When “60 Minutes” wanted to get to the bottom of “fake news,” they sent “CBS Evening News” anchor Scott Pelley to interview Mike Cernovich.
Here’s why: Cernovich, one of the best-known personalities of the Trump Internet, has accused the Clinton campaign of participating in a satanic sex cult. He believed Hillary Clinton was secretly sick with some sort of neurological condition that should have disqualified her from being president. He helped popularize the “Pizzagate” conspiracy theory. His Twitter feed and website are a relentless stream of unproven accusations and theories about the left, the establishment or others whom Cernovich sees as an enemy. He embodies everything that Pelley, and many other journalists, would consider to be the most dangerous sector of the “fake news” Internet.
But Cernovich won the faceoff. Pelley showed up prepared to fact check Cernovich’s many unsubstantiated claims. Cernovich, meanwhile, arrived prepared to do what he does best: reject Pelley’s facts and their sources, and simply substitute his own, adding his characteristic mixture of contempt and performed apathy for everything that he believes Pelley represents.
“She had a seizure and froze up walking into her motorcade,” Cernovich said of Clinton. Pelley rebutted that “she had pneumonia.” Pelley’s answer had the bulk of credible evidence behind it. But when Cernovich asked how he knew she had pneumonia, Pelley responded with the least helpful retort he could have given to a man who says he believes the Clintons are literally part of a satanic sex ring: “Well, the campaign told us that.” Cernovich asked, “Why would you trust the campaign?”
Cernovich went on Periscope to live-stream his reaction to the segment as it aired that Sunday night. His loyal viewers loved it. Part of the joy was the very idea that someone like Cernovich would have airtime on CBS at all. He has long thrived on the fringes of Internet culture — first in the men’s rights arena, and then as part of the Trump Internet. Trump’s campaign and electoral victory had helped give his hardcore online base of support more eyeballs. Some of that attention now comes from the White House itself.
— Kellyanne Conway (@KellyannePolls) April 3, 2017
On Monday morning, Cernovich discussed his big moment in another Periscope stream. “Every time they went after me as fake news I just flipped it around,” he said. He took credit for “60 Minutes'” ratings for the “fake news” episode, and encouraged his fans to pressure CBS to release the full, unedited video of his interview with Pelley. “What should our hashtag be?” He asked his viewers. Later, they settled on #Cerno60.
Cernovich rehashed his victory repeatedly through the week in Periscope streams, right-wing media hits, tweets and blog posts. In between those, he posted continuously about his books, his documentary and his enemies. He tweeted about Malia Obama, and accused her father of being an “absentee dad.” He accused individual reporters at various major news outlets — particularly the New York Times and The Washington Post — of engaging in corrupt behavior. He went on the conspiracy theory hotbed Infowars as an expert on secret deep state pedophila rings.
And then, at the end of the week, Cernovich broke some real news, by reporting that during her time as Obama’s national security adviser, Susan Rice had requested the names of some Trump campaign associates that were contained in classified intelligence reports. Among his readers, the news of Rice’s “unmasking” was touted as the biggest story of the year up until then.
Cernovich has been posting on the Internet long enough so that his ideological evolution is visible in plain sight. There is also a version of his origin story that he has told through the years, on his personal blogs and in interviews. It’s all part of the brand.
The way Cernovich tells it, everything can be explained by his book, “Gorilla Mindset,” which he called the “best mindset book ever written” in a statement to The Washington Post on Thursday. In many ways, it’s kind of his own “Art of the Deal.” He credits this “mindset” with helping to build him a “network of sources across the globe.” Cernovich has made himself into a walking advertisement for his own philosophy. He tells his story, in part, to prove that it works, encouraging others to buy in.
And he’s been increasingly effective at cultivating a close relationship with his followers, who cheer on his online confrontations with journalists and other perceived enemies. Like many Internet celebrities, Cernovich would likely say he doesn’t need the media to mediate his relationship to the people who matter to him. He wants his message to speak for itself — on Periscope, on YouTube, on Twitter, on his blog, wherever.
Cernovich’s blogging history started more than a decade ago, in 2004 at Crime and Federalism, his personal site that was mostly about law, with a libertarian bent.
A handful of his old posts focus on false accusations of rape, a theme that has been a throughline of his writing for years. In 2003, the New Yorker wrote, Cernovich was accused of raping a woman. The charge was eventually dismissed. In one 2005 post, “A real life date rape case,” Cernovich details the case of an individual he declines to identify who was also accused of rape, only to later have the charge dismissed. In that post, he writes that the case, “completely changed my view on how the criminal justice system treats date-rape cases. I used to buy into the feminist line about date-rape.” He added: “Live that case for a few years, and you’ll see the nakedness of feminism. It’s scarier than Andrea Dworkin at your bed side.”
The most lucrative deal Cernovich ever struck appears to be his 2011 divorce. He married his first wife in 2003 when the two of them were at the Pepperdine University law school, and before they divorced in 2011 (a result, he told the New Yorker, of her “feminist indoctrination”), she had earned millions of dollars in stock from an I.P.O. The settlement she paid him was reported to be seven figures.
He has since remarried, and has a young daughter. Shortly after his divorce, he launched Danger and Play, a blog devoted to the intersection of men’s rights rhetoric, fitness and self-help. The language of his advice should be familiar to anyone who’s fallen into that particular Internet rabbit hole: “alpha” males, advice on how to pick up women. One post is called: “How to choke a woman during sex.”
Cernovich’s fitness posts, particularly his devotion to juicing, prompted his detractors to nickname him “Juicebro” when he started to become a prominent figure in the Gamergate controversy. He believed that anti-feminist campaign among some online gamers was “the most important battle of the culture war this century” and offered up his legal expertise to help out those accused of harassment. It was a change for Cernovich, who had previously blogged skeptically about getting involved in politics. “Obsessing over the presidential election is Beta,” he wrote in 2012.
Eventually, he started gaining traction on the pro-Trump Internet. Jack Posobiec, a Trump supporter who is now working for the right-wing site Rebel Media, said he first met Cernovich in person last year in Cleveland, at the Republican National Convention. “He came to my Citizens for Trump event,” Posobiec said. He remembers seeing Cernovich on Twitter before then, when he had a much smaller reach. “I think he only had around 60,000 followers at the time,” he said. Cernovich now has nearly 250,000 Twitter followers.
As the campaign went on, Cernovich and Posobiec learned something that would become emblematic of Trump’s online support: An internet troll with an audience can wreak havoc on a political campaign.
“He presented a real challenge,” said Jesse Ferguson, a former spokesperson for Clinton. “Any rational person knows what he is saying is bulls—, but if you ignore it, it looks like there might be some truth to it.”
Ferguson said they made the decision to confront the lies head-on, but recognized that doing so played right into Cernovich’s game.
“There’s a reason the small percentage of the country thinks the moon landing happened on a sound stage,” Ferguson said. “It’s not because they came up with the theory, it’s because someone came up with it, and in disputing it, more people have heard it.”
Here’s how Posobiec described his own approach, which is closely modeled off Cernovich’s: “Many writers and observers do not understand how skeptical and critical thinking people like Mike Cernovich and Jack Posobiec are, and that we aren’t afraid to get into the ring with facts and logic. The media says don’t accept Trump at his word, but ran everything Hillary’s campaign said as absolute truth. We are willing to push back on that narrative and present another side of the argument.”
And, of course, there are the human consequences of Cernovich’s disinformation campaign. Get enough people to believe that a D.C. pizza shop is home to a child sex ring, and someone will show up with a gun.
For weeks after Cernovich implied the political satirist Vic Berger was connected to a nonexistent pedophilia operation, Berger was bombarded with death threats and jumped every time the phone or doorbell rang.
“It was really scary,” Berger said. “I wasn’t able to work. I have two young kids. It’s horrifying what he did to me and others.”
And over the course of more than a decade writing online, Cernovich has made it clear that he will go after just about anyone: viral video comedians, Republican senators, Democratic candidates for president. Even Donald Trump.
“He’s a media whore always eager to spread his lips,” Cernovich wrote of the then-businessmen, now-president in 2006. “I say never trust a man who combs his hair so as to cover his shiny dome, and then flaunts a wife young enough to be his daughter. Oh, Trump has issues, all right. But there isn’t much reputation to damage. He took care of that long ago.”
All of this raises the question that seems to be a regular one when assessing the Internet’s most extreme personalities: how much of Cernovich behavior is performance? If you wanted evidence that it was all an act, perhaps you’d note that Cernovich held up a copy of a book about acting and claimed it was more important than any book that’s ever been written about journalism in a recent livestream. “People want a little excitement,” he said. “I tell the truth but I do it theatrically.” Even some of his longtime readers have speculated whether his decisions to jump aboard the Gamergate and Trump trains were motivated by a desire to self-promote.
Posobiec said that Cernovich was “serious” about the process of his work. And there’s little evidence that his hatred of the media and establishment — or his vision of a parallel media empire that would overtake and replace the mainstream — isn’t genuine. As early as 2008, Cernovich wrote blog posts about his hatred for the mainstream press, that he believed “with today’s media, basic facts and basic logic are too much to expect. Burn, baby, burn.”
After the Susan Rice story took off, he spent days reveling in a victory over the “fake news” outlets. As the press requests rolled in, he would open up his computer and begin livestreaming to his fans. He read off the names of the outlets who wanted to talk to him. “I’m going to talk to the people,” he said. “Why would I talk to liars and frauds?” When Cernovich does answer mainstream press requests, like ours, he simultaneously posts his full statement to Twitter for his followers (Posobiec did the same).
At one point, he launched what was meant to be a satirical livestream offering his skin-care tips. The joke is, Cernovich has so little interest in talking to reporters, whom he believed he has epically owned, that he’ll spend that time instead discussing something totally inane.
Cernovich can afford this contempt at the moment. He doesn’t need the mainstream media to reach or entertain his followers. He doesn’t need establishment Republicans, or viral video producers. He has the attention of some in the White House. At least, that is, for now.
Donald Trump Jr. tweeted earlier this week that Cernovich should win a Pulitzer. Two days later, Cernovich was promoting a conspiracy theory that accuses the U.S. deep state of sponsoring the gas attacks in Syria. He promoted the hashtag #SyriaHoax, which later trended. He encouraged his readers to tell the White House, to make them listen to their loyal base. He livestreamed for hours, told his viewers that his sources said the U.S. was possibly going to engage in Syrian airstrikes that night, and reacting with dismay when he was right.
“Trump’s base of support is gone if he goes to war with Syria,” he tweeted on Thursday evening. “The same people who betrayed before election will betray him again.”