Day 6

How a 16-year-old Canadian girl helped take down Milo Yiannopoulos

Last week, controversial alt-right personality Milo Yiannopoulos lost his job, his lucrative book deal and his speaking gig at the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC), after a video surfaced in which he appeared to condone paedophilia. The video was launched into action by a 16-year-old Canadian high school student. She tells us how it all went down.
Milo Yiannopoulos holds a press conference in New York City on February 21, 2017. (Timothy A. Clary/AFP/Getty Images)

by Brent Bambury

When Bill Maher, host of HBO's Real Time, booked alt-right provocateur Milo Yiannopoulos for his show, liberals were incensed.

Yiannopoulos, a former newspaper columnist who was then an editor at Breitbart, had cultivated a following with his outrageous rhetoric, online abuse and baiting of progressives. It was making him famous. His appearance on Maher's show indicated a star on the rise.

And it was contentious.

Another guest who'd agreed to be on the panel backed out, citing Yiannopoulos as the reason. But on February 17th, the show went to air with minimal conflict and the mainstreaming of Milo Yiannopoulos seemed likely to continue.

Three days later, his career was in ruins.

A lucrative book deal with Simon & Schuster was withdrawn. His speaking gig at the Conservative Political Action Conference evaporated and he resigned from his position at Breitbart.

Bill Maher was quick to take credit for the implosion.

"As I say, sunlight is the best disinfectant," he told the New York Times. "You're welcome."

But nothing that was said on Maher's show hastened the downfall of Milo Yiannopoulos. Hours after his appearance on Real Time, videos began to circulate on social media of comments Yiannopoulos made in two public appearances, defending consensual sex between teenage boys and men.

And it was a teenage Canadian who excavated those comments and timed their release for maximum impact. She calculated they would damage Yiannopoulos more than the other incendiary things he's said.

She selected the conservative Twitter account she hoped would spread the information. And she did it with complete anonymity.

More than anyone else, she's the person who brought down Milo Yiannopoulos.



Why it went viral

"I first realized that the video was gaining steam when a few conservative journalists retweeted it early Sunday morning," Julia told me on CBC Day 6.

(Julia is not her real name. CBC agreed to protect her anonymity for reasons of personal safety.)

"And I thought that was actually a very good result, because I had no idea it would get anything more than a few hundred retweets. I thought that would be all it was going to be. But then you had more mainstream pundits pick it up, like Ana Navarro and Jake Tapper, and it started spreading beyond what I thought would happen."

Yiannopoulos  also had his defenders, especially before the scandal reached peak velocity. But Julia knew the subject matter had the potential to damage him in a way his other toxic commentary — his racism and sexism — could not.

"It's more apolitical than the other things he said. I mean, when you argue with more alt-right types, they'll contest anything you say about say, racism or sexism and so on and so forth. So there's really no point in going to that. It's a trope that's been done 100 times right?"

"But the part where he defends relationships between older men and younger boys, that stands out. It does cross political lines. I think very few right wingers, and even alt-righters, would defend it if it had come from anyone else."

"That's why you saw him get disinvited from CPAC."



Timing is everything

The CPAC cancellation was a foundational blow for Milo Yiannopoulos.

The statement from The American Conservative Union voiding his CPAC appearance referred to the video as "offensive." I wondered if those videos would have had the same impact if they'd been exposed a week after CPAC.

"No." Julia says. "Not at all."

"It probably would have gotten the 200 or 300 retweets I predicted it would have had. But I don't think the conservative journalists and pundits would have spread it, and [that] it would have gotten steam in the mainstream media."

Pushing out the video just before CPAC gave Julia a chance to peel traditional conservatives away from the insurgent alt-right.

"I seriously doubt it would have blown up to the extent that it was, essentially based on this pent up frustration and anger by Never Trumpers and more traditional conservatives."


She kept her cool

Julia says another reason her strategy succeeded was because she ignores the racism and sexism that Yiannopoulos likes to deploy. She didn't take the bait.

"What sets what I did apart from, say the usual attacks on Milo, which was bringing up anything that he said that was racist or sexist or homophobic and so on and so forth, was that many of the younger millennial right wingers that people like Milo appealed to are very de-sensitized to those accusations. So they kind of fall off. They don't really stick."

"But at the same time, I'd say bringing to light something like, say pedophilia, which is considered universally wrong on a bipartisan scale, would force people that they trust, people that they know, to go against Milo, which basically erases the ingroup-outgroup mentality."

In this Jan. 25, 2017 file photo, Milo Yiannopoulos speaks on campus in the Mathematics building at the University of Colorado in Boulder, Colo. (Jeremy Papasso/Daily Camera/Associated Press)

Julia bided her time, listening closely to Yiannopoulos before acting.

"I've spent quite a long time watching YouTube videos of people like Milo. I'd say I like to watch people who do disagree with me. And that's how I had known about the clips — because I'd watched multiple Milo videos."

"And let's be honest, it wasn't going to be a Milo fan who released it."

Did she ever become emotional as she watched his fans cheer him for his savagery? Was she ever angry?

"No, not particularly."

"And I think that's the fault of his camp, because what's essentially happened is they'll post their videos, and they'll post their memes, and they'll be incredibly offensive, and they'll just do it for the sake of ironic humour, and offending people, getting people angry."

"And eventually, especially with younger people, I see more and more people are becoming desensitized to it, to the point where it no longer just provokes an emotional reaction. So I think they've lost much of their edge, because I've never really had an emotional reaction to watching Milo."


A sense of empowerment

When Julia leaked the videos to The Reagan Battalion, the Twitter account that sent them viral, they credited her for the tip and stressed she wished to remain anonymous.

A screenshot of Julia's conversation with the Conservative blog The Reagan Battalion on Twitter.

So how does Julia feel, knowing that from this anonymous base she was able to bring about such change?

"I'd say I feel pretty influential and powerful — more so than I've ever felt before — because I've actually managed to influence something in the world that's outside of my immediate sphere."

Milo Yiannopoulos no longer appears to be rising to stardom, but Julia doubts he's gone for good.

"I think in some way he will be back. He'll just be back in a much smaller way. But I don't think he'll come back into the mainstream like he did the week before this all blew up."

"It's really only the hardcore Milo fans that are staying by him now."