(Top photo: Alex Jones during an Infowars broadcast. Screenshot: YouTube/Infowars)
"Delete Your Account" is a new column by Hussein Kesvani, about everything that happens when politics meets the internet.
Last week I found myself in the unfortunate position of being quote-tweeted by Infowars commentator Paul Joseph Watson. Paul is now best known as the man who angrily shouts things in front of a big map, largely about why Donald Trump is good and, more importantly, why pop culture – particularly Beyonce, for some reason – is bad. Your dad might have emailed his videos to you under the subject line "SHARIAH UK 2017".
Anyway, my tweet suggested that perhaps some protesters at UC Berkley had taken the heat off Breitbart writer Milo Yiannopoulos by allowing his views to appear reasonable. Not an unfair view, in my opinion, but somehow this tweet ended up in one of his videos, alongside a mimicking voice that sounds less like me and more like Gary Barlow on nitrous. As a result, Paul's followers – a merry band of actual white supremacists, tankies, suburban Christian mums and angry fathers with Union Jack avatars – ended up clogging my message folder for the next few days.
What surprised me the most about Paul's surprisingly neatly defined cabal of followers wasn't their relentlessness when it came to tweeting around the clock, but rather the lack of creativity in their offensiveness. Throughout the three days after he published his video, his followers tended to tweet the same sort of stuff at me – accusations of left-wing fascism, or of being a secret Islamic fascist, or of being the "actual Nazi". Every so often, one of his followers would direct message me poorly photoshopped Donald Trump/Pepe memes, despite the fact I kept telling them I wasn't American, and live in London. For a group of people wanting to rid the internet of liberal lefties in the age of Trump – an age in which they should feel more empowered than ever – they instead opted for repeatedly predictable and tedious lines of ridicule.
The whole incident made me think about the trajectory of Infowars in 2017.
Currently, Infowars is best known as the show hosted by Alex Jones, a stocky Texan who you may have seen suggesting that fluoride in water turns frogs gay, or that Donald Trump's ascension to POTUS is close to the second coming of Christ. At the time of writing, the Infowars homepage leads with stories like "EMERGENCY! Trump's plan to save humanity under attack!" and a listicle of Trump's "best tweets of the week". Meanwhile, Infowars' YouTube channel is largely filled with their reporters "exposing political correctness" on college campuses and advertising health supplements.
For many people who grew up watching Infowars in the mid-2000s, such as myself, all of this is a remarkable – but sad – transformation to watch. Like most losers who didn't get invited to parties, I spent most of my teenage evenings and weekends on the internet, often on conspiracy theory websites – an interest that intensified for me after the 7th of July bombings, which most of these sites considered to be a hoax.
Sure, this was a pretty dangerous trajectory; if I was a teenager engaging in this stuff these days, I'd probably end up somewhere on the alt-right spectrum. But Infowars back then was a weird, eccentric, but ultimately creative show that didn't care what anyone else thought of it. Sure, Jones still rattled off about the New World Order; he'd still rant about globalists; and he'd still interview self-appointed paedophile investigators, guys who ran UFO websites and 9/11 truthers. But for a generation of kids like myself – outsiders growing up in stuffy Tory suburbs – it was often the first step towards engaging in politics, even if we didn't agree with anything being said. Back then, Infowars was a space completely removed from the mundane routines of mainstream TV news. No matter how ludicrous the ideas it put forth, it was – ultimately – a place where outcasts could connect in an environment that outwardly rejected mainstream culture.
Some have joked that Infowars has decided, after more than a decade of raging against state-controlled media, to become the mouthpiece of Donald Trump.
It's remembering this era of Infowars that makes its current incarnation so depressing. A media network that once treated all "global elites" as the enemy of humanity has now capitulated into worshipping everything it used to rally against, seeing no fault in the American state and becoming its own vociferous defender. The channel's new enemies are now "shills sponsored by George Soros", despite the likeliness that a good number of these people – those protesting against President Trump – had probably grown up watching Alex Jones in one way or the other.
So what is Infowars in 2017? Some have joked that the platform has decided, after more than a decade of raging against state-controlled media, to become the mouthpiece of Donald Trump. In my view, this is a step too far. It's more realistic to view Infowars as another news organisation going through a rough patch.
One of the consequences of politics in 2016 was the rise of "budget Infowars" websites: established organisations like Breitbart, but also the huge number of "fake news" sites largely pushing similar lines as Infowars (think: "Hillary Clinton has satanist dinners"). Jones' YouTube presence – a key factor that differentiated his site from others – is also being undermined by a generation of younger right-wing commentators saying similar things in a more palatable form, across social media networks where Infowars has little, if any, presence.
When it comes to the decline of a media company, these are all natural and predictable things. So I'd argue it's something else entirely putting Infowars' future at risk: its near constant self-comparison to mainstream media channels. Nearly every Infowars show in the past month has attempted to pit Infowars against channels like CNN or MSNBC in order to reassert its credibility.
Though largely existing as a commentary site, Infowars hosts liberally drop terms like "fake news" and run segments "calling out" mainstream media, attempting to imply that only places like Infowars can truly be trusted. Infowars may see this as a moral crusade, but in reality they aren't doing anything that liberal new media companies haven't already done before.
To outsiders who only discovered Infowars during the 2016 election, the show may seem frightening, dangerous and wholly illustrative of the "fake news" endemic that has plagued social media since Trump started running for office. But for those of us who grew up watching it – and whose first political experiences were largely informed by it – the show has become little more than a theatrical Breitbart – which, at its core, is boring, mundane and wholly predictable.