CLEVELAND — Milo Yiannopoulos, the Breitbart Tech editor and fringe right provocateur, threw a party at a venue near last night’s Republican National Convention. He kicked off his appearance at the party with a speech, which began with a minor striptease: He tore off a bulletproof vest, revealing a tight-fitting T-shirt emblazoned with a rainbow Uzi and the slogan “we shoot back” (Milo is gay, and fairly militant about it).
What was the first thing he said? “I just got banned from Twitter!”
Indeed he had. Late on Tuesday night, the social media platform announced that Yiannopoulos had been permanently removed from their service. The cause was a wave of unbelievably vicious online harassment directed at Ghostbusters actress Leslie Jones — harassment that, according to most observers, was kicked off by Milo highlighting Jones’s account to his followers.
I caught up with Milo after his party, in a loading dock where he was smoking a cigarette with several members of his entourage. In our conversation, he sounded surprisingly upbeat about being banned from the platform he’s best known for using.
“Is anything more wonderful than getting banned? Are you insane?” Milo asks me, rhetorically. “My life is more fun now, and it’s about to get a lot more fun.”
It’s hard to tell if he actually thinks this or if he’s just putting on a brave face for the press. In fact, it’s always hard to tell with Milo — he quite openly admits that his ethos is in part performance art.
“I perform totally differently on different platforms, depending on what works. It’s always the same message, but it’s a different style,” he explains.
The key word there, though, is “platforms.” Milo’s ambitions are grand: He wants to mobilize his followers to win a culture war, and so far, that mobilization has mainly happened on digital platforms controlled by the very elites he’s gone to war against.
Which is all to say that as much as Milo says he doesn’t need social media, it’s a bit hard to believe him.
Milo, and his Twitter ban, explained
Milo has worked in journalism, mostly tech journalism, since dropping out of college in the early 2000s. He made a name for himself in his native England writing provocative, gossipy pieces — founding the Kernel, which his website describes as an "online tabloid magazine," in 2011. In both 2011 and 2012, Wired named him one of the top 100 "innovators and influencers shaping the Wired world." In 2014, he sold the Kernel and was hired by Breitbart, a hard-right outlet, as an associate editor.
The modern incarnation of Milo, the one that's become the internet equivalent of a household name, began at Breitbart in late 2014 with Gamergate — an online controversy driven by video gamers who felt women and minorities were being overrepresented in games and commentary about games. Milo sided with the gamers: A piece he wrote, titled "Feminist bullies tearing the video game industry apart,” gets his point across pretty well.
“It’s easy to mock video gamers as dorky loners in yellowing underpants. Indeed, in previous columns, I’ve done it myself,” he wrote. “But, the more you learn about the latest scandal in the games industry, the more you start to sympathise with the frustrated male stereotype. Because an army of sociopathic feminist programmers and campaigners, abetted by achingly politically correct American tech bloggers, are terrorising the entire community.”
It made him into something of a hero to the young men of Gamergate, who saw “social justice warriors” (SJWs) as the root of all evil in society. Milo loved them right back.
“Everybody craves acceptance — part of the club, part of the group. Everybody wants to be cool and verified and have popular, sexy readers. I’ve never cared about that. My readers are the most unfashionable people in the world … I love these people, because they’re good, decent people who the media laughs at,” he says.
That last bit about the media is key. Milo sees the media, and other major American cultural institutions, as his real enemy.
He believes American freedom is being choked out by cultural authoritarians in the media, academia, and Silicon Valley, who want to ban everything they see as “sexist” or “racist.” Opposing these people is Milo’s reason to exist — and he has built up a fandom, among Gamergaters and other online factions, who share his opposition to the so-called cultural left.
“There’s a war on. And it is a culture war,” Milo said in his party speech. “Politics [is] downstream from culture. … By the time you’re talking about policy, and free trade and all the rest of it, you’ve already lost the war. Because the war is fought in culture, in academia, in the entertainment industry, and in news.”
Milo has waged this war through a series of high-profile, invariably offensive stunts.
- He declared his birthday "World Patriarchy Day,” and encouraged his followers to "cat-call at least five women" in celebration, refer to any female employees they have "exclusively as darling," and tell a woman that "this isn’t going to suck itself."
- He claimed he "went gay" so he "didn’t have to deal with nutty broads."
- He attended Slutwalk, a protest against sexual assault, and got kicked out for holding a sign that read "'Rape culture' and Harry Potter. Both fantasy."
- He created something called the "Yiannopoulos Privilege Grant," a college scholarship available only to white men. The idea is to put them "on equal footing with their female, queer and ethnic minority classmates."
- He hired a black porn star, Jovan Jordan, as a bodyguard when attending a meetup for video gamers. Milo’s reasoning? "My most ardent haters are feminists, and their fear of penises is well-known," he wrote at the time. "It was vital, therefore, that I sought the services of a man believed to have the biggest dick in the porn industry."
His rhetoric, in print and in person, is pretty similar. "Sex-negative social justice warriors always banging on about 'affirmative consent' are secretly the first to strap on a gimp mask and demand to get fucked eleven ways," he once wrote to me in an email. "Which, don't get me wrong, sounds great!"
This style has helped Milo build a massive following among people — mostly, let’s be real, aggrieved white men — who share his anger at the allegedly stifling dictates of political correctness. His Twitter account, before it was permanently suspended, had more than 300,000 followers.
The problem, however, is that Milo’s fans take their hostility to mainstream cultural figures way, way too far. When Milo criticizes someone, it sends up a kind of bat signal for his followers to harass them — often in racist, sexist, anti-Semitic, or homophobic ways, given the Milo crowd’s hatred of “political correctness.”
Six months ago, Twitter removed Milo’s verified status, a special user privilege given mostly to celebrities and journalists, over his role in encouraging this harassment.
On Monday, Milo published a scathing review of the new all-female Ghostbusters movie, which he had been attacking for months. (In February, for example, he described the four female leads as, respectively, “fat and ugly, ugly, ugly, fat.”) After the review went up, Jones experienced a wave of hate through her Twitter account — including people comparing her to a gorilla (Jones is black) and photoshopped images of semen on her face.
Milo retweeted her complaints about this, basically telling Jones to get over it.
This sparked a spat between the two of them on Twitter, ably chronicled by my colleague Aja Romano. Jones blocked Milo and reported him to Twitter, which eventually resulted in his permanent ban.
Milo thinks this is bullshit — an excuse for his enemies on the cultural left, who control Twitter, to stifle his voice.
“What they’re trying to do is shut down your free speech, like they just did for my Twitter account,” he told his followers at the party. “And they will come for you too, no mistake about it. Do not be fooled — you’re all next. If you’re the wrong group with the wrong beliefs, the left will come for you, and the left includes Silicon Valley.”
His aim now is to fight back — to use the massive concentration of media at the Republican National Convention to get his message out.
“I’ve been preparing for this for six months,” he said in our conversation. “I could not have asked for a better time.”
Can there be a Milo movement without Twitter?
Milo’s suspension poses a fascinating and important question for American politics: Can his brand of angry anti-anti-racism serve as an actual mobilizing force off the internet?
Milo’s following comes in significant part from fringe internet movements — things like Gamergate and the alt-right. It’s easy for these people to engage in targeted online harassment or endlessly promote Milo’s articles attacking SJWs and the liberal media. It’s much harder to actually mobilize as a political force, to push their hard-right brand of identity politics in the real world.
Milo is convinced he can do it, citing his “Dangerous Faggot” tour of college campuses as proof that he has a real-life following.
“I don’t care about Twitter. I have a million different platforms I can go on. People want to see me in real life; that’s actual power,” he tells me. “Not people who want to retweet you on Twitter — there are thousands of students who want to come to my shows. … I don’t need a Twitter account to make money. It is meaningless to me — except as a weapon.”
He even compares himself favorably to Donald Trump, Milo’s political idol (he frequently refers to the GOP nominee as “Daddy” in his writing).
“Most of my stuff is hard work doing real things: I’ll show up on university campuses and do real stuff in the real world. [Trump] doesn’t do as much of that,” Milo explains. “He trades more on the media provocation to get the message out. I get the message out by speaking to 500 people every four days.”
But plenty of people go on speaking tours without changing the world. Transforming American culture, Milo’s ultimate endgame, requires actual influence in major cultural institutions. The only one where Milo has had any such real effect, so far, has been on social media. There, he has successfully built up a following capable of coordinated action against the targets of Milo’s ire. Nothing like that exists in the physical world.
If this really is a war, Milo just lost one of his most powerful weapons. It also illustrates a problem in his basic strategy: His troops, to extend Milo’s metaphor, are mostly mobilized via social media. If Milo can be suspended from Twitter, he can be suspended from other platforms as well. His most successful approach right now hinges on the goodwill of the elites that he has dedicated himself to destroying.
For Milo’s movement to go offline, he needs to build up some kind of constituency and organizing platform in the real world. This might very well be possible — if Trump’s rise has taught us anything, it’s that white resentment is a deeply potent political force. But so far, there’s no evidence that the fringe internet is anything more than the fringe internet.
It’s not clear that his operation fully grasps the nature of their task. Throughout our conversation, Milo’s staff repeatedly chimed in to give updates about how Milo was doing on … Twitter. “We’re trending No. 1 worldwide!” his scheduler enthused, multiple times.
At one point, a staffer interrupted to compliment Milo on his speech at the party.
“Dude, you killed it,” the staffer said.
“When am I getting this on YouTube?” Milo replied.
“As soon as we get home. There’s no wifi here,” the staffer replied.