“His politics have been guided by platform metrics,” reflected Andrew Gauthier, who was a top video producer at BuzzFeed and later worked for Joseph R. Biden Jr.’s presidential campaign. “You always think that evil is going to come from movie villain evil, and then you’re like — oh no, evil can just start with bad jokes and nihilistic behavior that is fueled by positive reinforcement on various platforms.”
And so Mr. Gionet’s story isn’t quite the familiar one of a lonely young man in his bedroom falling down a rabbit hole of videos that poison his worldview. It’s the story of a man being rewarded for being a violent white nationalist, and getting the attention and affirmation that he’s apparently desperate for.
We spent a lot of time at BuzzFeed thinking about how to optimize our content for an online audience; he optimized himself.
When he was arrested in Scottsdale, Ariz., last month for spraying mace into the eyes of a bouncer, an officer reported that Mr. Gionet “informed me that he was a ‘influencer’ and had a large following on social media,” according to a police report. He was released on his own recognizance, a Scottsdale police spokesman said, and is awaiting trial. Nonetheless, in the Capitol, he yelled “A.C.A.F.” — All Cops Are Friends.
His story leaves me wondering what share of blame those of us who pioneered the use of social media to deliver information deserve at this moment. Did we, along with the creators of those platforms, help open Pandora’s box?
I didn’t work directly with Mr. Gionet. But in 2012, I did hire a writer named Benny Johnson who was cultivating a voice that blended social media savvy and right-wing politics. I thought, wrongly, of his politics at the time as just conservative. And I imagined him thriving, as conservative writers have done for generations in mainstream newsrooms, where they shared their colleagues’ interest in finding shared facts.
I was slow to realize that his interests weren’t journalistic, or even ideological, as much as they were aesthetic, thrilled by the imagery of raw power. In the tradition of authoritarian propagandists, he was awed by neoclassical buildings, guns and, later, Donald Trump’s crowds. And, after we fired him for plagiarism in 2014, he went on to lead the content arm of Mr. Trump’s youth wing, Turning Point USA, and host a show on Newsmax. Last week, he was cheerleading attempts to overturn the election (though he pulled back when the violence began and later blamed leftists for it.) He’s also selling his skills in the “viral political storytelling” that we worked together on at BuzzFeed to a generation of new right-wing figures like Representative Lauren Boebert, who has won attention for vowing to bring her handgun to work in Congress. (Neither Mr. Gionet nor Mr. Johnson responded to email inquiries.)