On May 15, a man named Eoin Lenihan posted a Twitter thread that promised to reveal the results of a bombshell new study. Presenting himself as an “online extremism researcher,” he invoked two of the right wing’s favorite bogeymen—antifa and “the media”—and claimed he could prove that one was in bed with the other. The right-wing media sat up and took notice—and then things quickly got out of hand.
According to Lenihan, “We mapped the social interactions of 58,254 Antifa affiliated accounts on Twitter based on an initial seed of 16 self-identifying and verifiable Antifa accounts.” This tweet was accompanied by a graph showing a web of connections between various antifascist Twitter accounts and a number of journalists and academics who are verified by Twitter (via the dreaded blue check). He went on to note that he and his team (whoever they may be) had analyzed articles by the 15 most-connected journalists, and found them to be, in Lenihan’s opinion, inadequately critical of antifascism.
In one close-up graph, those 15 accounts were highlighted in green. Mine was one of them.
This “discovery” inspired a smugly delighted reaction from various right-wing outlets like Breitbart, RedState, RT, and Human Events, which licked their lips and posted alarmist articles about Lenihan’s “findings” and his subsequent Twitter suspension. Perhaps that was to be expected. Of particular interest, though, was that Quillette, a magazine that has been dubbed the voice of the so-called intellectual dark web, also joined the pile-on. Others have pointed out that Quillette, which strives to be a serious journal of opinion, is merely another reactionary outlet on the right. But its embrace of Lenihan, a discredited far-right troll who formerly operated an account under the name “Progdad” that was suspended by Twitter in 2018, shows that it is reactionary to the point of recklessness endangerment.
Quillette, founded by Australian writer Claire Lehmann, had a field day with Lenihan’s “study,” which it took at face value. It gave Lenihan a platform to publish an entire article about his findings, titled, “It’s Not Your Imagination: The Journalists Writing About Antifa Are Often Their Cheerleaders.” He peppered the piece with tired references to Berkeley, where antifascist activists have often clashed with far-right extremists, and wrung his hands over instances of alleged antifascist violence. He baldly opined that several journalists are mere “cogs in an activist enterprise that churns out both pro-Antifa propaganda and doxing information about real or imagined ideological enemies”—which is a rather rude way to refer to people who are doing their literal jobs by exposing neo-Nazis.
It’s not a very good article, but what do you expect when you consider the author? Lenihan’s insistence that he actually agrees with antifascism in theory but merely disapproves of antifascist tactics is hard to swallow. And his concern with the “problematic” aspects of a given journalist’s possible sympathy for people who dislike Nazis seems a bit rich coming from a man who has long been associated with the alt-right. Quillette apparently didn’t take the time to interrogate these connections or analyze his motives, though. Why would it, when his “study” fits so neatly into its Trump-friendly “the media is the enemy of the people” narrative?
Lehmann resisted attempts to push back on this narrative, indulging in a public Twitter meltdown in which she insisted that a number of journalists weren’t “real” and invited one of the targeted journalists to “kiss [her] ass.”
But the identified journalists are very real, and very vulnerable to harassment. As Lenihan wrote in Quillette, his primary purpose in conducting this cockamamie study was to keep an eye on us. “In identifying this group of 15 journalists whose engagement with Antifa is especially intense, our goal was not to accuse them of bias out of hand, but rather to identify them for further study, so as to determine if there was any overall correlation between the level of their online engagement with Antifa and the manner by which these journalists treated Antifa in their published journalism.”
The day after it was published, the article made its way to notorious white supremacist forum Stormfront, and I soon found out what was meant by “further study.”
A few weeks after Lenihan had his big day out at Quillette, I got a message from a friend warning me about a weird video that had just popped up on YouTube. As the Columbia Journalism Review describes, the video showed “imagery of mass shooters intercut with images of the reporters mentioned by Lenihan under the heading ‘Sunset the Media.’” My face was there, next to those of a dozen other writers, activists, and friends.
A quick dig around confirmed that the user who’d made it was a fan of Atomwaffen Division, a violent neo-Nazi cell that’s been responsible for at least five murders. A quote from virulent American neo-Nazi James Mason, the author of racist manifesto Siege (which is something of a spiritual text for Atomwaffen), ended the clip.
YouTube eventually took the video down, after a number of people reported it. The same user then uploaded another one, which was filled with more Atomwaffen imagery and video clips of drone strikes over the thudding sound of “Thought Control,” a song from white power band the Bully Boys.
As it happens, I was one of the lucky ones. The people Lenihan singled out in his thread and in the article got the lion’s share of the harassment. Here’s the thing, ultimately: This study was never meant to start a conversation about journalistic integrity, or ethics, or anything of the sort. It was meant to target leftist journalists, and this is exactly what the right-wing propaganda machine, including Quillette, enabled it to do on a broader scale.
How can I be so sure of that? In a dragnet of journalists who were purported to cover the far-right and who were allegedly doing a terrible job of doing so, Lenihan included two academics, several publicly-identified activists (including Chelsea Manning), a hip-hop artist, and one labor-reporter-slash-heavy-metal-music-critic—me. It’s clear that he and his pals just dredged up whichever high-follower, openly leftist verified Twitter accounts they could find, and then ended up catching a number of reporters who do actually cover the far right in their net. In an effort to create a smokescreen for their smear campaign, they focused solely on those people in their justifications, neglecting to mention the rest of us—who simply hold political views they dislike, or are vocal about antifascism. Sure, I’ve written about antifascism before, but it’s certainly not my main journalistic focus. Do I follow a lot of antifascist accounts? Of course. Why? Because it’s 2019, and I know which side I’m on.
None of us should have been targeted in this way. I shouldn’t have to worry about being murdered by a neo-Nazi in between writing reviews for Pitchfork or interviewing queer labor activists for Teen Vogue (you know, the stuff I actually do). Others shouldn’t have to worry about violent threats while they’re doing the important work of tracking right-wing extremist movements, either. This should all be abundantly clear—as should Quillette’s real role in the conservative media ecosystem.