Here is the full transcript of public intellectual Theo E.J. Wilson’s TEDx Talk: A Black Man Undercover in The Alt-Right at TEDxMileHigh conference.
Listen to the MP3 Audio: A black man undercover in the alt-right by Theo E.J. Wilson at TEDxMileHigh
Theo E.J. Wilson – Public intellectual
I took a cell phone and accidentally made myself famous. I was just talking about the things I cared about, but with a click of a button and an incendiary viral video, I propelled myself into overnight stardom.
When I say overnight, I mean I literally woke up the next morning with so many notifications on my phone, I thought I slept through a national tragedy. It was the craziest thing, but when it came to my influence, to my exposure, I literally took a quantum leap.
So, I made more videos. And the subject matter of my videos was often the most divisive subject in American life. But it is the way that I articulated race that made me somewhat of a digital lightening rod.
Being a survivor myself of police brutality, having lost a childhood friend, Alonzo Ashley, at the hands of the police, I had a little something to say about the topic. You see, this was at the height of Black Lives Matter furor, and people seemed to be turning to me to articulate their view points.
Honestly, it was sort of overwhelming because nothing trips you out like being a political star on the Internet. There is no class to teach you how to deal with people treating you like a messianic figure, a prophet, a new school charismatic leader for the digital age. Folks treating you like T’Challa, the Black Panther from the Marvel Universe, is flattering at first.
But down the road, it gets a little troublesome. You see, the Internet has its interesting quality: in one way, totally brought the world together.
I remember being a kid, and all this Utopian propaganda was being dumped on us about how the World Wide Web was going to span the reaches of people across the globe. But, as it turns out, people are people, and this magical superhighway also took the demons of our nature and gave them Ferraris.
You see, technology is a lot like money: it brings out what was already inside you and amplifies it. So, I soon became familiar with the phenomenon of an Internet troll. These guys seem to live beneath the bridges of said superhighway.
They also missed the memo about the enlightenment of the Internet age. I remember being called highly colorful racial slurs by those who use the anonymity of the Internet as a Klan hood. Some people were pretty creative, actually, but others were pretty wounding, especially navigating the post-traumatic world of a police brutality survivor at the height of Black Lives Matter, with all of these people being killed on my timeline. To these trolls, I was not a human; I was an idea, an object, a caricature.
I admit, this race stuff can be kind of divisive. You see, I am an innately curious person. And as I drew my sword to engage in epic battles in the comments section, I also began to notice that a few of my trolls actually had brains, which made me even more curious and want to understand them even further.
Although the supposed morons engaged in what appeared to be original thought, I said to myself, “These guys are highly misinformed, at least according to my knowledge.” Where are these guys getting their arguments from? Was there some kind of alternative universe with alternative facts? Was history and gravity optional there? I don’t know.
But I needed to know, I wanted to know. It turns out, I had no idea about digital echo chambers, that same target marketing algorithm that feeds you more of the products you like to buy, also feeds you more the news that you like to hear. I had been living in an online universe that reflected my worldview back to me.
My timeline was pretty liberal: I had no Breitbart, or InfoWars, or Fox News. No, I was all MSNBC and the Daily Show, CNN and theGrio, right? But these trolls were hopping the dimensional doorway, and I needed to figure out how.
So, what I decided to do was to trick the Facebook algorithm into feeding me more news that I didn’t necessarily agree with. And it worked fine for a while, but it was not enough, because my online footprint had already established the patterns that I like to hear.
So, with the anonymity of the Internet I went undercover! I set up this ghost profile and went crazy. On a practical level, it was very simple, but on an emotional level, it was kind of daunting, especially with the racist vitriol that I had experienced.
But what I did not realize is that my trolls were inoculating me, thickening my skin, making me immune to view points that I did not necessarily agree with. So, I did not react to the same things as I would have several months prior. So, I pressed on. Noticing that this stuff also worked on YouTube, I became Lucious25, white supremacist lurker. Digitally I began to infiltrate the infamous alt-right movement.
My doppelganger was Edgar Rice Burroughs’ John Carter character, a sci-fi hero, who was once a confederate soldier. And think: years ago, I would have needed acting training, and makeup, and a fake ID, now I can just lurk.
I started with a little InfoWars, went on into some American Renaissance, National Vanguard Alliance. I started to comment on all videos: talking bad about Al Sharpton and Black Lives Matter. I started bemoaning race-baiters like Eric Holder and Barack Obama, just mirroring the anti-black sentiment that was thrown at me.
And to be honest, it was kind of exhilarating. I would literally spend days, clicking through my new racist profile. Goofing off at work in Aryan land, it was something else.
I then started visiting some of the pages of my former trolls. A lot of these guys were just regular Joes: a lot of outdoors-men, hunters, computer nerds, some of them family guys with videos of their families.
For all I know, some of them could be in this room right now, right? Not here! Not here! Not here! But when I went undercover, I found a lovely plethora of characters, luminaries like Milo Yiannopoulos, Richard Spencer and David Duke. All of these guys were thought leaders in their own right, but over time the alt-right movement ended up using their information to fuel their momentum.
And I am going to tell you what else led to the momentum of the alt-right: the left wing’s wholesale demonization of everything white and male. If you are a pale-skin-penis-haver, you are in league with Satan! Would you believe that some people find it offensive. The fact is the millennials get a life time of diet brand history.
I mean, America seems to be hellbent on filling its text books with CliffNotes versions of its dark past. This severely decontextualizes race and the anger associated with it. And that is a fertile ground for alt-facts to grow. Add in the wild landscape of the Internet, and it is easy to sell re-branded Mein Kampf ideas to a generation who has been failed by public schools. A lot of these ideas are easily debunked.
Alt-facts have that quality. However, one thing kept screaming at me to the subtext of these arguments. That was: “Why should I be hated for who I cannot help but be?”
Now, as a black man in America, that resonated with me. I’ve spent so much time defending myself against attempts to demonize me and make me apologize for who I am, trying to portray me as something that I am not, some kind of thug or gangster, menace to society. Unexpected compassion.