What happened to the formerly fearsome right-wing media troll?

In the aftermath of the 2016 election, a new cast of political characters popped up on the national media’s radar: right-wing provocateurs who had built previously ignored followings on the internet and who seemed suddenly relevant as establishment journalists and politicians tried to understand Donald Trump’s surprising victory.

Hence the serious attention people started paying to characters like Mike Cernovich, Milo Yiannopoulos, and others, who reveled in the attention and could plausibly claim that their influence extended to millions of online fans as well as the newly elected leader of the free world.

Cut to 2019, and the media focus has moved on: Some of these figures are still tweeting and stirring stuff up, but they don’t seem to have nearly the clout they appeared to have a couple years ago.

What happened? A few things, says CNN media reporter Oliver Darcy, who specializes in tracking conservative media:

  • The platforms that gave many of the trolls a home, namely Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube, have become less welcoming, particularly to those who advocate harassment and worse; in some cases, like that of Yiannopoulos, they have kicked them off their service entirely. And despite promises to create new platforms that would challenge the big tech companies, trolls who have been “de-platformed” have found it hard to reconstitute their followings in new locations.
  • The media has belatedly focused its attention on the direct and powerful link between Fox News and the White House, and now realizes that what that channel’s stars say to Trump — both on- and off-air — has enormous impact on his thinking, policies, and actions. There’s no equivalent to Tucker Carlson or Fox and Friends that’s mainly on Twitter.
  • News outlets like things that are new. The right-wing troll isn’t a new idea anymore, so it’s going to get less attention. And attention helps feed the trolls.

Darcy and I talked about these trolls’ apparent diminishment on this week’s episode of Recode Media. You can read an excerpt of that conversation below.

Peter Kafka

I do want to talk to you about the conservative media landscape. When we first started talking about this a couple years ago, a lot of attention was focused on the Mike Cernovichs of the world and Milo Yiannopoulos. A lot of emphasis was placed on these trolls and how they were feeding a general conservative news movement. [You] don’t hear much talk about them now. Even last year, when you [and reporter Charlie Warzel] came out to talk about this, they had sort of receded from the conversation. Cernovich is still on Twitter [but] Milo has been de-platformed. What accounts for the seeming diminished influence of individual trolls like that?

Oliver Darcy

Well, I think part of their influence is always tethered to how much media coverage they’re receiving, and back in 2016, they were the shiny new object.

Peter Kafka

Yep. The New Yorker profiled Cernovich.

Oliver Darcy

And Trump had just shocked everyone by winning the election. And so, people were trying to figure out, how did this happen? And obviously, this was a key component of this, so they received a lot of coverage, and in turn, I think, gave some of these people an added sense of influence. We saw the same thing with Breitbart, where people were covering Breitbart, and Breitbart had a lot of its power and influence tethered to the ability to jump into a cable news chyron because of something they posted.

Peter Kafka

And also, they were directly connected to Steve Bannon and Steve Bannon was in the White House.

Oliver Darcy

Right. Not to diminish those things either, but I think a good chunk of their influence was tethered to how much media attention or media coverage they could drive. And I think after a while, you know, they’re not really new. We kind of know their game, we know what they do. And so, those stories about the Mike Cernovichs of the world have considerably decreased, as have the stories about how things end up in Trump’s Twitter feed, because at this point, we know that it’s either he saw it on Fox and Friends, and Fox and Friends saw it from some right-wing website, and that right-wing website picked it up, probably, from some message board.

Peter Kafka

A lot of that mystery has been solved.

Oliver Darcy

And so, I’m not sure what value a lot of these stories would add in this.

Peter Kafka

In some cases … we’re focused on the 8chans of the world, the swamp where it comes from. We don’t care about the individual who created it so much, we care about the ecosystem that allowed it to bubble up.

Oliver Darcy

And I think, at this point, too, we’re also focused maybe on Fox, because Fox has gotten considerably more pro-Trump in the past four years. And they have a larger microphone and more influence on this president than anything else. So, when the Cernovichs are interesting because a lot of the things they say end up on Fox, I think Fox is really becoming more of the main story.

Peter Kafka

We know that it’s possible Trump is scrolling through his Twitter and maybe hitting a random retweet. We definitely know that he is spending hours watching TV.

Oliver Darcy

Sure. And Tucker Carlson and Sean Hannity and all these guys.

Peter Kafka

He’s both watching them and they have direct pipelines …

Oliver Darcy

They’ve been talking to him.

Peter Kafka

Right. We know where all that is coming from. How much has Twitter, Facebook, Google’s efforts to rein in their platforms — which they say is non-ideological and conservatives argue otherwise — how much have those efforts diminished the reach of a Cernovich? Milo’s been kicked off a lot of the platforms already.

Oliver Darcy

You have to divide it up. I think, for instance, Alex Jones is no longer on any of these platforms. Someone like Laura Loomer has also been taken off most of these platforms. Milo has been taken off most of these platforms. So, there has been some efforts by these tech companies to actually buckle down on people who break their rules.

Peter Kafka

I’ve heard — and I think you’re saying this now — that [those efforts] really have been effective in diminishing those specific individuals’ reach and influence.

Oliver Darcy

The only time I ever hear about Milo these days is when people talk about how de-platforming him actually reduces reach. And there’s always the talk of, well, if you take them off this platform, they’ll just move somewhere else. We haven’t really seen that happen in a big way yet. Sure, some of them do eventually move to a platform like Telegram or Discord or whatever it may be. But we haven’t seen it happen in a way that would really [matter]. You know, [Yiannopoulos] had millions of followers on the main social platforms, now he’s probably reduced to a few thousand.

Darcy is someone who’s very much worth listening to when it comes to figuring out the right-wing media. That’s because in addition to being a sharp reporter, he has the advantage of coming out of right-wing media. Darcy was active in the college conservative movement and then translated that interest in politics into a job writing for Glenn Beck’s The Blaze before moving on to Business Insider and now CNN. That gives him real insight into the way that world works and plenty of contacts inside it. You can hear our entire conversation here and follow him on Twitter at @oliverdarcy.

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