Last March, in a 60 Minutes segment on fake news, CBS’s Scott Pelley introduced a vast new audience to Mike Cernovich, touting the pro-Trump blogger and self-help author as a troll “who has become a magnet for readers with a taste for stories with no basis in fact.” For viewers at home, it was a reassuring characterization: Cernovich, who championed rumors of Hillary Clinton’s poor health during the final months of the election, was a troll masquerading as a journalist — fake news through and through.
But the early months of the Trump administration have proven Pelley wrong; certainly, they’ve complicated the once black-and-white characterization of the pro-Trump media as purveyors of fake news. In recent weeks especially, the pro-Trump media has frequently seized control of the political news cycle via an unexpected tactic: real and, at times, well-sourced reporting.
Since April, Cernovich has broken a number of significant national security stories, many of which have been subsequently confirmed — at least in part — by mainstream outlets. In early April, he correctly reported that former Obama national security adviser Susan Rice had requested to unmask the identities of Trump associates. Days later, Cernovich tweeted, “Breaking news! Possible air strikes by the U.S. in Syria tonight” just 30 minutes before President Trump authorized the evening’s attack. He followed that up with another story that the national security adviser, Gen. H.R. McMaster, had drawn up a potential plan to bring ground troops into Syria. A number of details in the story were confirmed days later by Bloomberg.
And the scoops kept coming. Cernovich, an expert self-promoter, even took a victory lap with a Medium post titled “7 Stories Mike Cernovich Had Before the Mainstream Media — How Can They Call Him ‘Fake News’?”
The question in the headline is one that’s legitimately vexing, especially for the reporters who’ve been forced to follow, read, and react to the torrent of tweets, videos, and posts Cernovich churns out. Big scoops by personalities who rose to prominence online by crossing the line into trolldom have short-circuited a mainstream-media bullshit detector that once spotted fake news by bylines alone. “He’s definitely really sourced up in DC, and it’s mind-boggling,” one White House reporter told BuzzFeed News.
Cernovich himself appears to be taken aback by his new role near the center of the political news cycle. “It's kinda surreal actually,” Cernovich told BuzzFeed News.
Self-help-style blogging targeted at a largely male audience prefaced Cernovich’s involvement in the troll-y men’s rights movement and, later, Gamergate. There, he earned a reputation as a date-rape apologist (which Cernovich vehemently rejects) and troll (which he embraces) among a large subset of the progressive internet. But that rep also helped him win his current audience, some members of which seem to have reasonably close ties to government. “I talk to everyone — Uber drivers, bartenders," Cernovich said. "On Twitter, people see me as some mean guy, but in real life I am out there asking questions."
Cernovich isn’t the only one making news. Last week, Jack Posobiec — a popular pro-Trump media figure and an organizer of the DeploraBall — claimed to have hijacked the mainstream media narrative for the 48 hours before the French presidential election when he publicized a document dump on 4chan’s /pol/ message board purporting to be the personal and professional emails and files of then–presidential candidate Emmanuel Macron. Without verifying the documents, Posobiec posted a link to the docs on Twitter along with a punchy hashtag: #MacronLeaks. By late Friday evening #MacronLeaks was a top trending topic on Twitter and had been featured on the Drudge Report. Just before midnight, WikiLeaks picked up Posobiec’s hashtag and began hosting the 4chan document dump on its own servers.
By Saturday morning, the New York Times had cited Posobiec as “the second-most mentioned individual on Twitter in connection with the hashtag behind WikiLeaks,” noting that the hashtag had appeared more than 100,000 times in the past day.
“The point was to get the information out,” Posobiec told BuzzFeed News last Saturday. “It’s nontraditional, I know. I don’t pretend the information isn’t gritty and raw, but this was about getting people access to real information.” Posobiec calls this — as well as his endless series of Periscopes from Antifa protests and both anti- and pro-Trump rallies — “4-D journalism,” which he describes as raw and immersive and always on. “You look at Twitter and a year ago all I posted was Game of Thrones reviews. So how’d I get here? All I do is write about what I see.”
Posobiec — who before the leaks was best known for championing #Pizzagate conspiracy theories and for a campaign to smear anti-Trump protesters with a fake “Rape Melania” sign — has used #MacronLeaks to cast himself as an enterprising reporter. And while his tactics were reckless by traditional journalistic standards (and the information was largely mundane and potentially mixed with fabrications), Posobiec wasn’t exactly wrong in his claims that he’d helped surface new, potentially consequential information.
In recent months Chuck Johnson has also made the pivot from troll to aspiring political reporter. It’s familiar territory for Johnson, who was once a freelancer for the Daily Caller but quickly earned a reputation for targeting and harassing the subjects of his reporting. He was banned from Twitter in 2015 for threatening a Black Lives Matter activist. He’s published the home addresses of two New York Times reporters, tweeted false rumors that President Obama was gay, and perhaps most infamously, outed the anonymous victim at the center of the UVA-Rolling Stone rape scandal while also publishing a picture that turned out not to be her.
More recently, Johnson has found a home in Trumpland politics, despite alienating himself from Republicans back in 2014. Early this year, Forbes reported that Johnson was advising Trump’s transition team in an informal capacity to vet potential administration appointees. And on his website, GotNews, Johnson has landed a few head-turning scoops.
In February, Johnson reported — citing multiple White House sources — that Deputy Chief of Staff Katie Walsh had been leaking information to reporters. In March, Walsh resigned from the position, a move that Breitbart News credited to Johnson’s reporting. Just this week, Johnson again cited White House sources to report that the firing of FBI Director James Comey was a “warning” to Sen. John McCain, who had been “working with FBI Director Comey to help undermine President Trump since Trump was elected.” While the “warning” anecdote hasn’t been confirmed by another outlet, McCain, it appears, was one of the many taken off guard by Comey’s dismissal, which lends credence to the theory that Johnson might be hearing legitimate spin from inside the West Wing.
And why wouldn’t he be? For all the understandable hand-wringing about the legitimization of the pro-Trump media, its rise makes perfect sense: Its people are in the White House. Trump, clichéd as it may be, is an effective troll, and he brought with him a troll press corps. Increasingly, the mainstream media — and mainstream media consumers — are being forced to pay attention to personalities who, even weeks ago, they might have dismissed outright. This shift raises a number of thorny questions — about sourcing (in 2014, Johnson proudly admitted to paying for sources), about ideological agendas, and about whether traditional journalistic values and standards even matter at all.
There’s a good chance they might not to an audience that doesn't see careers in both trolling and journalism as mutually exclusive. And while Cernovich has significantly dialed back his trolling, to many, he may always be the Man Who Cried "Hillary Has Parkinson's!"
All of this is uncharted territory. The implications of legitimized, proudly ideological former trolls breaking news and gaining trust could further blur the lines between fact and fiction and lend credence to their older, provably false stories, like Pizzagate. Still, dismissing this emerging pro-Trump media outright could prove perilous for newsrooms. Especially in traditional conservative media, Cernovich and company’s national security sources are potentially worrisome for outlets that might have expected better access in a Republican White House. Alex Jones seemed to sense this when he snatched up Cernovich late last month for a regular hosting spot on Infowars.
Then, on Thursday, Infowars’ editor at large, Paul Joseph Watson, reported that White House sources indicated that press secretary Sean Spicer “will be gone by next week” and that Chief of Staff Reince Priebus might be next. Minutes later, Mike Cernovich tweeted this:
If it’s true, it’s a monster scoop that could prove that the pro-Trump media isn’t just a parallel universe armed with its own interpretation of "alternative facts" — but rather a formidable (albeit unabashedly biased) adversary in our current reality.
Either way, the lines are blurred and the mainstream media is caught befuddled and playing catch-up. Which, in its own way, may be the Upside Down’s greatest troll yet.
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Charlie Warzel is a senior writer for BuzzFeed News and is based in New York. Warzel reports on and writes about the intersection of tech and culture.
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