facts. The “news” media responded by pivoting wholesale into opinions and entertainment.”
He is almost exactly right, with this caveat.
Commentary is a commodity because everyone is following the same script. The left and right each have their own scripts. I follow my own script.
When people come to my Twitter or read my blog, they see a direct challenge to the dominant narrative. I currently have a near-monopoly on “anti-media.”
If random guy or girl who writes for Business Insider or the Daily Beast stopped writing, would anyone notice? Maybe for a day or two, if they happened to be friends.
One of the things I’ve written about in the past is this concept of how stories are traded up the chain. They start on Twitter or reddit or a random blog and then make their way to bigger and bigger outlets until eventually it’s a national story or a known fact. Have stories or hashtags you’ve started followed that trajectory? Can you give us some examples? Is it something you consciously think about or try to do?
What I do on Twitter could be understood at the latest iteration of your groundbreaking work in Trust Me, I’m Lying. You created news cycle by feeding stories to bloggers desperate for page views. Your methods differed from mine but the principle is the same.
What is a news cycle and how do we control them? I obsess over that question daily, and one lesson learned is that a trending hashtag is newsworthy in itself.
I learned that lesson from the dishonest left. If five people on Twitter post some hashtag opposing “white male patriarchy,” then BuzzFeed writes it up as, “The Internet Totally Exploded on Evil White Men Today!”
Look at the Tweets cited in that “news” story, and you’ll often see the top tweet getting 100 RTs – which is for me an ordinary Tweet.
I thus realized that to create news we had to create hashtags that would trend worldwide on Twitter. Me and my readers and viewers created several. Both Jill Stein and Donald Trump have posted to hashtags we started, including #WheresHillary.
When you say that “Conflict is attention” and “Attention is influence” what do you mean by that? As a media strategy, what does that look like? That one seeks out ideas that are likely to provoke strong emotions? Does it help to believe those things or does that matter? That one should take a combative approach instead of a measured one? How does pure attention lead to action and influence?
Allow Dana White to explain: “If you take four street corners, and on one they are playing baseball, on another they are playing basketball and on the other, street hockey. On the fourth corner, a fight breaks out. Where does the crowd go? They all go to the fight.”
We all love drama. It’s human nature. Sport, politics, reality TV. Those all meet the same human need. You helped write a book with laws about dramas and spectacles.
I create compelling spectacles using conflict.
Right now the media has a 6% approval rating, and journalists have been caught in several hoaxes. Rather than criticize the New York Times, a big company, I call out the journalist by name. Some call this “bullying,” which is laughable. How can someone with a massive platform at the New York Times be a helpless victim? The real victims are people the media lies about, like Justine Sacco.
I certainly see controversy as an underrated strategy. Most people are afraid of it—brands don’t want to get complaints, public figures are afraid of backlash or complicated issues, etc—and so the people that can push through controversy often reap big gains very quickly. Trump has certainly been an example of it—for most of the election, he was anti-fragile. The controversies almost made him stronger. But I’m curious, do you think there limits to these strategies? Do you worry that there is some vulnerability in your own approach—that at some point it could stop making you stronger and suddenly lead to a reversal (not unlike what happened with the Trump tapes)? Is there stuff that you regret or wouldn’t do again?
I have developed a code of honor. I don’t go after “civilians” or nobodies.
You are a soldier. You have a big platform, you write for a living, you are in the game. Heck you even called me an idiot or something on Twitter, an unprovoked attack. I thought it was funny and we went back-and-forth. I didn’t feel like you “bullied” me, because you didn’t.
However I will not write about nobodies. A recent example is Ken Bone. The media humiliated that poor man by publishing his porn-watching habits. Why? Do they have no decency?
I find it fascinating that people criticize me for being “too mean” to famous people and people with huge platforms. Meanwhile those same people use their platforms to attack people like Ken Bone and Justine Sacco.
The media is full of bullies. Anyone who has a problem with me should search their own Twitter history. They did join the Justine Sacco hate mob? Have they tried getting people fired over a Tweet? Did they link to articles discussing Ken Bone’s porn habits? If so, they can keep their mouths shut about me. (Or not, they are of course free to criticize me. But they had better be away they do so not from a high horse – they are right on the battlefield with me.)
[Ed note: I followed up with Mike about the second part of the question and this was his extended answer]
“Vulnerability” is an interesting concept with a lot of layers. The glib answer is that I’m an anti-fragile author of Gorilla Mindset and MAGA Mindset, and thus all negative attention could convert into new readers. That ignores deeper issues.
Social shaming has been used throughout human history because it works. It took me a long time to be able to laugh at the attacks, but I will be honest – It feels pretty crappy when what seems like the entire Internet is lying about you. Most people are vulnerable to these attacks, and it takes time to learn how to reframe them as a positive. (For every hater, there are 10 people paying attention who don’t comment, just as most of us never write positive letters when we receive a good customer experience. We as people tend to speak up mostly to complain.)
As a lawyer defamation lawsuits concern me, I live in California, however, which has strong anti-SLAPP protections. We need a nationwide anti-SLAPP law to protect free speech, and I will not live in a state lacking an anti-SLAPP law.
My articles are fact-checked due to lawsuit risk, and I’ve passed on some good stories (which turned out to be true) as I wasn’t able to fact-check them.
I am socially vulnerable as well. There have been articles written about people who “like” my Tweets. The media does this to socially isolate me. Most “respectable” people are afraid to associate with me openly, as they don’t want to deal with the fallout from having the online hate mobs, unleashed by the bullying media, that results from being my friend.
Right now my reputation and relationship to readers are my main focus. As Warren Buffett said, “It takes 20 years to build a reputation and five minutes to ruin it. If you think about that, you’ll do things differently.” I don’t spread hoaxes. People may not *agree* with that I write, but it’s earnest and sincere – and in the case of Hillary Clinton’s health, usually on target.
As social media and crowd-funding and self-publishing allows writers to go direct to the readers, it doesn’t matter to me what the “media elite” think about me. I don’t like them, they don’t like me, and besides – media coverage doesn’t sell books. Blogs, Twitter, YouTube, and podcasts sell books. I am accountable to my readers.
“The people” love me, despite or perhaps because of hoaxing media attacks on me. The best way to take me out would be to send me a hoax story. Despite the conspiracy theories about me, I fact-check what people send to avoid being hoaxed (or sued).
Also, as my profile has grown, people see my tactics change. A little empathy goes a long way. Because of my reach, I can make someone e-famous for a few minutes or longer. Unless someone seeks me out (in which case I assume they want the attention), I avoid people who may not want attention.
I may seem mean online, but I am mean to people who work in the media – the same people who are mean to others for a living. They simply call themselves “journalists” and dismiss all critics as “trolls.” Journalism is trolling, full stop.
Those who give attention to others deserve to have attention brought on them. I will continue doing “journalism on journalists” and have some exciting ventures along those lines planned in 2017.
You’re a big fan of Twitter and of live video on places like Facebook and Periscope. I think most technologists have started to see Twitter as a flawed or stagnant platform, and they maybe think live video is up and coming but not arrived yet. Do you agree? Disagree? What’s your take on these platforms?
Live video is the future of journalism. Soon we will have drones with GoPros on them doing “reality journalism.” The RNC and DNC both banned drones or else I’d have done that.
Marc Andreessen has said that being “too soon” is as bad as being “too late.” Live media is too soon, which is why Twitter is losing money.
Twitter lacks business focus. Twitter is not a social media platform. It’s part talk radio, part live news coverage, part political commentary. Twitter needs to be streamlined with those business focuses in mind.
What’s your media diet look like? Is there anything you’ve learned making the sausage (so to speak) that has changed what you will and won’t eat?
Most of what the liberal media does is outright hoaxing. We’ve gone from a world where journalists are biased to a world where journalists fabricate stories, as Sabrina Erdely and Rolling Stone did.
Independent voices from both sides appeal to me. If you don’t lie about the facts, your views won’t offend me. It’s America, people disagree, no big deal.
It’s hilarious to me that those who accuse people of being “basement dwelling trolls” never leave their neighborhoods to attend a Trump or Clinton rally. They were nowhere to be found during the many massive protests at the DNC.
I have a lot of respect for Michael Tracey, who is a liberal. He tells the truth (as he sees it) about everyone. He isn’t a shill for the establishment.
Traditional media hates on Breitbart, but I attended the RNC and DNC. Breitbart had reporters in the field providing coverage. Where were the New York Times and other “legitimate” publications? They were inside the media tents drinking hot chocolate and sucking up to each other.
It may also come as a surprise to many to learn that I respect Glenn Greenwald, even though he’d likely disavow me or call me odious or something.
There is a shortage of real journalism. Most of the “conservative media” does is churnalism – jabbering about what the “liberal media” wrote.
Ryan Holiday is the best-selling author of Trust Me, I’m Lying: Confessions of a Media Manipulator. Ryan is an editor-at-large for the Observer, and you can subscribe to his posts via email. He lives in Austin, Texas.
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