When I cover interest groups in American politics there is a heavy emphasis on the ways in which the internet has made it easier to obfuscate. Groups not only can conceal their sources of funding and true ideological motivations – granted, it doesn't take a genius to figure out who's behind Working Families for Walmart – but more importantly a professional-looking online presence can completely obscure the size and influence of a group. The difference between a large, well funded, well organized group with a lot of members and a well funded, well organized group with few or no members is not always apparent at first glance. That's why it pays to do a little research. Especially if you're a journalist. Who exactly are these people so willing to provide you with quotes, data, and a story?
Last week the internet very briefly worked itself into a lather over some asshole who turned out to live in his parents' house who, despite being an absolute nobody with no evidence of having more than a handful of deeply disturbed followers, claimed that he and his "group" were going to pull off a worldwide event with 165 simultaneous big public rallies. These were claimed to be rallies to support his "legalize rape" ideology. Caitlin Dewey of the Chicago Tribune has a summary of what's blatantly, obviously wrong with this picture that is good enough to quote at length. I refuse to use his name and feed into his cheap publicity stunt:
***, known online as "***," is the self-styled prophet of a strain of radical misogynist pick-up artistry. He's also the proprietor of an obscure virtual empire that spans three Web sites, a forum and 17 self-published books. (According to analyses conducted for The Washington Post by the firms Tweetsmap and SimilarWeb, ***'s international "hordes" can be mapped to a few clusters of readers in the U.S., Canada and Western Europe.)
And yet, when *** proclaimed the objectively impossible — that his cult would emerge from the shadows on Feb. 6 and mass at 165 prominent public locations from Phoenix to Phnom Penh — millions of people, and hundreds of journalists, took his word for it.
The ensuing global uproar has manufactured publicity on a scale that few fringe Internet movements have ever dreamed of. By the time he "canceled" the faux-revolution Wednesday afternoon, *** had become a household name in places as far-flung as Winnipeg and Sydney — never mind that even social justice activists hadn't taken him seriously.
"We only count real organizations as hate groups," said Heidi Beirich, the director of the Intelligence Project at the Southern Poverty Law Center, which tracks domestic extremists online and off. ***'s rhetoric has all the markings of hate speech, she said; but at the end of the day, "he's a guy with a blog."
Unfortunately for Beirich and others like her, the line between "real" movements and mere Internet grumbling is becoming increasingly hard to see. For one thing, the Internet makes it virtually impossible to quantify groups like ***'s, which claim to command — but rarely produce — untold hordes of followers.
Only one point there is questionable: is it really that hard to see the line between a real group of real people and some moron with a blog? (Hi!) The idea of "pro rape" activists is obviously disturbing and prompts a strong emotional reaction – almost as if that was the goal, right? – but the complete lack of basic skepticism applied to such an implausible bordering on delusional plan was disturbing. Countless legitimate and quasi-legitimate media outlets ran with this. Countless counter-rallies were hastily organized. Countless people I know offered heated, passionate thoughts about the idea that this could happen. And it's really hard not to look like a dick – I do that plenty and have been looking to cut back – and be That Guy who says, Who the hell is this person? Why has nobody ever heard of him before? How did such a patently insane ideology build a global following without anyone noticing until now? How many men, even deeply, truly, terrible men, are realistically going to do this even if they support the "message"? Everybody completely overlooked the fact that none of this made any sense whatsoever. It was transparently a cheap ploy for attention. By indignantly reposting the stories everywhere online, we probably brought him enough notoriety to actually find a few followers. His fan base probably exploded. From like, 100 to 500.
Of course not every person who sees a story is going to start fact checking it in depth; could the media not have dug just a liiiiittle deeper here though? One of two things must be true. Either they are too lazy to verify any elements of a story, or they knew damn well that this was nonsense but decided to run with it anyway for the rage-clicks. Something tells me it's the latter. Who cares if a story is true or makes any sense anymore as long as it confirms what a given demographic of readers believes about the world.
Finally, and this is strictly my not universally shared opinion, but if these rallies were real events, counter-protests are counterproductive. Nothing on Earth is sadder than a public event with like 12 people at it, which is exactly what a "pro rape" rally would have were it actually held. The presence of hundreds of counter-protesters and hundreds more journalists simply help the group ("group") achieve its goal of making it look like a big event rather than a non-event. This is the standard operating procedure for KKK rallies now and has been for years. Why show up and legitimize it? Let them have their event. It will be 15 people who all look like cousins addressing a crowd that doesn't exist, and the resulting images and video will speak for themselves. They won't even need a caption describing it as "pathetic."