Breitbart’s executive chairman until the summer of 2016 was Steve Bannon—a combative, right-wing ideologue who championed the motto “honey badger don’t give a shit" (named for the notoriously aggressive mammal, which has become a staple of internet subculture)—for the site, framing starkly its combative tone. Most famously, he once referred to himself as a “Leninist” whose goal was to “destroy the state.”
Before resigning in August to return to Breitbart, Bannon had risen to one of the most powerful posts in the White House as Trump’s chief strategist, with a seat on the National Security Council—leading him to be described as possibly the “second most powerful man in the world.” Two other Breitbart staffers also quickly took up senior posts in the Trump White House: Stephen Miller, a senior advisor notable for being the alleged architect of Trump’s highly controversial travel ban, and Sebastian Gorka, a national security advisor, who also resigned in August.
But despite their proximity to power, none of the three would be the right figurehead for the rise of bullshit: Bannon may hold views objectionable to many, but few doubt he’s an ideologue. He’s not trolling people for kicks; he’s working to advance an agenda. If anyone at Breitbart embodies and typifies the rise of bullshit, it’s not any of the employees who have made their way to the White House: it’s Milo Yiannopoulos.
Such is the myth-making around Yiannopoulos, to many on the left in the U.S. Yiannopoulos is a dangerous and offensive firebrand, barely short of a four-headed fire-breathing monster, a man in the process of trying to change his name into a brand: MILO, a Madonna clone with a stuck-down caps lock key. Yiannopoulos built a huge online following—and a slew of coverage—through a trail of wildly and needlessly provocative comments, speeches, and articles aimed at virtually any racial group, sexual orientation, trans group, or liberal.
This in turn led to a self-promoting nationwide speaking tour across the USA’s university campuses, on a huge tour bus festooned with his photo, provoking counter-protests, which pushed him into the headlines yet again. The result: a media machine and a $250,000 book deal from Simon & Schuster provoking a row all of its own, as booksellers faced calls not to stock the title and other authors left their publisher rather than share it with Yiannopoulos.
Those who’ve been anywhere near London’s journalism scene over the past decade may well have a very different picture of Yiannopoulos, though. Yiannopoulos has jumped from respectability to controversy, left failure after failure in his wake, launched attacks on those he’s wronged, and been caught in lie after lie. Such is the string of serial bullshit left behind by Yiannopoulos that everything right down to his age, nationality, religion, and even name are tied up in interweaving falsehoods, told to suit whatever story Yiannopoulos was trying to tell the world at the time. Here, then, is a rough history of a man with as good a case as any to be the archetypal bullshit merchant.
Yiannopoulos was born Milo Hanrahan in October 1984 in Chatham, a small town in Kent about 60 miles from London. Yiannopoulos’s father, a Greek immigrant who opted to use his mother’s maiden name of Hanrahan, had a modest but comfortable income running nightclub security across the town. Yiannopoulos had a somewhat tumultuous childhood, with his parents separating when he was young and Yiannopoulos himself living on occasion with his paternal grandmother instead of either parent. Despite this, Yiannopoulos eventually obtained good A-level grades and started degrees—dropping out both times—at Manchester and Cambridge universities.
By 2006, Yiannopoulos—now going by the name Milo Andreas Wagner—was advertising himself as a jobbing web designer, running a podcast, launching a fan club, and soliciting donations “for the cause,” with the “cause” left unspecified. Milo Andreas Wagner also published two volumes of poetry, A Swarm Of Wasps and Eskimo Papoose, a book which was later found to have used Tori Amos song lyrics without attribution and which was later dismissed by Yiannopoulos as a “joke book.” Amazon and Waterstones both list an additional work due to have been published in 2009, titled Petrol and Matches.
It was as Milo Andreas Wagner that Yiannopoulos started to make his first inroads into the journalistic mainstream, ironically through working on a book about conspiracy theories and misinformation. The 2008 book, Counterknowledge, by Damian Thompson, presciently notes on its jacket how “unproven theories and spurious claims are ... helped by the media, internet bloggers, and even the publishing industry” to create “a Tannin's horde of misguided adherent who repeat these untruths and lend them credence.”
“Wagner” created a website for the blog and helped manage a team blog updating content around it—including authoring a post warning of the dangers of people using the internet to spread misinformation. “Access to computers, and therefore to the internet, raises another, decidedly more sinister, possibility,” he wrote.
“Burgeoning access to the internet in South Africa is having at least one disastrous effect: the ill-educated are being mercilessly exposed to horrifically pernicious AIDS denialism ... the spread of the internet in South Africa is fueling the spread of lies and misinformation about the fatal disease.”
Yiannopoulos’s phase as Milo Andreas Wagner was accompanied by his first discernible attempts to alter his age and place of birth. One remaining sign of this comes from a Wikipedia user page from the time. It’s impossible to confirm whether the profile was Yiannopoulos, but it linked to his website of the time, stated information he quoted in other places, and was built in 2007—long before Yiannopoulos had any significant public profile. The profile, which only ever edited its own user page and a series of wiki entries on Mariah Carey, claimed that “Wagner” had been born in 1983 in Athens, claiming also fluency in German and expertise in multiple musical instruments.
Yiannopoulos, as “Wagner,” also worked as an assistant and speechwriter to the actress and activist Bianca Jagger, taking an email address with a charity which she then chaired. The role ended acrimoniously after a relatively short period.
It was Yiannopoulos’s work for Counterknowledge that netted him his first high-profile platform, though, bringing him to the attention of then-editor of the Telegraph, Will Lewis, who hired him as a technology blogger—where Yiannopoulos (now writing under the name “Milo Yiannopoulos”) was already writing in what’s now known as his typical inflammatory style—until, as may become familiar, his staff contract with the paper was ended in favor of a freelance arrangement.
The Telegraph did offer Yiannopoulos a second chance of sorts by allowing an events company he’d founded to put their name to a new “Start-Up 100” award he launched for tech companies in 2011. The awards quickly descended into chaos, with the chair of the judging panel discovering when he announced the top winner that his decision had been switched without his knowledge, while a series of sponsors for the event promised by Yiannopoulos failed to materialize, leaving the Telegraph seriously out of pocket on the event—and Yiannopoulos firmly in the doghouse.
By this point, Yiannopoulos had launched multiple companies in the UK. In March 2009, he’d created a company, of which he was sole shareholder, named Counterknowledge Ltd—named for Thompson’s book—giving a date of birth in 1983. Six months later he launched Wrong Agency Limited—the events company he used for the Start-Up 100—this time giving a 1984 birth date.
Neither company ever filed a set of accounts or any other documentation, and were struck off after missing filing deadlines. Yiannopoulos—who has never changed his name by deed poll—also declined to give any former names on official company register documentation.
None of this stopped Yiannopoulos launching his third start-up, a tech news site called The Kernel, which quickly hired a team and began generating articles and exclusives that were relatively well-regarded, even if they hadn’t abandoned Yiannopoulos’s trademark aggressive tone entirely. During this period Yiannopoulos courted others in the tech press—including various left-wing liberals and feminist writers (noting he had “admired from afar” and wanted to meet them)—“first round on The Kernel!” he promised. Having built a reputation as something of a controversialist, this was Yiannopoulos at his most emollient. It did not last.
By the autumn of 2012, it was clear Yiannopoulos’s company had hired people and offered them salaries it simply couldn’t afford to pay. Having been regularly frustrated by polite efforts to get their back pay, writers who had quit while still being owed thousands finally sued The Kernel for their wages. Yiannopoulos’s response was to go nuclear on any writers he suspected had talked to the media about The Kernel’s internal woes, threatening to ruin those who had crossed him.
“You’ve already made yourself permanently unemployable in London with your hysterical, brainless tweeting, by behaving like a common prostitute and after starting a war with me, as perhaps you are now discovering,” he warned in one email.
He followed this up to the same former writer—to whom he owed thousands in back pay—“You’ve not only torpedoed your chances of ever having a career in journalism in London, but you’re rapidly losing my sympathy as well,” he opened, before threatening to tell lurid tales and publish photographs of the writer’s alleged behavior.
By 2012, Yiannopoulos had a reputation as someone whom people would prefer not to cross: to anger him was to provoke a series of tweetstorms, menacing emails, threats to publish previous correspondence or photographs, and the like. As Yiannopoulos has gained an ever larger following of ever more aggressive right-wing supporters willing to pile in on his behalf on anyone who crosses him, people have got warier still.
Even A-listers aren’t immune: joining in the attack on an all-female remake of Ghostbusters, Yiannopoulos launched a tirade of tweets against Hollywood actress Leslie Jones. Jones complained, leading Yiannopoulos to be permanently banned from Twitter—but the resulting torrent of threats from his supporters in its wake drove her, too, off the social network for a time. For these reasons, it’s worth noting here, everyone interviewed for this section of this chapter spoke only on the condition of anonymity.
Yiannopoulos’s threats were not enough to prevent the lawsuits against The Kernel: a court ruled it must pay contributors £16,853 in back pay. Just days after Yiannopoulos insisted— in typically ebullient fashion—that the site was perfectly solvent, the company admitted it couldn’t pay the amount, and the site was shut down and eventually closed, becoming yet another Yiannopoulos business that never filed accounts and was thus shuttered. He later added two more to the list: Hipster Ventures Ltd and Caligula Ltd. Because of their rapid collapse and failure to ever file documentation, there’s no way to know how much (if any) money flowed through any of the businesses.
It’s not just Yiannopoulos’s companies that have faced court orders to pay up. Yiannopoulos has similarly rung up at least seven charges against him personally, dated between November 2012 and January 2016—for £403, £75, £225, £660, £1,935, £2,165 and £535. All seven show on the official register as “unsatisfied,” meaning the court has no record that the amount due was paid—though sometimes fines are paid but not recorded on the register.
Yiannopoulos’s serial business failures and exaggerations did little to curb his public bravado—or total lack of consistency. In 2012, as the UK was on the verge of passing the right to marry for same-sex couples, Yiannopoulos became one of the country’s most visible opponents of the move—doing numerous TV interviews on the topic as a gay man opposed to gay marriage. Lest anyone think this was a position from principle, or faith—Yiannopoulos tended to profess his Catholicism at the time—by 2013, just a few months later and once the bill had passed, Yiannopoulos reversed his position, not only becoming a supporter of gay marriage, but also announcing he was engaged to be married himself.
If any one event represented a climax of Yiannopoulos’ mixture of bullshit and self-aggrandizement, it was the birthday party he held that year, which he said would also mark his engagement, at a private members’ club near the Old Street roundabout.
“As you all know,” his invitation began, “I’m turning 27 this year.” In fact, 2013 marked Yiannopoulos’s 29th birthday. He declared the event would double as a charity fundraiser and so he would sell tickets to his birthday guests. Prices started at £55, rising to £275—not including booking fees. Guests were promised food, champagne, and “a trayful of expertly engineered cosmopolitans.” Several attendees said they suspected no one had paid—“everyone was on the guest list”—and said the room was half full, the alcohol ran out quickly, and the room was decorated with four cheap pop-art canvas portraits of none other than Milo Yiannopoulos, one of which was stolen by a guest.
Even this tale got wildly exaggerated in Yiannopoulos’s retelling. In one of a series of emails complaining about a journalist writing stories he didn’t like (and trying to get her sacked), he complained about “attention-seeking staff who gatecrash my parties, drink my booze, and then complain about me on the internet” before going on to suggest that “they stole at least one picture, which cost over £100 ... I didn’t bother mentioning it at the time because the total bill was ten grand.” The canvas print bounced around several London journalist flatshares for a few months before eventually being unceremoniously tossed in a dumpster. There is no UK record that Yiannopoulos, under any of his names, ever got married at that time.
Not long after this came Yiannopoulos’s big break: GamerGate. This was an online insurgency, supposedly about “ethics in games journalism,” in which a group of predominantly angry young men sought for boycotts, asking advertisers to withdraw their support from a number of video game sites over their apparently liberal “social justice warrior” agendas. The movement, which in reality was often viciously sexist, began as one man’s angry revenge on his games journalist ex-girlfriend and spiraled into an internet hate campaign against female technology writers and their supporters. In 2013, Yiannopoulos had written far more derisively about gamers than the female targets of GamerGate ever had. “[T]here’s something a bit tragic, isn’t there, about men in their thirties hunched over a controller whacking a helmeted extraterrestrial?” he wrote in The Kernel. “I’m in my late twenties, and even I find it sad. And yet there are so many of them—enough to support a multi-billion dollar video games industry. That’s an awful lot of unemployed saddos living in their parents’ basements.”
As ever, vitriol outweighed consistency. Yiannopoulos’s gift for extravagant rudeness, and his willingness to casually engage in cruelty against virtual strangers, made him the perfect cheerleader of a movement he barely understood and as a man who couldn’t name even three video games surely can’t have cared a great deal about.
Still, such was the size of the movement that Yiannopoulos said he was going to write the book of it. As he said in his post on Breitbart: “GamerGate is the biggest internet storm in a decade—a battle that has spawned an unprecedented four-and-a-half million tweets, death threats, a front-page story in The New York Times, a segment on The Colbert Report, cost Gawker Media over a million dollars, left hundreds of journalists angry and humiliated and precipitated a huge, unending wave of bitchy insults, bitter recriminations, and online controversy.”
That post was written in December 2015, 15 months after Yiannopoulos’ first involvement in GamerGate. He was “well into the writing process,” he promised and hoped to “have a completed manuscript by February .” The book never materialized and has no listing and no scheduled publication date.
GamerGate expanded and metastasized into the movement that became known as the alt-right, a new and brash version of the far right for the internet era, often racist, anti-Semitic and nationalistic, and wildly pro-Trump. The movement has expanded offline, and now stages conferences in Washington, D.C., and elsewhere—but has still provided an angry and energetic portion of Trump’s online base. Yiannopoulos happily became its darling, while denying that he himself is of the alt-right, and played up a Jewish identity to serve as a defense against accusations that the movement was anti-Semitic.
As with so much else, Yiannopoulos has shown willingness to be flexible about his stated religious identity: for much of his early career, he presented as a relatively devout Catholic—telling friends he’d converted as an adult (he does not appear on the Church’s records of such converts)—and then later made more of a Jewish identity, though was not in any sense raised in that faith. When being hostile to the LGBT movement, Yiannopoulos stresses that he’s gay; when surrounded by people with anti-Semitic views, he stresses his Jewishness.
Yiannopoulos is never near to the core of a movement: not only is he not ensconced in a White House role, unlike several of his Breitbart colleagues, he’s barely had a few fleeting photo-ops on rope lines with Trump. Yiannopoulos is at best tolerated by those at the top, because he’s admired by parts of the fandom. His reward was a $250,000 book deal, revealed late in December 2016 with a publication date of March 2017—an astonishingly tight turnaround which would usually suggest the book was written and the manuscript finalized. But by February, that date had been pushed back to June 2017—apparently to allow the book to be expanded and revised to bring in news of student protests against the book itself.
And then, predictably, things fell apart once again—shortly before he was to speak at the influential conservative activist conference CPAC, footage of Yiannopoulos appearing to endorse sex between adult men and teenage boys resurfaced. While some fans rallied to his defense, the lukewarm support he’d had from those nearer the establishment melted away. The $250,000 book deal was scrapped. The speaking invitation for CPAC evaporated. He’s out from Breitbart with plans to create his own new venture. The cycle repeats.
Critics of Yiannopoulos paint him as a provocateur, an extremist, a dangerous, polarizing figure. A longer history reveals something different: a man who has over the course of a decade told needless untruth after needless untruth, in ways that would inevitably be found out and which are often nearly as destructive to himself as to anyone else—a string of failed jobs, businesses, and allegiances, left as detritus on a path which seems to lead to nowhere.
Other than attention, what is it Yiannopoulos even wants?
Excerpted from Post-Truth: How Bullshit Conquered The World by James Ball. Copyright 2017 by James Ball. Published by Biteback Publishing.