Last night, far-right troll Mike Cernovich spoke at Columbia University in New York City about the rise of alternative media, drawing protesters who oppose his far-right views and past dalliances with white supremacists and the “alt-right.” Later, on Twitter, Cernovich and his troll allies tried to smear the protestors by circulating a picture of a sign that they alleged the protestors were carrying, which featured a logo for a practically defunct pro-pedophilia organization. Many reporters pointed out the sign was likely a plant -- an attention-seeking tactic these right-wing trolls have used in the past to start false narratives, manipulate their audiences, and smear those who oppose them.
Alt right strikes first at Columbia Cernovich event, plants NAMBLA-branded sign in front of protest march pic.twitter.com/IAw6yIeINC
— Jake Offenhartz (@jangelooff) October 30, 2017
The sign in the picture said “no white supremacy, no pedo bashing, no Mike Cernovich” and displayed logos of “antifa” and NAMBLA, which supposedly stands for the North American Man/Boy Love Association. Reporters who have attempted to contact NAMBLA in the past say either that it doesn’t exist anymore or that it has “only a handful of people ostensibly still involved.” Gothamist reporter Jake Offenhartz, who actually took the picture that Cernovich tweeted, mentioned in his original tweet that the sign was an “alt-right” plant. (Twitter apparently took down the photo in Cernovich’s tweet for infringing Offenhartz’s copyright.) An organizer of the protest later told Offenhartz that someone gave the sign to the protesters who held it for a short moment before they realized what it said and ran off the miscreant. Different reporters on Twitter agreed with Offenhartz’s skepticism regarding the authenticity of the sign.
NAMBLA doesn’t exist anymore (trust me; I’ve spent a lot of time looking them up in the last few years). This is a fake sign https://t.co/jQpCU7NqAf
— KatieNotopoulos (@katienotopoulos) October 31, 2017
hmm, where have I seen this bullshit tactic before pic.twitter.com/SpuJuKolPz
— Brendan Karet (@bad_takes) October 31, 2017
But the damage had been done. Right-wing trolls including Jack Posobiec, Infowars’ Paul Joseph Watson, MAGA Meetups Executive Director Will Chamberlain, Proud Boys founder Gavin McInnes, and conspiracy theorist Laura Loomer joined Cernovich in tweeting about the sign, and the narrative quickly reached the president’s son Donald Trump Jr., who liked Cernovich’s tweet. Trump’s love for far-right internet trolls is well-documented.
Pedophilia (or “pedo”) isn’t a new focus for these right-wing trolls, who, along with leading conspiracy theorist Alex Jones, pushed the false “Pizzagate” narrative during the 2016 election, claiming that Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton and her campaign staff operated a child abuse ring from a popular family pizza parlor in Washington, D.C. While Cernovich often presents himself as a warrior against pedophilia on his platforms, he doesn’t seem to mind it as much when it comes from his ally Milo Yiannopoulos, who has defended adult-minor sexual liaisons in the past. Only last week, Cernovich appeared as a guest on Yiannopoulos’ podcast.
Far-right media and trolls have attempted to discredit protesters by linking them to NAMBLA in the past. MAGA (“Make America Great Again”) trolls have also taken a page from this tired playbook and have planted other incendiary fake signs among real protesters before: They reportedly planted a disgusting “rape Melania” sign at a protest in front of the Trump Hotel in Washington, D.C., and he was caught distributing fake flyers thanking lawmakers for protecting “ritual Satanic porn videos” and attributing the flyers to the organizers of the Women’s March.
The strategy of right-wing trolls like Cernovich and his allies is transparent: They make a living out of creating content for their platforms, so it’s beneficial to manipulate their followers into believing false narratives to keep them engaged and outraged. In their need to create a demon for the audience to virulently oppose, they portray protesters and dissidents as monsters who sympathize with horrid things like pedophilia. It makes for compelling targets, which is what made the false “Pizzagate” narrative such a successful conspiracy theory, eventually inspiring a man to self-investigate the matter and open fire at the family restaurant.
Cernovich, who has been trying to pivot toward becoming “more of a journalistic guy,” has also admitted that his approach to the craft isn’t necessarily based on facts but more on eliciting reactions and getting attention. While speaking at a Gateway Pundit gala celebrating the trolls during the White House Correspondents Dinner weekend in May, Cernovich said: “There’s this new form of media now which is part activism and part real journalism. And the way I put it is if there’s nothing happening, make it happen, and a lot of people say, ‘Well, that’s not real journalism. Real journalism is observing things,’ and I don’t really believe that’s true, actually. If you can get on a microphone and say ‘Bill Clinton is a rapist’ -- if the crowd reacts, that’s news.”
The right-wing trolls also have another purpose for pulling the stunt at Columbia University protest: It gives them an opportunity to try to discredit the mainstream media. If media outlets don’t fall for the stunt and refuse to cover it, the trolls can portray them as sympathetic to pedophilia. If outlets do cover the stunt uncritically -- as pro-Trump outlets like Infowars do -- these trolls can also claim victory. In fact, Cernovich is already doing exactly that.