Mike Cernovich was celebrating on Friday, at least for a few hours. Disney had just fired James Gunn, the director of “Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3” and an outspoken critic of President Donald Trump, over crude jokes about pedophilia and rape Gunn made on Twitter between 2008 and 2011.
Cernovich had mobilized his network to have the tweets show up in all corners of the internet ― and in Disney’s executive suite ― and he was rewarded when “James Gunn” shot to the top of Twitter’s national trending topics.
“I couldn’t sleep. I was up until 3 a.m.,” an exuberant Cernovich told HuffPost on Friday. “That’s a lot of real sick stuff.”
Cernovich had claimed a trophy. This was what the far-right propagandist lived for, these kamikaze moments. They kept him going. They got him high. They allowed him to cling to a dank relevancy, even as it slips through his fingers.
“I’ve been a very good boy since Pizzagate,” he said, as he watched Disney dispatch Gunn.
By now, it should come as no surprise that Cernovich, who played a key role in manipulating public opinion during the 2016 election, was involved in the campaign against Gunn. The far-right propagandist has been locked in an endless war against the mainstream media, and at the end of 2017, had warned his “enemies” that he planned to use their tweets against them. He would dig up “fireable tweets.”
It was a credible threat, especially for journalists — Cernovich’s favorite targets. In November, Cernovich bushwhacked MSNBC’s Sam Seder, distorting the context of an off-color Roman Polanski joke he’d tweeted almost a decade ago. Much like he did with Gunn, Cernovich smeared the podcast host as an enabler of pedophiles. Pedophilia is Cernovich’s favorite frame-up, and he gloated when clueless MSNBC executives briefly fired Seder.
In February, Cernovich set his crosshairs on a new target: Will Sommer, who was then the campaign editor for The Hill newspaper and covers the far-right in a weekly newsletter.
Sommer, who declined to comment for this story, had put up a tweet — nothing remotely fireable — that linked to a Medium post written by Nathan Bernard, a technologist and humorist who lampoons Cernovich and other fake news merchants online. In the post, Bernard claimed a “source” had told him of a sex tape featuring Cernovich.
In his tweet, Sommer also quoted from an email that Cernovich’s attorney, Marc Randazza, had sent Bernard:
“In the event that you are in possession of ... a sex tape starring Mr. Cernovich, I presume that it would be somewhat old material.”
Bernard didn’t reveal his source. There’s no good evidence the tape is real.
But linking to a Nathan Bernard post — any Nathan Bernard post — is a great way to make Cernovich angry. Over the last two years, Bernard and his close friend Vic Berger, a video producer and humorist at Super Deluxe who makes satirical videos of politicians and public figures, have waged a two-man campaign to annoy, infuriate and, they hope, ultimately stymie Cernovich and other bad actors.
“Satire with a purpose,” Bernard calls their work. (Bernard was roommates in the Bronx with rising progressive star Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and says she influenced his politics.)
Bernard and Berger write comedic takedowns of Cernovich and mock the propagandist in videos filled with amusing sound effects, uncomfortable close-ups and awkward slo-mo edits. In a Trumpian flourish, they have branded Cernovich “Weird Mike.” They are out-trolling the troll.
And the troll doesn’t like it.
So perhaps what happened the day after Sommer tweeted the link to Bernard’s post shouldn’t have been so surprising: Randazza, who represents multiple white supremacists such as Andrew Anglin and far-right slanderers such as Alex Jones, emailed a scathing three-page letter to Bob Cusack, the editor-in-chief of The Hill. In the letter, which HuffPost obtained a copy of, Randazza falsely accused Sommer of “soliciting revenge pornography,” “sexual harassment,” and having “an obsession [with Cernovich] bordering on stalking.”
He didn’t stop there. Randazza, who advertises himself as a staunch defender of the First Amendment, referenced the Hulk Hogan sex tape lawsuit that libertarian billionaire and Trump supporter Peter Thiel secretly financed to drive Gawker out of business.
Thiel’s demolition of Gawker has had a chilling effect on press freedom in America, and the case is routinely and gleefully invoked by phony free speech “patriots” who share Cernovich’s agenda to cripple the media.
“Mr. Sommer’s moral bankruptcy should not lead to your financial bankruptcy,” Randazza, who refused to comment for this story, warned Cusack.
The message was clear: Shut up or else.
It wouldn’t be the last time Cernovich came after Sommer. And the journalist wasn’t his first target. Far from it.
The Ratfucker Cabal
To understand Cernovich’s war on the press — and his gripe with Bernard and Berger — requires a familiarity with the alt-lite, a group of nativist “Make America Great Again” propagandists and grifters who got their name because of their ideological proximity to the white nationalist “alt-right” movement.
Cernovich is a ringleader in the group, whose members include anti-Muslim Laura Loomer, British fascist and former Breitbart editor Milo Yiannopoulos, conspiracy theorist Jack Posobiec and Lucian Wintrich, a smarmy white supremacist-friendly correspondent for The Gateway Pundit, a far-right propaganda outlet. These dirty tricksters, several of whom have received press credentials from the Trump White House, all work to subvert the real media.
The alt-lite’s fake news ecosystem sprouted from the far-right fever swamp created by Fox News and a tireless effort by movement conservatives to demonize the media. But the new breed of alt-lite ratfucker is feral, with an ability to directly sway gullible minds through social media. Twitter and other social media platforms have abetted the rise of frauds, racists and fascists who spread lies and can easily form cybermobs. This is a worrisome development for the truth business.
One of the best ways to hurt journalists in the social media era, Cernovich knows, is to tar them online; to destroy their reputations. Too many news outlets exist in financial distress. Overworked journalists can be sidelined by harassment campaigns. And many media companies are now run by business-school graduates allergic to controversy and given over to a reflexive political correctness. One flip statement by a reporter on social media can cause lasting professional damage. All of which plays to the strengths of the alt-lite.
Twitter and other social media have abetted the rise of frauds, racists and fascists who spread lies and can easily form cybermobs. This is a worrisome development for the truth business.
Cernovich honed his troll game years ago. Long before a gloves-on profile in The New Yorker in 2016 boosted his reputation as the “meme mastermind of the alt-right,” he’d used social media and his blog — and a seven-figure divorce settlement from his ex-wife — to become a celebrity in the anti-feminist “pick-up artist” scene.
He later gained a large platform during Gamergate, a 2014 harassment campaign by angry young men ― many of them gamers, some of them white supremacists ― directed at women in the video game industry. Gamergate was an attack not only on feminism but also the media. When Sam Biddle, a Gawker writer who was later targeted by Peter Thiel with litigation, posted sarcastic tweets about shaming and bullying gamers, Cernovich pressured Gawker’s advertisers to cut ties with the publication. Several did, including L.L.Bean and Adobe. The trolls realized they had leverage. A crude movement took shape online, with Cernovich as a figurehead.
A year later, he segued smoothly into a role as megaphone for the Trump campaign, using his audience to push propaganda and malign the media. Cernovich had trafficked in openly racist ideas and rhetoric for some time, associating with the “alt-right” movement as early as 2015.
He tweeted things like this:
But Cernovich only achieved MAGA superstar status — his Twitter follower count surging past 200,000 — by using social media to spread a lie that nearly got families murdered in a pizza joint.
“Pizzagate” was a far-right disinformation campaign about a supposed satanic pedophilia ring run by prominent Democrats out of a D.C. pizzeria. It began as a baseless white supremacist conspiracy theory in the dingiest forums of the internet. But it turned into a full-fledged psyop when Cernovich and other MAGA operatives fused the lies to the hacked emails of Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton’s campaign manager, John Podesta.
The goal was to gull conservative voters during the presidential election. It worked: Almost half of Trump’s supporters bought into Pizzagate, according to a December 2016 YouGov poll. A mob started harassing and threatening the pizzeria and nearby businesses. Eventually, a rube with an assault rifle stormed into the restaurant and fired off a few rounds. (Cernovich has since deleted all his Pizzagate tweets.)
Even after Pizzagate, however, Cernovich continued to bewilder the press, which has consistently failed to appreciate that trolls like him will fight dirty, with any weapon available.
A Pattern of Slander and Harassment
The list of Cernovich’s media targets is long. One of the first journalists he harassed was Robert Mackey, a reporter for The Intercept who’d written a piece during the lead-up to the election about how Cernovich and other far-right figures had tried to suppress voter turnout for Clinton by circulating fake campaign ads.
After Pizzagate almost turned deadly, Mackey confronted Cernovich on Twitter. The propagandist took no responsibility for whipping up a bloodlust and showed no remorse. Instead, he disingenuously claimed to be a journalist ― as if he’d been reporting facts ― and demanded to know why Mackey was trying to silence him when the reporter had “said nothing about convicted pedophile Dennis Hastert,” the child-molesting former Republican speaker of the House.
The implication was obvious — “that somehow I was in on a plot to protect pedophiles,” Mackey told HuffPost. Cernovich’s trolls certainly understood it that way. Twitter didn’t intervene when dozens of trolls harassed Mackey on the platform and accused him of being a pedophile engaged in a cover-up, a Pizzagate parallel that now carried potentially deadly consequences.
Falsely accusing someone of involvement in sex crimes was a questionable strategy for Cernovich. He was arrested for rape in 2003. He denied the allegation, and the charge was reduced to misdemeanor battery. His record was later expunged. But he couldn’t hide his record as a rape apologist.
“Have you guys ever tried ‘raping’ a girl without using force?” he tweeted in 2012. “Try it. It’s basically impossible. Date rape does not exist.” He’d also tweeted in 2012 that, “A whore will let her friend ruin your life with a false rape case. So why should I care when women are raped?”
On his blog in 2011, he’d written: “I like choking a woman right up until her eyes almost go lifeless.” (This is the man Donald Trump Jr. thought should win a Pulitzer Prize.)
All it takes is one lunatic to show up. That’s where he crosses the line. He takes it into the real world and does not care about hurting people.Vic Berger, video producer and humorist at Super Deluxe
Around the time he sent his trolls after Mackey, Cernovich launched his first attack on Berger, who’d poked fun at the propagandist for spreading lies about Hillary Clinton’s health. Cernovich used Twitter and Periscope, a video-streaming service owned by Twitter, to label Berger a “child molester.” A couple Berger fans then sent crass remarks to Cernovich about his infant daughter, after which Cernovich tweeted that Berger was at the center of an “active pedophile ring.”
Twitter allowed Cernovich to repeat the slander over and over as his trolls bombarded Berger with hundreds of hateful tweets, emails and calls. Some sent threats. “Watch your back, pedo,” one said. Another threatened to stab Berger in the eyes, Berger said.
The producer, who has two young children, was frightened. “All it takes is one lunatic to show up,” Berger told HuffPost. “That’s where he crosses the line. He takes it into the real world and does not care about hurting people.”
Cernovich soon tried to paint New York magazine writer Jesse Singal as a pedophile enabler in league with Berger because he happened to follow the humorist on Twitter. Cernovich emailed Singal “out of the blue,” according to the journalist, and in several unhinged messages tried to squeeze a comment out of Singal about Berger’s connection to pedophiles. When Singal replied that he didn’t even know Berger, Cernovich raised the possibility of legal action against New York magazine.
“Happy to talk to NY Mag’s lawyers about this, or to have my lawyers talk to them. This is not random ‘Twitter trolling’ by you or Vic,” Cernovich told Singal in an email Singal shared with HuffPost. “This is seriously sickening stuff and you continue to lie about it.”
Next up was Sopan Deb, a New York Times culture writer. In March 2017, Deb tweeted a harmless dog-related pun after the rapper Bow Wow made an ugly comment about pimping Melania Trump. On Twitter, Cernovich attacked Deb for supporting “rape culture” and urged his trolls to contact Liz Spayd, the Times public editor. Spayd fell for the bunkum and chastised Deb in her ombudsman’s column.
Cernovich bashed plenty of other journalists throughout 2017 and into 2018: The New York Times’ Maggie Haberman and Peter Baker, CNN’s Jim Acosta and Jake Tapper, Bloomberg’s Eli Lake, Mother Jones’ Clara Jeffery, The Young Turks’ Cenk Uygur, Splinter News’ Emma Roller, The Independent’s Emily Shugerman, Rolling Stone’s Matt Taibbi, and others.
Cernovich returned his focus to Singal in November 2017. In a flurry of emails, Cernovich accused Singal of working with Berger to coordinate a harassment and stalking campaign against his wife and daughter. “You are part of this story, a central part,” Cernovich emailed. On Twitter, he implied that Singal had encouraged death threats against children. He emailed the chief operating officer at New York magazine.
“Every time Vic [Berger] does something, I contact Jesse Singal’s employer,” Cernovich told HuffPost.
That same month, Cernovich tried to bully Luke O’Neil, who had written about Berger for The Daily Beast.
“You are part of a campaign of terror against my wife and child,” Cernovich told O’Neil in a Twitter direct message that O’Neil shared with HuffPost.
Cernovich vowed to go to The Daily Beast’s human resources and legal departments and contact the publication’s parent company. For O’Neil, a freelancer who now writes for Esquire, the prospect of a lawsuit was troubling. But Cernovich never went that far. “Even for a weird litigious moron it would have been pretty silly to sue me,” O’Neil said.
In his upside-down world of far-right conspiracies, Cernovich seemed to have convinced himself that any journalist who even wrote about his harassment of Berger was somehow in on a plot to terrorize his family.
“It’s guilt by association,” Cernovich says.
MSNBC Takes the Troll-Bait
That brings us to Sam Seder, the host of MSNBC’s “Majority Report.” In November, Cernovich published a Medium post (now deleted) about a 2009 joke Seder had tweeted (now deleted) that satirized Roman Polanski defenders pointing to the film director’s talent to downplay his rape of a 13-year-old girl. It was the sort of edgy zinger that people tweet when news breaks, knowing most readers will intuit the context.
“Don’t care re Polanski, but i hope if my daughter is ever raped it is by an older truly talented man w/ a great sense of mise en scene,” Seder wrote.
Eight years later, sans context, the tweet was irresistible for Cernovich. It combined his obsessions with the media and Hollywood — and child rape. And Seder was the perfect target after he’d recently brought Berger on his show to discuss Cernovich’s mudslinging.
On social media, Cernovich’s attack on Seder was boosted by figures from all corners of the alt-lite and MAGA world, including Donald Trump Jr. and former Trump adviser Sebastian Gorka, along with two of Cernovich’s close collaborators ― Stefan Molyneux, a racist Canadian propagandist who has helped radicalize many young men to fascism, and Vice co-founder Gavin McInnes, the founder of the Proud Boys, a far-right ethnonationalist crew whose members routinely engage in political violence.
Also telling: Around the time Cernovich’s Medium post went live, a “Majority Report” advertiser received a lawyerly email straight out of the Gamergate playbook. The sender warned about “reputational damage” to the advertiser’s brand because of Seder’s “horrific child rape comments” and promised to alert media outlets and an anti-sexual violence organization.
MSNBC caved and cut ties with Seder. After about a week and much outcry, the network hired him back. It was all very sad — the corporate patellar reflex triggered by a knock from political saboteurs, followed by media executives doing the right thing only after being shamed.
“Unlike my advertisers selling suitcases, a media corporation has all the assets and resources to make a determination as to whether or not a claim [about an employee] is valid, and I don’t think they have exercised those muscles enough. They are learning that they have to,” Seder told HuffPost. “Guys like Cernovich need to be exposed so the moment they try to pull this, people understand his agenda.”
To that end, Seder has commissioned a short documentary film about Cernovich to raise awareness about the propagandist’s tactics and prevent others from being victimized.
Seder’s plan may educate a few media executives. But it may come as little consolation to the reporters Cernovich has worked to silence.
The Conspiracist Falters
In some ways, Cernovich and Randazza’s attack on The Hill’s former campaign editor, Sommer, succeeded. Sommer deleted his tweet that linked to Nathan Bernard’s post about Cernovich’s supposed sex tape, and his employer at the time seemed unsure how to respond.
At The Hill, Sommer got called into a human resources meeting while Cernovich’s far-right associates smeared the journalist, often with the same “stalking and harassment” language that Randazza had used in his letter.
(When HuffPost asked Randazza about the letter, the attorney had only this to say: “U.S. wild-caught Atlantic striped bass is a smart seafood choice because it is sustainably managed and responsibly harvested under U.S. regulations.”)
In June, Sommer took a new job, at The Daily Beast. He hasn’t mentioned Bernard’s sex tape claim again. As it turns out, though, the rumor wasn’t cut out of whole cloth, and Bernard’s source — whom I spoke to — was real, and someone I also know and trust.
The source, a writer who focuses on the far-right, explained to me that he’d been interviewing Cassandra Fairbanks, who is close to Cernovich, when Fairbanks mentioned that a female alt-lite propagandist had been gathering sexual blackmail — Snapchat messages, photos, possibly video — on various men in the scene, including “someone prominent in the movement who was married.” Fairbanks confirmed to HuffPost that this account was accurate.
Only a few people fit Fairbanks’ description. Cernovich was one of them. In the past, Cernovich has bragged about how he “cheated ruthlessly” on his first wife. In a 2011 blog post about “How to Avoid a False Rape Case,” he recommended secretly filming sexual encounters.
Still, there was no evidence of a sex tape. The rumor was secondhand scuttlebutt. A news outlet could have never run a story claiming a Cernovich sex tape existed. And most media outlets wouldn’t resort to using Berger and Bernard’s selective editing of videos, which can alter their context.
But the two don’t feel bad. In their minds, they’re just giving Cernovich a chemically salty taste of his own medicine.
“We are using their tactics against them, often with comedy,” Bernard told HuffPost of his and Berger’s strategy to expose Cernovich and his allies.
“People like Cernovich should never be allowed to talk about anything that could hurt our democracy,” Bernard explains. “The goal is to keep them distracted.”
And Cernovich was distracted. On social media, he retreated from politics and began raving about an “energy shift” in the universe. He wrote about how he was taking “massive doses” of GABA, an inhibitory neurotransmitter in the mammalian central nervous system.
In private, he babbled nervously to people, including to several journalists. Cernovich texted Michael Edison Hayden, who at the time covered the far-right for Newsweek and now works as a researcher focused on extremism, “nonstop for 36 hours straight” about the sex tape rumor, Hayden said.
Cernovich’s wife had grown suspicious and asked her husband to document his whereabouts during his many booze-soaked road trips. “He kept saying, ‘I got the Uber receipts! I got the Uber receipts!’” Hayden said. (Cernovich denied that his wife was suspicious.)
He sent paranoid messages to Jared Holt, a writer for Right-Wing Watch. “Don’t fuck with me, Jared,” Holt said Cernovich told him. “I’m suing everyone near these people. Don’t get caught up in their A.I. revenge porn plot.”
Cernovich was flaming out of control. In July, he attacked Sommer on Twitter again, accusing the journalist of soliciting photographs of Cernovich’s genitalia and inviting Sommer to sue him. Cernovich ranted about Randazza’s “cease-and-desist” letter and tried to slam Sommer at CNN, where the journalist had appeared as a guest on one occasion. (CNN has frequently been the target of Cernovich’s wild calumny. “CNN wants you to be raped,” he said in June 2017 on the show of fellow propagandist Alex Jones. “They want your children to be raped. They want you to be murdered.”)
When HuffPost repeatedly asked him to provide evidence that Sommer had solicited photographs of his genitalia or that any journalists had threatened and harassed his family, Cernovich could not. Instead, he attempted to implicate Sommer in his guilt-by-association plot and brought up the deadly mass shooting at the Capital Gazette newspaper in Maryland last month.
“Will’s friends also keep threatening my family and given the recent shooting at that Gazette by a stalker, it’s not hard to see what they are planning next,” Cernovich said in an email.
This was a dangerous allegation, not to mention a gross distortion ― in the minutes after the shooting, Cernovich had tried to politicize the massacre and use it to attack journalists and anti-fascists.
Cernovich was flailing — and Berger and Bernard were celebrating. They’d fought fire with fire. And they were winning.
The two satirists might seem an unexpected bulwark against far-right propaganda. But as traditional media struggle to contend with Cernovich and his ilk, they might also be a fitting one.
“I just want those guys to go away,” Cernovich said on Friday.
He was tweeting as he said it. About pedophilia.