The news this week that former national security advisor Susan Rice likely requested the “unmasking” of Donald Trump-related names in intelligence materials promises to upend the narrative about spying and collusion that has obsessed media circles for months. But just as startling as any revelations about illicit domestic political espionage is the story of who broke the news and how: independent writer Mike Cernovich on his Twitter account @cernovich.
Just a week after Cernovich was the main subject of a 60 Minutes report on “fake news,” he took to Twitter and unloaded some real news: “breaking news! Susan Rice requested unmasking of incoming Trump administration officials.” The tweet received 6,900 retweets, a level comparable to some of President Trump’s own. The next day Eli Lake wrote about the story for Bloomberg in more detail, breaking it widely into the major media—though some outlets like CNN have declined to cover it, labeling it a “distraction.”
How did an independent person working at home in Southern California, completely outside the traditional media ecosystem, manage to get such a scoop?
Mike Cernovich is by no means the first media outsider to break a major new story. The formative event in the history of new media was Matt Drudge’s revelation of Monica Lewinsky’s affair with President Bill Clinton in January 1998. Drudge went on to build the Drudge Report into one of the planet’s most-trafficked websites, which functions today as an aggregator of links, expressing its right-leaning viewpoint through a juxtaposition of headlines. The earlier years of Internet political commentary were heavily identified with conservative bloggers, including Instapundit and Power Line—voices viewed mostly with disdain by elite media representatives.
The apotheosis of the independent right-wing blogger came during the 2004 election, when documents purporting to show that President George W. Bush had been granted special treatment during the Vietnam War were proven to be fakes. Crowd-sourced intelligence from typographers, military historians, and amateur journalists demonstrated that CBS News had erred in not authenticating these apparent forgeries. Dan Rather’s career was essentially destroyed in the fallout from the controversy, a dramatic chapter in the Internet’s destabilization of traditional media power.
Though the Internet in this period leaned right, the Left soon looked primed to exploit the new medium’s power as well. A group of highly influential left-wing bloggers known as the “Netroots” (a portmanteau of network, or Internet, and grassroots) also came to prominence in the early 2000s at sites likes the Daily Kos. Left-wing bloggers have long played a key role in fomenting outrage against perceived transgressions by conservatives, and they have claimed their share of scalps over the years.
Blogging was a natural platform for the left, but emerging social-media platforms like YouTube, Facebook, and Twitter were much more attuned to the sensibilities of an emerging generation on the right, or at least with sympathies to the right. Cernovich is a prime example. He had been writing for years at his law blog Crime and Federalism before switching to men’s self-improvement with his current site, Danger and Play. Both sites enjoyed niche success but didn’t attract particularly large readership.
Then came a videogame scandal called Gamergate, in which a young man published a tell-all blog post about his ex-girlfriend that went viral. She obtained a restraining order prohibiting him from writing anything more about her. This caught the attention of Cernovich, a longtime free-speech activist, who considered the restraining order a violation of the man’s First Amendment rights. While previously contemptuous of video gamers, he jumped into the Gamergate controversy wholeheartedly, especially on Twitter.
The Gamergate scandal helped Cernovich expand his Twitter reach, and his feed started on a hockey-stick trajectory of growth that has yet to abate. Cernovich leveraged his new notoriety with a flurry of projects, including a self-improvement book called Gorilla Mindset, which he credibly claims has sold over 30,000 copies, and a professional-quality documentary film on free speech called Silenced that featured Alan Dershowitz. (I was a Kickstarter backer for this film). He regularly holds live streams on Periscope or You Tube that can draw tens of thousands of viewers. He was also an early and avid supporter of Donald Trump, becoming one of Trump’s biggest Twitter backers and predicting Trump’s victory—making him one of the few who called the election right.
Cernovich is controversial, to say the least. His early content at Danger and Play included a category called “How to Have Rough Sex,” along with articles reviewing brands of sex pillows. He routinely tweets purposely outrage-generating comments on topics like date rape, feminism, and Black Lives Matter. His political content has also been inflammatory; he has insisted, for example, that Hillary Clinton has Parkinson’s Disease, and he promoted the bizarre allegation that John Podesta and other top Democratic officials were involved in a child molestation ring centered around a popular Washington pizza parlor.
Yet numerous media exposés and hit pieces haven’t dented Cernovich’s popularity or influence. He managed to get profiled in The New Yorker and on a segment of 60 Minutes—feats that most pundits can only dream about. And Cernovich is just one among many emerging independent or right-leaning social-media voices. Some—like Paul Joseph Watson, Stefan Molyneux, and Ethan Ralph—have built enormous followings, especially among the young.
The mainstream media seems to despise these interlopers, but establishment attacks only strengthen the bond they enjoy with their audiences. Consider Swedish YouTube star PewDiePie, who has a stunning 54 million subscribers worldwide. Newspaper reports called him anti-Semitic, which cost him his corporate sponsorships. Other recent journalism about advertising on extremist videos caused YouTube to demonetize, or prohibit advertising, for many ordinary, non-extremist videos, threatening the livelihood of many YouTubers. (The Manhattan Institute’s own Judith Miller has experienced YouTube’s censorship.). Social-media stars like PewDiePie are understandably angry, and their anger translates to their supporters. Millions of teenagers and twentysomethings increasingly see the mainstream media not just as unreliable but as an adversary.
As for Cernovich: it’s one thing to spread a narrative about Hillary’s health and quite another to get a bona fide national-security scoop. How did he do it? “I have spies in every media organization,” he says. “I got people in news rooms.” He claims that Eli Lake of Bloomberg and Maggie Haberman of the New York Times had the Rice story earlier but refused to publish it for political reasons. Lake calls this charge “ludicrous,” and the Times says that it’s “100% false.” We may never know how Cernovich uncovered the story.
Regardless, the fact is that an independent social-media personality built a huge online platform from nearly nothing in just three years, and he’s now getting legitimate national-security scoops. And even if Cernovich stumbles, an army of replacements is standing by, waiting to take his place. Nearly 20 years on from Drudge’s Lewinsky scoop, the political power of the Internet continues be felt in new and surprising forms.