This is what it's like to share a name with a notorious asshole.
Left: Photo by Getty Images. Right: Photo via Twitter
Richard Spencer used to have the market cornered on Richard Spencers. It's a common enough name, but his job as the Middle East correspondent for the Times of London made it unlikely anyone could challenge his algorhythmic superiority. That started to change about two years ago. Spencer spends a lot of time reporting on Muslims and Islamist organizations, which just so happened to be a primary target for a young white nationalist of the same name rising through the far-right ranks. Much to the reporter's befuddlement, readers started responding to articles under his byline with some version of, "You know he's a white supremacist, right?"
"Luckily enough people knew who I was to correct them politely without me normally having to get involved," says Spencer, over email, from somewhere along the Iraqi-Syrian border. "I tried to just hope he'd go away."
Regrettably, Richard Spencer—not this one, that one—did not go away. The mainstream media swaddled the pomade-loving racist with tons of attention prior to the election, and he's remained an undeniably visible presence since Donald Trump ascended to the highest office in the land. White nationalist Spencer was present in Charlottesville during that city's "Unite the Right" tragedy, and this week his scheduled appearance at the University of Florida prompted a state of emergency to be declared by Governor Rick Scott. He is now, without a doubt, the most famous Richard Spencer in the world, a reality that has forced every other Richard Spencer to reckon with him in some way, nowhere more so than on Twitter.
"It really took off after the election and particularly after his 'Heil Trump' speech," says Times reporter Spencer. "He was suspended from Twitter, so of course people searching for him found me instead. That's when the Twitter feed got totally out of hand. Unfortunately, people telling me how great I was outweighed those abusing me by quite a factor."
Studies have shown social media has made us dumber and more angry. And the anonymity provided by some social platforms means both are in full bloom there. For Richard Spencer and those who share names with people who are largely reviled, life online can be a cruel slog. Their mentions are often a cesspool, and each has developed their own way of wading through it.
"My strategy with people who mistake me for the other Stephen Miller is to be exceedingly earnest, no matter how idiotic or vitriolic the message," says Stephen Miller, a writer now living in Montreal. He, of course, is frequently mistaken for Trump senior adviser Stephen Miller, who you may recognize as the wormy doofus who is astoundingly bad at press briefings.
Stephen Miller and Richard Spencer have amended their Twitter bios to clarify that they aren't their respective doppelgängers. Miller adjusted his—"no, i do not work for trump. that's the other stephen miller"—after the account of FOX News host Jeanine Pirro incorrectly tagged his name in her tweets when the president's Miller was a guest on her show. "If the staffer managing Pirro's Twitter account misidentified me as a Trump adviser, I figured it was time to add a line," he says. For the most part, both regard the coincidence with a certain amount of levity, though you wouldn't say either embrace it with open arms.
That does happen to be the preferred tactic of Jon Jones, though, a game developer living in Brooklyn who just happens to share a name with the UFC's Jon "Bones" Jones.
If you're unfamiliar, Jon Jones is a brilliant, but troubled light-heavyweight mixed-martial artist who routinely gets suspended from the UFC for doping violations and other crimes. The two Jons could not be further apart physically, emotionally, or culturally, but Game Developer Jones has happily accepted his fate as "the guy people accidentally tweet at when Jon Jones does something shitty."
"Did you know that you can get so many tweets so fast that your phone can become painfully hot to the touch, and Twitter can freeze and crash?" asks Jones, recalling the first time he was confronted with Bones mania. "I never know when this will start or stop, so I'll be in public doing whatever, and suddenly my phone will simply start vibrating almost continuously. That's when I know what I'm doing with the rest of my week." Now, when a Twitter onslaught begins, Jones says, "it's something I understand and can confidently control."
Case in point: On August 22 of this year, after news broke that Bones had tested positive for steroids and would be stripped of his title for a record-setting third time, Jones retweeted a TMZ Sports story with a simple, eloquent reply: "FUUUUUUUUUUUUCCCCCCCKKKKKKKKKK." It was retweeted 25,000 times, liked more than 80,000, and got him invited onto SportsCenter. In that appearance, Jones admits he doesn't follow the UFC, and isn't "a sports fan in general." "This is a sport that literally follows me," he says with unmistakable glee during the segment. "The entirety of my knowledge of the MMA comes exclusively from angry people yelling at someone they think is a professional fighter but isn't."
This case of mistaken identity brings Jon Jones joy. But there is a flip side of the coin. Jones says he'll stop if the Bones saga ever gets seriously dark. "I couldn't live with myself if all I did was dance around like a clown in the ashes of another man's misery," he says.
Spencer worries about something else entirely. Namely, long-term digital erasure.
"The main problem—and I can't see there's anything that can be done about it—is Google and other search engines," he says. "Until a couple of years ago, I was pretty much the Richard Spencer, as far as Google was concerned, particularly if you added in 'Syria' or 'Islamists' or other terms related to what I do. In a confirmation that in the online world it's controversy that counts rather than content, now I have virtually disappeared."
Obviously, Spencer, Miller, and Jones could each change their Twitter display name to something that could keep them off the radar of Twitter dregs. But one thing all three have in common is a categorical refusal to ever alter their signature because of someone else's sins. There is pride in a name.
Says Miller, "In the immortal words of Michael Bolton from Office Space, 'Why should I change? He's the one who sucks.'"
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