How This Left-Wing Activist Manipulates the Media to Spread His Message
EXCLUSIVE: How This Left-Wing Activist Manipulates the Media to Spread His Message
'Jetsetting terrorist' Peter Young tells us how he gets malleable bloggers and lazy journalists to generate outrage and attention for him
By Ryan Holiday | 02/11/15 10:16am
I first heard of Peter Young when a reporter at the Daily Dot asked me if I was somehow involved in 2013’s “Ex-Vegans” stunt in which dozens of former vegans were exposed for having eaten meat. After dominating the media cycle for several days, the surprise left hook of the campaign landed: All the traffic and inbound links were redirected to footage of appalling slaughterhouse conditions. Hundreds of thousands of people were unwittingly exposed to the very unpleasantness that media attempts to shield from them.
I’m not a vegan, and I had nothing to do with the campaign—but I do have a lot of respect for its brilliance and execution and for the fact that it reveals a salient fact about our times. Today’s media system is a bit like an emperor with no clothes. Peter Young resembles nothing so much as Mathew Carpenter, the man who recently turned a stunt about shipping glitter to your enemies into $100,000. They both understand intuitively how the media works and have used it repeatedly to advance their interests. While they did what they did for very different reasons, I learned that they’d both read my book, Trust Me, I’m Lying, and it had influenced their actions.
I thought I would interview Mr. Young because he recently ran another campaign of media manipulation, in this case intended to reveal and expose problems with the TSA watch list (a system which he is intimately familiar with since he is, in fact, on it). In less than eight hours, his blog—which he had constructed entirely for the purposes of getting attention—was picked up places like Boing Boing, Techdirt and Forbes. And now he’s ready to explain exactly what he does to advance his ideology and how it works in today’s online-driven culture. He assures me the answers below and the stories on his site are 100 percent true. I’ll leave it to you whether or not you want to trust him.
“The unspoken conspiracy that you speak of, that exists between journalists and those seeking publicity is very real. If you have a story that provokes—real or not—they have the time. Give them the promise of traffic and a little plausible denial and you’re in.”
So tell us, are you really on the TSA watch list and how did that happen?
In 1998, I was charged with Animal Enterprise Terrorism for my role in freeing foxes and mink from fur farms. This amounted to cutting fences and opening cages at six farms. Under the weight of an 82-year maximum sentence, I became a fugitive for seven years, lived under several aliases, and was arrested at a Starbucks in 2005. I served two years in prison.
Because of the “terrorist” label, in the years since I’ve had my house raided by the FBI twice, been named as suspect in several animal liberations, found laptops with dead batteries fully charged when removed from storage a year later (do the math), had my garbage stolen by the authorities, and learned a woman who took me on trip to Moab was working for the FBI.
Of it all, the TSA attention is among the least intrusive.
Now, how does that differ from what was reported in the media and what you put up on your blog? Is there any part of the record you can clear up for us?
Before my anonymity as “the jetsetting terrorist” was compromised by Forbes, I described the crime that put me on the TSA’s watch list as an “activist-related property crime.” Animals are considered property in the eyes of the law, so this was accurate. As for the rest: It wouldn’t be possible to untangle all the misinformation reported in the media and elsewhere over the years. I can’t complain. I probably planted half of it anyway.
[Editor Note: From what Mr. Young told me when he originally reached out, he created the blog, uploaded the posts, then backdated them so it seemed older and more organic. And until this article was published, no outlet doubted the intentions/legitimacy of the blog.]
Tell us how and why you decided to make this something the media would pounce on? What did you do? How did it work? How much traffic /attention did it get?
The Jetsetting Terrorist was launched with the stated goal of going mainstream within two weeks. It took about eight hours. The specific end-goal was The Alex Jones Show. While culturally considered fringe, he has a larger platform than most websites and TV shows. And he hates the TSA. (Spoiler alert: Alex has yet to call me.)
My blueprint—straight from your Trust Me, I’m Lying playbook—was as follows:
•Set up an anonymous burner email account.
•Identify people (leftist/libertarian-leaning celebrities and public figures) with large Twitter followings, get their personal email addresses.
•Email them a link to the site and a two-line email about how this is the best site ever and how “surprised” I am they haven’t tweeted it yet. Pretty simple.
•Trade it up the chain until hitting something big.
•Leverage my anonymity to offer Alex Jones the exclusive on my identity reveal, for an interview.
Why Twitter? Better credibility-to-ease-of-penetration ratio. Here’s what I mean:
Writing a blog post is a time investment. Bloggers are selective of what they dedicate a post to. A prolific blogger might post once or twice a day. A Tweet is copy, paste, done. A prolific Twitter user might post on Twitter 20-plus times a day. But for the purpose of leveraging mentions to receive larger mentions, they are the same: A single tweet has a unique URL that can be sent to larger platforms needing some social proof before running a story. In short, baiting John Cusack into tweeting a link is lower-effort, higher-yield than coverage on a low-level libertarian blog.
I didn’t have to go far. Within a few hours of going live, I (anonymously) sent a link to Sean Bonner. Sean and I had spoken at the same conference once and met afterwards. I was a fan of his email newsletter, and he had a decent Twitter following. More importantly: He was a former contributor to Boing Boing.
As a major driver of virality, Boing Boing was a prized target. Going through a current contributor was like storming the gates. Going through a former contributor was sneaking in the back door. Sean tweeted it within minutes. With the anonymous burner account, I sent a link to the tweet to Cory Doctorow at Boing Boing. A few hours later, it was on Boing Boing.
From there I set up 10 more burner accounts and carpet-bombed the Internet with this email:
This is on the front page of Boing Boing right now but they just did a weak copy/paste job. Would like to see ____ cover this properly.
A white hipster writes hilarious stories about TSA encounters, and flying while on the terrorist watch list. Too good.
The author is anonymous, but worth a try.
I sent this to exactly 103 journalists. I tweaked it slightly to appeal to specific targets. My approach was not scattershot. The majority of emails were sent to journalists who had previously covered the TSA or other civil liberties issues. If done right, you’re adding value to the journalist. It is an equitable exchange.
Immediately thereafter, Forbes contacted me for an interview. In a follow up email, the reporter stated she had done a reverse-lookup of my cell number and determined my real identity. The story—outing me as “the jetsetting terrorist”—ran the following week, bringing attention to both the TSA and the bigger issue of classifying a broad segment of the population as “terrorists.”
Creating the site and content took three days. And it was methodically crafted to maximize virality.
The elements were:
Anonymity: Mystique is powerful.
It’s never been done: With so much talk about the TSA, no one had gone quite as public with their experiences on the TSA’s terrorist watch list.
Awesome content: There’s no shortcut here. I have a background as a writer, and while I wrote with haste, I put care into maximizing the impact of the prose. A collection of generic and poorly written TSA stories would have gone nowhere.
Riding the wave of an ongoing conversation: Controversy over the TSA was a regular part of the public debate. There was a pent up demand for a new angle on an increasingly stale subject.
Solid tagline: “I’m a convicted terrorist. I travel a lot. And the TSA won’t leave me alone. This is my diary of traveling as a marked man.” I spent a lot of time crafting that.
Going hipster: The original “about me” sidebar read “How a jetsetting hipster became a jetsetting hipster terrorist.” While subtle, portraying myself as a “hipster” was in all likelihood the determining factor in making this viral. When you get “terrorist,” “jetsetter,” and “hipster” in one place, It’s too absurd to not spread. You’re clicking that link. (This was, by the way, the only part I changed when my identity was revealed. Calling myself a “hipster” just isn’t accurate. And no one uses that word self-referentially.)
A powerful narrative: There are 1,000 ways to tell the same story. I put effort into maximizing chances of this getting picked up by utilizing timeless literary narratives, accentuating the underdog effect, the reluctant hero, and (subtle) revenge themes.
Niching down: The original plan was “The Hipster Terrorist”—anonymous (and 100 percent true) stories from a convicted “terrorist” documenting the humorous side-effects of life under the “terrorist” label. From stories about awkward dinner-table conversation when meeting a girlfriend’s parents, to the baristas at the Starbucks I frequent googling my name (hilarity ensues). While this would be a great blog (and a book I’ll probably write soon), it lacked any timely discussion to piggyback on. Niching down to the TSA was clearly the right move.
Before this, you manipulated the media with a stunt to drive attention to conditions in slaughterhouses and factory farms. Why do you feel justified in essentially tricking or circumventing the news process in order to get your message across? Is this something you think more advocates should do?
The game plan for The Vegan Sellout List was this:
•Launch a site that allowed people to anonymously submit the names and photos of former vegans, and the story behind their rise and fall from veganism.
•Pre-populate the list with 100 former vegans who have a platform (from celebrities to ex-vegans with high-traffic blogs).
Email all 100 with a link to their entry on the site, and bait them into mentioning it in a blog post or Tweet.
•Concurrently, generate buzz in the vegan blogosphere.
•Parlay all of this to successively bigger blogs, until it hit a huge site that generated serious traffic.
•Pull a bait-and-switch, forcing visitors to watch a video of slaughterhouse footage before entering.
“The Vegan Sellout List” was what the Internet craved: Offensive, provocative, shameless, and impossible not to have an opinion on. From launch the goal was Gawker. We would consider it a success if we hit Gawker. (We spent a considerable amount of time trying to identify writers at Gawker who were former vegans to provoke coverage by making it personal, without success. Gawker ran the story in under three weeks anyway.)