Dissent in the ranks of so-called “marginalized groups,” often viewed as natural constituencies for the left, rarely fails to draw a backlash from progressives and sympathy from conservatives. Recently, such a controversy erupted when rap artist Kanye West voiced support on Twitter for Candace Owens, an African-American conservative YouTuber and Donald Trump supporter. West’s tweet—“I love the way Candace Owens thinks”—was met with much wailing and gnashing of teeth on the left and much celebration on the right (partly out of sheer gloating at the left’s dismay). There has also been more thoughtful commentary, including a Quillette essay by Columbia University philosophy student Coleman Hughes looking at the ways in which standard left-of-center politics in America fail to represent the diversity of opinion in the black community.
This is a healthy discussion. Unfortunately, in their understandable frustration with the social and racial orthodoxies that currently dominate liberal political culture, conservatives and libertarians risk embracing self-styled dissenters who are (to borrow a term from the social justice left) problematic allies.
This is true of West, whose “dissent” consists largely of impulsive provocations and who quickly confounded his new conservative fans by praising gun-control champion Emma Gonzalez. (It is also worth noting that three years ago, the rapper spoke glowingly of the Rev. Louis Farrakhan, the notoriously anti-Semitic militant black leader whose associations with African-American Democratic politicians and progressive activists have been a frequent target of conservatives and centrists.)
But it may be even more true of Owens (“RedPillBlack” on YouTube), a self-described convert to conservatism and a rising star on the right. Owens, who became outreach director for the college-oriented conservative organization Turning Point USA last year, has been hailed as a courageous freethinker by people like Dave Rubin, the center-right host of the YouTube show The Rubin Report. The Center for the American Experiment, a respected conservative think tank in Minneapolis, is hosting her luncheon talk about her “journey to conservatism” on May 8.
Obviously, no one but Owens knows how genuine her professed beliefs are. But a look at her history strongly suggests that her “conservatism” is a mix of opportunism, personal grievances, canned slogans and paranoid conspiracy theories.
The way Owens told it on The Rubin Report last September, her conservative awakening began in the spring of 2016 when she tried to launch a start-up to combat cyberbullying and ran into unexpected opposition from the left—specifically, from social justice activist Zoe Quinn, herself a crusader against online harassment. According to Owens, Quinn tried to persuade her to drop the project and was particularly upset that she wanted to out anonymous trolls and harassers; this led Owens to conclude that Quinn was afraid of being exposed as a fake victim or even an actual cyberbully. Then, Owens said, she herself was attacked by a horde of trolls almost certainly directed by Quinn—and smeared by mainstream liberal journalists who were also in cahoots with Quinn. The only publication that treated her fairly, she said, was the right-wing Breitbart News.
In Owens’s narrative, while her enemies succeeded in killing her project, this incident was her “redpill moment”—right-wing Internet jargon for becoming aware of the truth: Previously a liberal Democrat, she became sympathetic to Trump’s broadsides against “the lying media” and began to question other progressive orthodoxies as well.
It’s a dramatic story; it’s also one that bears very little resemblance to the truth. I know, because I was there. I was one of the first journalists to report on Owens’s anti-cyberbullying start-up. I also followed the ensuing drama—a convoluted saga that involved warring Internet factions—and inadvertently became a part of it.
The start-up, Social Autopsy, first drew major attention on April 13, 2016 when Owens began a crowdfunding project for it on the Kickstarter platform with a goal of raising $75,000. The project description promised a revolutionary solution to Internet bullying: since people who make “awful, nasty comments online” claim they are merely exercising their free speech rights, “let’s launch a database where we capture them exercising those rights and create digital records for them that anyone can access.” The accompanying video blamed the scourge of cyberbullying on the “free-for-all” fostered by widespread use of anonymous or pseudonymous handles and proposed to record the “digital footprints” of people who “lob hate speech over the Web.” The text and the video also asserted that the Social Autopsy “team” (of which Owens remained the only known member) had already compiled a database of 22,000 offenders, with plans to expand it to 150,000 and put it online.
While Owens portrays herself as a victim of leftist persecution, the fact is that the initial backlash against Social Autopsy came mostly from the “cultural libertarian” opposition to the authoritarian left. YouTube video bloggers Matt Jarbo (“Mundane Matt”) and Chris Maldonado (“Chris Ray Gun”), both strong critics of “social justice warriors,” were among the first to blast the project as a terrible idea. Another early negative report came from none other than Breitbart; it was written by Allum Bokhari, a frequent co-author of the not-yet-disgraced Milo Yiannopoulos and a leading foe of the “SJW” left in digital and tech culture.
To these critics, Owens’s start-up smacked of particularly noxious Internet speech-policing: a tool to blacklist people who say mean or politically incorrect things online, go after their jobs (the project’s promotional materials boasted about linking alleged cyberbullies to their places of employment), and expose or “dox” them if they were posting anonymously. Some thought Social Autopsy was meant to target GamerGate, the anti-“SJW” revolt in the videogame community that began in late 2014; however, leading anti-GamerGate figures including Quinn also took a hostile view of the venture.
On the first day of the controversy, I tweeted asking if Social Autopsy was a doxing service under the pretext of outing (alleged) harassers and bullies. A few hours later, I got a message from Owens, who said she was anxious to explain her project and address the concerns and criticisms. The next day, after a telephone conversation and a follow-up email exchange, as well as communications with other people who were looking into the project, I wrote two posts about Social Autopsy for AllThink, a blogging platform to which I was then a regular contributor.
My first impression was that Owens, a 26-year-old who had previously worked as an administrative assistant in finance and had endured a nasty episode of racial harassment in high school, was well-intentioned but somewhat clueless about the issue she was planning to tackle (she had never heard the term “dox” until that day) and didn’t quite know what she was doing.
For instance, Owens assured me that Social Autopsy was not going to “out” any anonymous posters but simply aggregate abusive social media posts people had made under their own names, to be easily found by anyone wanting to check the person’s “digital footprint.” Yet the venture’s marketing pitch stressed the toxic effect of anonymous handles and the resulting lack of accountability; if, as Owens told me, it did not have either the ability or the intent to de-anonymize anyone, that pitch amounted to false advertising. To complicate things further, Owens also said that Social Autopsy would not be exposing anonymous Internet users yet—but would “explore this possibility as we grow.”
There were other problems. While the Social Autopsy website had not yet officially launched, it had a number of pages online with names and photos of individuals listed alongside various offenses ranging from racism or homophobia to general harassment and personal threats. Owens assured me these pages were from a “dummy test site,” not the real Social Autopsy database which was not online yet. To the best of my recollection, she also said that none of those names and photos were of real individuals. (Owens later claimed I misunderstood her; unfortunately, I did not record the conversation.) However, Google searches quickly showed that virtually all were real people.
After my first post on April 14, more issues came up. At least one person listed in the “dummy” database appeared to be linked to a specific “offense”: a Facebook comment about transgender celebrity Caitlyn Jenner that, while crude and demeaning (“It’s [sic] has a penis, that’s a he!”), hardly amounted to harassment. This seemed to contradict Owens’s assurances to me that Social Autopsy would not label anyone a troll or abuser for mere “wrongthink.” For this and other reasons, I wrote a quick follow-up saying I might have been too charitable in describing Owens as well-intentioned.
Later that day, Kickstarter suspended Owens’s fundraiser for violating the platform’s rules, presumably because of its potential for doxing individuals (including minors). Randi Harper, a social justice activist who runs her own anti-harassment initiative, made a scathing post mocking Owens and her “shitty” project and taking credit for shutting down the fundraiser.
A furious Owens went on the warpath, accusing Quinn and Harper of seeking to destroy her start-up because they saw her as invading their turf and also, perhaps, because they were afraid that Social Autopsy would expose their own dark secrets (i.e., that they had faked their online abuse or had engaged in harassment themselves). She then expanded her attack to two journalists who covered the story: New York magazine science columnist Jesse Singal and Washington Post digital culture critic Caitlyn Dewey.
Now that Kanye has endorsed her, may as well re-up my reporting on the incident that launched the gonzo conspiracy theorist Candace Owens to far-right stardom
— Jesse Singal (@jessesingal) April 21, 2018
Owens claimed that they acted on Quinn’s behalf to undermine her and that Dewey even tried to pump her for information about her financial backers.
At this point, Owens found unexpected allies in some of her recent detractors, who now saw her as the enemy of their archenemies. Breitbart’s Bokhari, who had criticized her venture two weeks earlier, gave sympathetic coverage to her claims of abuse by “SJWs” and endorsed the argument that Quinn’s and Harper’s opposition to exposing anonymous trolls was somehow suspicious (with only a passing acknowledgment that Breitbart was also “skeptical” of such proposals). Owens also did a video interview with alt-right-leaning blogger and Yiannopoulos crony Ethan Ralph, who was upfront about the fact that he didn’t like the Social Autopsy project but disliked Quinn and Harper even more.
With the controversy swirling around Owens, I reluctantly decided to wade back into it. Unlike other journalists who wrote about the story, I was highly skeptical of Quinn’s and Harper’s “good guy” credentials; both had an extensive record of online bullying toward people they saw as offenders against progressive morality on race or gender. I also thought it was entirely plausible that the two women, members of a left-wing clique that largely “owned” initiatives against online harassment, saw Owens as an interloper. (This did not negate the fact that most of their concerns of Social Autopsy were justified and shared by others.)
However, I saw nothing to back up Owens’s charge that Quinn had sent racist trolls after her. Even if it was true that Owens started receiving racist messages after her email exchange with Quinn, this hardly proved a connection; at that point, Social Autopsy and its Kickstarter fundraiser were also the subject of a lot of talk on Twitter, Reddit, and some troll-heavy forums. As for Owens’s “incriminating” fact that both Quinn and the trolls had used the term “dox,” it’s too absurd to even discuss.
Nor did I think there was anything nefarious about Harper’s admission that she had helped kill the Social Autopsy fundraiser; virtually everyone, in a rare display of solidarity across political lines, was rooting for it to be shut down.
Owens’s claims of journalistic malfeasance, too, relied on little more than paranoid conjecture. I was quite willing to believe that Singal and Dewey were too uncritical of Quinn, a darling of the progressive media; but it was quite a leap from this to the explosive charge that two journalists for mainstream media outlets were literally conspiring with Quinn to help her sink a competitor. (For those interested, there is much more detail in my last two posts on this sorry affair.)
Nearly two weeks later, Owens posted a bizarre attack on me on her now-defunct blog; among other things, she claimed that my posts about her were motivated by wanting to “stay in the favor of the masses,” resurrected a discredited 16-year-old plagiarism allegation, and (quite revealingly) interpreted my lack of allegiance to any political tribe as chameleon-like lack of identity. She also triumphantly quoted several unflattering opinions of my person—including a comment by Twitter user “@Ricky_Vaughn99,” a notoriously racist and anti-Semitic alt-right figure known for such insights as “Colleges campuses are feral negro playgrounds.”
Sometime after that, Owens deleted her then-Twitter account and her blog, and I assumed she had vanished—until she resurfaced as “RedPillBlack,” capitalizing on her new connections on the right to reinvent herself as a conservative activist.
Is it possible that Owens has changed and grown up? I doubt it. She is still lying about the Social Autopsy fiasco, presenting her start-up as a noble venture that no right-minded person could have opposed in good faith and blaming its negative portrayal on “funded misinformation.” (An amusing detail: In her Dave Rubin interview in September 2017, Owens said that the many of the racist trolls allegedly sent after her by Quinn posed as Trump supporters, using such nicknames as “TrumpOrDie” or “Trump2020”; yet somehow, none of the hate mail of which she shared screenshots in her April 2016 blogpost about the harassment had handles mentioning Trump.)
In her current incarnation, Owens says some positive things—such as stressing the importance of personal responsibility—and she clearly has a flair for delivering her message. On the other hand, her glib dismissal of racism as a complaint of “whiny toddlers” is unlikely to win over anyone who doesn’t already agree. Worse, Owens peddles a conservative version of tribalism and victimhood (conservatives shouldn’t “become skeptics” when they hear negative things about “one of our own”) and far-fetched conspiracy theories (white nationalist Richard Spencer is a Democratic plant). The bizarre overtones of Trump personality cult, such a tweet asserting that Trump “isn’t just the leader of the free world, but the savior of it as well,” should also set off alarm bells.
Owens’s self-reinvention has certainly left quite a few people unconvinced. “Mundane Matt,” the libertarian video blogger who was among the first to denounce the Social Autopsy project, has slammed the new Owens as a cynical “performer” who doesn’t believe a word of what she says and who “plays victim” just as much as the leftists she decries. Software engineer Marlene Jaeckel, a self-described moderate conservative who recently went public about being ostracized by the “women in tech” community for challenging feminist narratives of victimhood, also had an extremely negative impression of Owens when she met her at the Conservative Political Action Conference in February: “She’s as fake as a three-dollar bill,” Jaeckel told me in a Twitter direct message, recalling that Owens seemed far more interested in “taking selfies with more famous speakers” than in discussion of issues.
Political orthodoxies notwithstanding, there are plenty of black men and women who have broken from the party line on race—from anti-identity politics liberal John McWhorter to Muslim reform champion Ayaan Hirsi Ali to Wall Street Journal columnist Jason Riley to libertarian podcaster Kmele Foster to retired political scientist and Trump supporter Carol Swain to talk show hosts Larry Elder and Amy Holmes to Brown University professor Glenn Loury to Heritage Foundation president Kay Cole James. One may certainly disagree with some or all of their ideas; but no one would suspect them of being opportunists with no substance. Whether Candace Owens has any ideas at all besides the advancement of Candace Owens is very much in question.
One would think that the self-immolation of Milo Yiannopoulos would have taught conservatives, and other critics of left-wing groupthink, a lesson about problematic allies. Yet they are now following Owens down the same path—perhaps not toward an equally dramatic fiasco, but certainly toward the further degradation of political discourse.
Cathy Young is a Russian-born American journalist and author. She is a columnist for Newsday and a contributing editor for Reason magazine. Her work has appeared in numerous newspapers and magazines including The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal, The Boston Globe, The Weekly Standard, Foreign Policy, and Slate. You can follow her on Twitter @CathyYoung63