What becomes of an internet troll with a rapidly shrinking island on the internet to call home? Milo Yiannopoulos is about to find out.
This weekend, a conservative group called the Reagan Battalion shared a video on Twitter in which Yiannopoulos appears to be condoning pedophilia, even as he brags about his own experience of sexual abuse. The video went viral, but instead of praising Yiannopoulos for sticking it to the pearl-clutchers, the conservative crowd turned against him.
And just like that the house of virtual cards on which Yiannopoulos has built his trolling empire began to topple. First, the American Conservative Union cancelled his keynote speech at its annual Conservative Political Action Conference, better known as CPAC. Then, Simon & Schuster pulled its book deal with the self-proclaimed political provocateur, despite the fact that the book, Dangerous, shot to Amazon’s No. 1 bestseller slot in pre-orders back in December. Yesterday, Yiannopoulos resigned as editor of the far right media outlet Breitbart, amid reports that Breitbart staffers were debating whether he should be allowed to continue with the company. All of this mess comes less than a year after Twitter banned Yiannopoulos for relentlessly torturing comedian Leslie Jones.
Yiannopoulos built his notorious brand on the backs of businesses like Breitbart and Twitter. But as he’s continued to brazenly cross lines and push boundaries, Yiannopoulos’ ties to those platforms have been steadily coming undone, which raises the question: can web platforms snuff out a personal brand as swiftly as they build them?
Yiannopoulous would be nothing without the power of the crowd. His hateful rhetoric, aimed at everyone from trans people to Muslims to people of color, would have had no place in the traditional media landscape of even 10 years ago. But the internet—imperfect marketplace of ideas that it is—has allowed Yiannopoulos to find his audience and for his toxic stew of ideas to boil over into the mainstream conversation. That phenomenon is precisely how the internet upends traditional institutions.
And for Yiannopoulos, that was great while it lasted. But mob mentality is a fickle thing. “If you manipulate and ride the mob into a position of power and authority, you can just as easily be brought down by it,” says Nicco Mele, director of Harvard’s Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy and author of the book The End of Big: How the Internet Makes David the New Goliath.
That’s especially true, he says, “if your power and authority is derived from your ability to titillate and provoke, and not from real solid institutional rock.”
‘If you manipulate and ride the mob into a position of power and authority, you can just as easily be brought down by it.’
Institutions—be they news organizations or political parties—act as a counterweight to the whims of the crowd, Mele says. But that doesn’t always work in institutions’ favor. They can be slow to adapt and blind to disruptors in their midst. But they’re also durable. But when, like Milo, you’re a disruptor who skyrockets to some sordid type of success overnight and becomes famous just for being famous, you have very little to fall back on when the platforms that made you famous evaporate beneath your feet.
It’s a vulnerability that every public figure—including the current President of the United States—must now grapple with. Online platforms and the businesses that run them have tremendous power over whose voice is and isn’t heard.
Yiannopoulos finds himself in the position of being the schoolyard bully who’s not allowed to step foot in the schoolyard. Barring Yiannopoulos entry to the very online and offline communities where his constituents (and targets) live, effectively defangs him. His message is nothing without the medium.
And yet, the internet also gives Yiannopoulos ample opportunities to stage a comeback. During a hastily scheduled press conference yesterday afternoon, Yiannopoulos said he’s already planning one. He announced his intention to launch a “new, independently-funded media venture.” He wouldn’t be the first conservative rabble-rouser to try it, of course. After leaving Fox News, Glenn Beck launched his own media company, The Blaze. And Yiannopoulos’ online following is far from destroyed. On Facebook, he still boasts nearly two million followers, though that, of course, is subject to Facebook’s discretion about what does and doesn’t constitute hate speech.
But Yiannopoulos is attempting this transition to his own media venture at a time when his personal brand is—by his own admission—tainted.
“I regret the things I said,” Yiannopoulos said during his press conference. “I don’t think I’ve been as sorry about anything in my whole life.”
Don’t worry, Milo. You’ll always have 4chan.