Even hours after leaving the basement conference room where notorious blogger Daryush Valizadeh convened a Saturday-night press conference, we were still debating whether we’d committed a journalistic sin by showing up to it.
None of the past week’s furor over Valizadeh had been “newsworthy,” in a traditional sense. For years, the pick-up artist/professional provocateur has preached his brand of radical misogyny on the Internet’s fringes, babbling into the vacuum of cyberspace like many obscure online prophets before and after him. Then, late last month, he announced his group would host a series of 165 secretive meet-ups around the world. The proclamation stirred up the sort of public furor often reserved for war criminals: petitions, parliamentary debates, travel bans and official censures — to say nothing of the tidal wave of tweets, blog posts and news articles.
That this furor took aim at a bogeyman like Valizadeh, whose preeminence appears to exist chiefly in his own head, is in many ways besides the point. People cared, and in an age when “people caring” is the only true barometer of newsworthiness, we were left with an unwinnable puzzle.
Valizadeh had done nothing to earn or deserve the sort of public platform we were giving him. By all accounts, in fact, he had done nothing but manipulate the media to his whims — a pattern that continued during the scheduling of the so-called “press conference,” whose participants he screened and whose location he refused to disclose until an hour prior.
But it was the biggest digital culture story of the week — albeit one that The Intersect covered reluctantly — and it was happening in our back yard.
The press conference was arranged like an undergraduate seminar, with eight reporters sitting around a table and Valizadeh standing at its head. He chose the Dupont Circle-area hotel, he said, because he used to take women there when he wanted to sleep with them.
Before the press conference started, Valizadeh asked each reporter which outlet they represented and singled a few out for criticism, including Vice, which he said had started printing “garbage” since its acquisition, and the Daily Beast, whom he accused of being a “CIA front.”
He also delayed the start of the conference for several minutes while a group of five to six men in the back mic’d him — but not the assembled reporters — and set up cameras. (This had the effect of muting the reporters on the resulting video footage.) These men, whom reporters were told not to photograph, purportedly consisted of some mix of bodyguards and fans; they sniggered loudly at Valizadeh’s laugh lines and oversaw a video feed that streamed the “conference” live to viewers on Twitter, Periscope and YouTube.
Even a sentient rock would know what Valizadeh intended with a glance into the small conference room: the dozen or so reporters who showed up were synecdochically representing The Media with a capital T and M, and Valizadeh intended to “win” in a verbal battle against them.
Or, as Valizadeh himself put it, “You have made me one of the most famous men in the world … I’m gonna work with what you gave me.”
Valizadeh did work the room, as only a man who has spent the greater part of his adult life reading pick-up manuals could. His prepared statement, which was outlined on two pages of creased loose leaf, consisted largely of the sort of disjointed paranoia that’s boilerplate in comments sections these days. But the delivery was theatrical, practiced, clearly intended for dissemination across his base. At one point, Valizadeh grandly announced that he was “the most hated man in the world” before taking a considered and suspenseful swig from a nearby water bottle.
“You have to understand that your work, and the work of your colleagues, has incited a mob based on lies that has put my family in danger,” he said at one point, although it’s unclear if any of the assembled reporters had written any of the articles that he objected to. “If they get hurt right now, God forbid, it’s because of you.”
Valizadeh repeatedly condemned Anonymous’ publication of his mother’s home address and the Daily Mail’s decision to post a photographer outside her house. He did not, however, acknowledge the fact that he and his followers have long engaged in similar online harassment campaigns against female journalists, such as the one they’ve waged against one of the Post reporters in attendance and The Guardian’s Lindy West. Those campaigns were one of several reasons observers and activists raised concerns when Valizadeh announced his followers were meeting in the flesh.
“When a real rape happens that goes against the agenda of your boss, you actually hide it,” he said later, referring to the gang rapes in Cologne, Germany, (which the Post has covered at length). “But then when no rapes happen and I try to do a meet-up you lose your s***.”
That was only the first foray in a bizarre and largely one-sided battle that continued throughout the brief Q&A, in which Valizadeh declined to answer most of the questions he was asked but did dispense a series of personal insults and conspiracy theories. Asked, for instance, how he reconciled the cancellation of his meet-ups over safety concerns with the strain of radical aggression and masculinity that he promotes, Valizadeh asked Washingtonian’s Ben Freed “do you lift?” — an implied criticism he repeated on Twitter afterwards.
When asked about passages in his books that describe date rape, Valizadeh first said that the passages were dramatized, then that they weren’t fiction, then that everyone had got it wrong: They were being taken “out of context.”
Meanwhile, in response to a question about why readers might think Valizadeh supported or promoted rape, the blogger shot back that it was all an elaborate smear invented by the media’s corporate ownership.
After the conference ended, the Post reporters in attendance had a good laugh over the notion that Washington Post owner Jeff Bezos knows we, let alone Return of Kings, exist. Equally humorous was the presence of a writer from Martha Stewart, who earned condescending guffaws from Valizadeh’s cronies every time she was mentioned — everyone apparently unaware that the woman was in town visiting another reporter and wasn’t remotely interested in covering the event.
Pushed by Valizadeh to ask a question, the woman from Martha Stewart managed a sardonic “are you happy?” — which Valizadeh answered with theatrical seriousness.
It was perhaps the best illustration of the dissonance in the room: Valizadeh believed he was schooling “the media” and exposing a powerful global conspiracy; in point of fact, he was holding court over a pack of online writers and freelancers, at least two of whom were eager to escape before he ruined what remained of their evening. It makes sense that these two competing narratives could coexist in one room: Valizadeh’s delusions, of grandeur and other things, are well documented by Valizadeh himself. The aching question for us was whether we had legitimized or even amplified those delusions by choosing to write about them.
The victims of Internet media mobs generally have not earned immunity from criticism — Valizadeh, for instance, has certainly written statements worthy of scorn, ridicule or condemnation. In her book “Is Shame Neccesary?”, NYU professor Jennifer Jacquet makes the argument that such condemnation, dispensed proportionally and directed at the powerful, can be an effective and pro-social tool; righteous outrage, when aimed at global corporations and large-scale social problems, can correct wrong and enforce communal values.
Many of the people who have shamed (or harassed, or doxed) Valizadeh would likely draw legitimacy from Jacquet’s argument. When Valizadeh claims to be the prophet of some sort of global, misogynist movement, he looks like a valid and immediate threat.
But the opposite is much closer to the truth: Valizadeh is of little consequence and is almost certainly already fading back into the online abyss, back to the small world of men with Return of Kings forum accounts who have bought into his worldview. And while Valizadeh’s philosophies on women and the tactics he encourages amongst his followers are objectionable, even dangerous, this current bout of outrage seems to have changed nothing.
In the course of centering a full-blown outrage cycle around people like Valizadeh, the Internet media frequently and inadvertently produce the opposite effect of the justified shaming Jacquet describes: the media elevate the village idiot to a far more influential station — and recast him as part of a lionizing us-vs.-them narrative.
A round of drinks between the two reporters later that evening did little to illuminate the answer to our original question: was it a journalistic sin to bother to show up to the press conference at all? Valizadeh walked away from the event with the anti-media propaganda video he wanted, and we left with no news of consequence – an unpleasant outcome that, sadly, we had anticipated.
In the end, as digital culture reporters, we had little choice but to attend once Valizadeh become the story of the week — even as we raised questions about whether his newfound infamy was earned.
Others have found things to say about it: one reporter managed to turn the press conference into an item about Valizadeh’s qualified support of Donald Trump. Elizabeth Nolan Brown, another reporter who attended, astutely observed in Reason that the story here is interesting as “a case study of collective catharsis through call-out culture and moral panic as meme.”
Although many pieces have been written in recent years about the problems with viral outrage, Valizadeh’s press conference underlines that the phenomenon is still not very well understood by many portions of the media who participate in it.
As we finish this piece — hopefully the last in a long time that we will have to write about Valizadeh — the viral outrage cycle has moved on. So will we.