Reporting on the worst people alive

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Hello and welcome to Hell World. Today I’ve interviewed a number of journalists who regularly report on the seedy underbelly of internet extremism and/or the alt-right and white supremacists. It’s clearly a beat that deserves attention particularly as those sorts of ideas continue to penetrate into the mainstream. But it also seems like it must fucking suck shit! What does constantly exposing yourself to the ideas of the worst people alive on a daily basis do to you? Does it destroy your faith in humanity? Does it melt your brain?

What does reporting on the extremist right regularly do to a person’s brain?

Whenever I have occasion to delve into 4chan or alt-right or white supremacist culture for a story I come away from it feeling even more depressed than normal which isn’t easy to accomplish because my mental health is already on some pretty thin ice. (See last week’s post Who Eats the Sin-Eater's Sins? for more on that.) So I asked some reporters whose work I follow and admire what it feels like to have to look at this absolute shit constantly to make a living.

Our Chief Hell World Correspondents are:

Cristina López G, who covers the alt-right for Media Matters. Find her on Twitter here and some of her work here and here.

Will Sommer, a reporter for the Daily Beast, who writes a newsletter focused on conservative media called Right Richter. Find him on Twitter here and some of his work here and here.

Christopher Mathias, who covers hate and extremism for the Huffington Post. Find him on Twitter here and some of his work here and here.

Ben Collins, reporter, dystopia beat, for NBC News, whose full and lengthy interview you can read here.

Did you chance into this extremist/ online conspiracy theorists beat or did you see it developing as a sort of unfortunate boom industry a few years ago and decide to focus on it?

LÓPEZ: It was a mix of factors: I was definitely intentional in defining the beat and spending more time on the grossest corners of the internet, but it came as a logical transition from the immigration and Hispanic media, which is what I was covering before. It’s not the most uplifting to think of it as a logical transition, but the fact of the matter is that nothing has emboldened the far-right and extremist elements as the Trump’s anti-immigrant rhetoric.

SOMMER: I come from a conservative background in Texas, so more mainstream right wing media stuff (Fox, Rush Limbaugh) was something I was used to keeping up with. I had been following all these characters for a couple years, my girlfriend got sick of me telling her about all the characters, so she told me to do a newsletter about them instead. I started Right Richter in May 2016, but Trump's election and the ensuing various alt-right events and crazy conspiracy theories have really blown this whole scene up.

MATHIAS: I started out covering police stuff, namely the way departments abused stop-and-frisk policies. Then that led into covering police shootings - Ramarley Graham, Eric Garner, Freddie Gray. I covered all those protests, interviewed the families. At some point — in part I think because of how the NYPD surveilled Muslim communities — I started getting interested in Islamophobia. I started covering the anti-Muslim movement in this country, and started covering hate crimes. Then that was a natural segue into covering extremism and Nazis. I covered this neo-Confederate rally in Gettysburg (my hometown), and then I was in Charlottesville later that summer. The last year has been nuts. I think I’ve been to 7 white supremacist rallies.  

What sort of toll does it take on your mental health? I dabble in it myself, but there have been times I thought about focusing on it more and said to myself: Nah, I don’t need that shit in my brain all the time.

LÓPEZ: It definitely takes thick skin, but even if you’ve become an expert in detaching yourself and applying a clinical eye, you can’t help but feel the sting every now and then, especially as a queer, immigrant, woman. I combat it with a healthy sense of humor, quality filters on Twitter mentions, and enough offline time to counteract the effects of our too-online job.

SOMMER: First off, I want to note that I am lucky in some aspects when it comes to covering this stuff. The fact that I'm straight, white, male, and not Jewish means that I avoid having a lot of the abuse directed at me that other people on this beat face. I think that kind of harassment really increases the mental toll, and I have a lot of respect for people who do this work anyway. Most of my stuff isn't focused on the most extreme Neo-Nazi type sites, which is also nice.

That said! It can get pretty mind-bending / depressing. The worst I had it recently was when I was trying to figure out who was behind QAnon, which sent me into some really jarring places on the internet and had me looking through some bizarre YouTube videos.

MATHIAS: Hard to say to be honest. I’m a pretty happy dude, but of course this  beat can be very anxiety-inducing. Mostly because it never stops. I’m on my phone constantly, which isn’t healthy. And there’s the fear of retaliation by very bad people. I’ve been doxxed. Nazis talk on podcasts about me and my colleagues getting bricked. There are threats and hate mail. (Note: People on this beat have had it a lot worse than me. And women typically get it the worst.) Also every story is high stakes. If you’re calling someone a Nazi, you better be sure.  There’s a fear of getting something wrong. The flip side to all of this though, is that I have a sense of purpose on this beat. Sometimes it feels like I’m doing something important, and that’s good.

Has it changed your faith in humanity in anyway? Made you more or less cynical about things?

SOMMER: I think, in terms of conspiracy theories, this whole thing has opened my eyes to how willing people are to believe truly insane stuff.

LÓPEZ: I never had any to begin with — dogs, on the other hand, will never let you down. In all seriousness, what I’ve become cynical about is social media. I used to think of it as a morally neutral tool with the benefits of interconnectedness outweighing any costs, but the reality is that it’s being manipulated by the worst elements, exploiting prejudices and turning them into ideologies, exposing many to hateful ideas and providing economic incentives to push those ideas (*coughs* YouTube Super Chats *coughs*). Now I think of it as a necessary evil we’re all unfortunate to be too dependent on.

MATHIAS: I don’t know if I have more or less faith in humanity. What I’ll say is that it’s radicalized me a bit. Part of this beat is seeing how fringe Nazi ideas end up in the mainstream. It’s horrifying. And you see the connections between straight-up fascists and those in power. It’s so alarming, and it feels like a lot of people — and I guess I’m thinking of white centrist people in the media — aren’t addressing this political moment with the language and the urgency and the force that it deserves. It’s scary. Keeps me up at night sometimes. You can see how things could get even worse. The other thing I’ll say is this: As shitty as the people I’ve met on this beat can be, I’ve also met the most dedicated and caring and passionate and intelligent and selfless people working hard for justice, and to stop fascists from terrorizing their communities. It’s inspiring.

Was there a particular instance of something you saw that shook you at all?

MATHIAS: I was in the parking garage in Charlottesville when DeAndre Harris got beat. I remember interviewing a person who had been there when Heather Heyer killed. It was like an hour after the attack, and their body was shaking, they were so scared and they were crying so hard. That shook me. And then in Portland, when I interviewed the girlfriend of one of the heroes killed on the MAX train — the dudes who stopped white supremacist Jeremy Christian from attacking black teenage girls. The girlfriend had just lost the love of her life less than a week earlier, and she had the grace to sit down with me and tell me about him. I can’t describe how sad that interview was. How angry it made me. And then lastly, I was just in Portland for the proto-fascist (Proud Boys and Patriot Prayer) rally there. I’ve covered a lot of protests, and I’ve seen aggressive policing, but the Portland PD was nuts. They turned that city into a war zone for no reason. And all the violence was directed at the anti-fascists. They’re lucky they didn’t kill anyone. It was the first time a protest scared me a bit.

LÓPEZ: While spending a couple hours a day on 4chan, 8chan, and Gab would raise anyone’s shock threshold, the amount of misogyny on incel (involuntary celibates) message boards still makes my skin crawl. Another thing that’s always shocking every time, no matter how often it happens, is the callousness of extremist shitposting that follows mass shootings — like their empathy is broken.

Is Q real? You have to tell me if it is.

SOMMER: Haha, sadly, Q is not real.

LÓPEZ: Thanks for this opportunity: I’m Q.