With roots in coding, Nathan Bernard turned his tech skills to the world of content. Specifically, political satire in a similar vein to Vic Berger and Todd Dracula.
During the last election, Nathan developed an obsession with an alt-right spam account, Neil Turner, after seeing that it got the first reply to Trump within seconds, every single time. This led him to investigate who Neil Turner is and immerse himself in the world of the alt-right. It threw him into a dark rabbit hole which involved talking to a neo-nazi who was on FBI registers, receiving death threats and getting his computer hacked.
The outcome of his work is a ton of investigative content. Two podcasts, #WhoIsNeil and #FakeNews; one documentary, #GorillaGate, and a ton of Twitter bots trolling prominent right-wing political figures as a form of social experiment.
Nathan works as a developer by day, and his current source of income actually comes from his experimentation with Twitter trolling.
Here’s the full audio of the interview:
On the power of a simple Twitter script
What’s your dev shop called, and what do you do?
It’s called Co Studio. All the marketing and branding on the website is focused on chatbots, riding the wave from the political stuff for the election that I’d done. We started charging companies to build them mostly Facebook Messenger bots, but we’re doing machine learning and artificial intelligence mostly. We can build pretty much anything, but that’s what we try to focus on.
That’s awesome. I didn’t realize you’d branched out from hobby Twitter bots to really complex commercial ones.
That wasn’t the plan, to be fully honest. I’d just built those Twitter bots for fun, which I’m sure we can talk some about. Surprisingly, though, in some ways, we started getting inbounds for bigger companies — some as large as FanDuel — and we build everything from Slack bots, Messenger bots, and some Twitter bots. We just started to realize people will pay us to do this, and started building that alongside mobile apps.
And that very first success with a Twitter bot — what took this off the ground — was the the #WhoIsNeil discovery?
Exactly. So, you saw the article. So there’s this anonymous alt-right account, Neil Turner, and day in day out he was getting the first reply to Donald Trump.
And so, being in tech, it was pretty obvious he wasn’t just being a human, sitting there every single day, putting up multimedia content within milliseconds of every single Trump tweet coming out. So yeah, I just started trolling him mostly. I made a bot that first just replied to him, initially. It would put stuff up like “Neil, this content doesn’t seem very relevant to what Trump’s saying”. And I got a little bit obsessed with. I was thinking “who the hell is this guy?”.
I made the initial #WhoIsNeil podcast, not trying to dox him or anything, just basically saying “hey, here’s what this guy is doing, here’s the tech I think he’s using”, and I was hoping people would help each other find out who he was.
After I made the bot that trolled him, I made the podcast and people started listening to it. Guys like Vic Berger were into it, so I started doing the same thing Neil was doing, and replying directly to Trump.
After three months of getting the first reply to Donald Trump with the bots, I got in 250,000,000 views on the content we’d put in there. I thought “whoa, this is absurd from a stats and data point of view”. On the other side, Neil actually started direct messaging me, and we had some honest conversations. It turned from being confrontational to me asking him why he’s doing this, and who he is. I figured if I learned a lot about him, I could learn a lot about the alt-right and why these people are voting for Donald Trump.
On falling deeper into the alt-right’s absurdity
So, you have a clearer idea now about why these fringe political characters are coming to the forefront of the news and the dominant discourse?
Yeah. It’s unreal, here in the United States, how someone like Mike Cernovich — an insane conspiracy theorist — now has a press pass to the White House. Cernovich is literally in the White House press corps at this point.
Isn’t that fucking insane?
The shit he’s come out with in the past, how is he allowed to be seen as a credible figure in any way?
I don’t know. He’s willing to say anything to take over a news cycle and create a distraction. So, people hatewatch his stuff and he can distract you from pretty much anything. And if they give him a voice, like when he was on 60 Minutes, it’s a distraction. It’s the same thing Trump or any of these guys do.
And, guys like Steve Bannon are in there, obviously he’s a propagandist and understands how to manipulate and own news cycles. So, it’s pretty unreal but at this point… I guess it started as seeming unreal and being amazing how this is even reality, but at this point it’s just like “oh yeah, here’s another fucking absurd thing Donald Trump did”. We’re talking about launching 60 missiles as he’s eating a fucking piece of cake. It’s like “alright man”.
These things become commonplace, but started out as being very surreal. It’s become a reality, unfortunately.
Yeah, one of the things I got out of your #FakeNews podcast was how surreal it is, and how you’re emphasizing that. Like putting Cernovich’s gorilla breathing techniques over this dreamy ambient music.
Oh yeah. Taking a cue from guys like Vic Berger and Todd Dracula. Tim and Eric, obviously. A sidenote, coincidentally, I’m from the same hometown as Vic and Tim. Weird, weird coincidence. I actually met up with Vic in my hometown. Him and Todd. I think there’s something to do with being from that kind of area — Pennsylvania — that promotes this kind of dystopian surreal weirdness. And it all is surreal. Mike Cernovich — a guy that lives off alimony from his wife’s Facebook IPO money — is now a credible person and is writing something like The Gorilla Mindset. I don’t know, this guy has no credibility but, because there’s no such thing as truth in this world and you can say pretty much anything you want, if people listen to you, it becomes the truth.
Anything can become a version of the truth, yeah.
Exactly; any of those fake news podcast episodes. I’m doing it, making it completely surreal and looking at the absurdity of these people as people. I’m not super political, but I’m interested in these people that are absurd and crazy to me.
It is really absurd. I thought the Sean Spicer episode was hilarious. I didn’t know anything about him since I’m outside of the ecosystem of U.S. politics. I had no idea he had all of this weird teen angst going on.
Something weird about Sean Spicer is that a lot of my really good friends went to Conneticut College. That’s where Sean Spicer went as well. I’ve been to the campus, and I can really relate to his college experience. I found from the Connecticut College Voice that old interview with his roomate when he was a freshman. And it was really telling of who he was.
He ran for class president four times in a row, every year. Failed, every single year, horribly. Got obliterated. It’s that kind of schmuck attitude that he has. He always has a smirk on his face and he’s happy people hate him, and that’s part of his persona. Knowing that people dislike him and just owning that. He goes into situations hoping he can make people dislike him more. It’s that weird angst, like you said. It seems like it’s been him and his persona throughout life. Like I said, I like to see these people as people, not as part of politics.
On Nathan’s first interests in politics and #FakeNews
Did you get interested in politics because of the people behind it, instead of the actual affect this stuff has on America?
Yeah, and this is consistent with the people I’ve looked at. From Cernovich to the #WhoIsNeil stuff. Donald Trump, in some way. I started looking at politics maybe 4 or 5 years ago at this point. Do you know Ted Cruz?
Of him. Not really.
He was a big Tea Party sort of guy. He ran for president last year. He’s a senator from Texas. An extremely conservative dude. He filibustered ObamaCare in 2013, he was standing up and did that for almost 24 hours straight to the point where… You know, one, this guy’s a total asshole. He started reading aloud Green Eggs and Ham, quoting Duck Dynasty, reading out transcripts from their show. Making a total and complete fool of himself. Watching that it’s like “wow, this is a guy who went to Harvard Law, is a U.S. senator, and… this is our process. A guy like this can create a government shutdown”. And he did.
It made you realize how much of a circus it all is? It’s a form of entertainment rather than something heavy.
Exactly. To me, the office of the presidency after this whole Trump thing barely stands for anything. A guy like him — looking at Ted Cruz — for me, I can only really get into something like this if I really dislike them. I realized “I really hate this person”. I started looking at him, mostly. I didn’t make anything out of it. I didn’t make any videos, I didn’t troll him online. It was more me disliking this person and wishing I could do something to show the disdain I have form them. And that was the start of me following it, trying to find more people I have a hate for.
And what, that turned into the #FakeNews podcast, or was that an earlier project?
That was in 2013, moreso me following politics. I guess I can give you a backstory on what I’ve been making in my political work.
I’m from tech. I work in tech, that’s my job that I work every single day. I’ve had startups, one of which I sent you an article about, Lrn, a ‘DuoLingo for coding’ app. And I guess it was December 2015 or so, I wanted to do something. So, I had found an article about Ted Cruz. He was one of the first personalities I didn’t like. He was just starting to go out, get on the primary trail, schmooze and shake hands and kiss babies and whatnot. This article in the New York Times I found, where he was going around trying to appeal to children; “Oh look, he’s such a nice guy, he’s just a normal guy like everyone else”. So I took that article, and I photoshopped it so it read really bizarrely. He was telling children the entire world is going to hell, and that this world is a hellscape. I made it super-surreal.
A couple of weeks before that I’d seen one of Vic’s really early edits of Ted Cruz.
So, I emailed the photoshopped article to Vic, saying I think he might think it’s funny, and how I’m from the same hometown as him. He emailed me back, and he thought it was funny. I thought “oh, wow, ok. Maybe this stuff is funny”. At least to others, aside from myself.
And that was your first step into satire?
Yeah, that was my first time getting things out there. I’d done some anonymous stuff with a friend, but this was the first thing I put out there to do something about these people that I just really don’t like, you know? And yeah, so Vic thought it was funny, so I started making Vines and got more active on Twitter.
Eventually, that summer is when I found the Neil Turner account, and when I made that podcast. That was the biggest time commitment I’d put into doing any of this kind of satirical stuff. And I just went from there: from Vines, to #WhoIsNeil, to #FakeNews.
On the #WhoIsNeil investigation
I never made it to the end of #WhoIsNeil. I never found out the unveiling, or if you even found out.
Yeah, I’ll give you a little synopsis.
After I trolled him, and after I made the bot that was a little bit faster than his and got the first reply to Trump, I made that podcast and built a rapport with Neil. And he ended up getting banned on Twitter because it got a lot more serious about cleaning up those alt-right accounts. He was anonymous, and he started trolling Jack Dorsey with his bot, so he was flying pretty close to the sun.
Neil got banned, and I was weirdly sad. I’d put, I don’t know how many, hours of my life into talking to this guy, and talking to his friends. I had this weird connection to this anonymous guy I met on Twitter.
After that, Vic saw Neil commenting on a Cernovich video and he’d put his new Twitter handle in the comment, and Vic messaged me saying Neil is back. I messaged him right away because he had his DMs open, and we started talking again.
In the podcast, he’d lied to me essentially about who he was. And when I found this new account, we started having a bigger conversation about who he was and where he’s from. Turns out, he lives in Finland. He’s 22, and goes to university there. That’s who Neil Turner is.
Why was Neil doing it? Was it some social experiment?
He said to me that he saw an opportunity. To be clear, as much as I disagree with all of their neo-nazi propaganda, anti-semitism and racism, he did come up with a technical innovation that became an enormous propaganda engine. In a weird way, I respect that side of it. When he talked to me, he saw that he was just trolling. But he also saw a chance to have a massive impact and get his views out. So he says he did it partially just for trolling, and also because he saw an opportunity to have an impact.
On spirit cooking and conspiracy
It’s weird how strong the connections are between the alt-right and trolling.
Those people, they just need a target to go after. Anyone doing press, or entertainment, you always try to target someone who’s a bit bigger than yourself. Hillary was an easy target for these people, and with Trump giving them the validation that what they’re saying is truth… That’s how things like #PizzaGate can pop up. And, I’m not sure you’ve heard anything about spirit cooking?
No, what’s spirit cooking?
So, Cernovich… I fucking hate Cernovich, just to get that out there. He’s another person I despise for so many reasons. So, Cernovich and Alex Jones had come up with this theory that Clinton was part of some Satanic cult. They were doing sacrifices, and having these rituals where they’d mix in blood and these kind of weird substances, making these brews…
They were saying they were part of some real Satanic cult, and that’s how Clinton was convincing people to vote for her. That was just another conspiracy thrown around, like #PizzaGate. Obviously none of these people are pedophiles, even if you’re not in a cult, if you have to denounce those things… When you get someone saying “I’m not a pedophile! I’m not the leader of a pedophile ring!” then you’re still talking about it.
But if someone like John Podesta has to say “No, I’m not part of these pedophile rings”, when you think about Podesta you’re associating him with pedophilia.
Yeah, it subconsciously gives that ridiculous claim some kind of accidental validity.
It’s by association; now when you’re thinking of Clinton, you’re not thinking of her policies, you’re solely thinking how she had to talk about PizzaGate and Satanic cults. It’s brainwashing, it’s propaganda. It’s what these people do, and it’s what they’re good at.
On Alex Jones, and the business of fear
I get the impression that Alex Jones, while he does have all of these insane theories, he’s doing it primarily to get people to buy his shit.
Yeah! That’s definitely a part of it. He slings a slew of different products.
And they’re all hilarious. What is it about right-wing politics and survivalism?
Part of it is fear. Fear is just as powerful as hope. In my eyes, a lot more powerful. So, if you can scare the hell out of people so they think that there’s going to be a nuclear holocaust incoming, or a WWIII… as long as you can scare people to the point of beliving that no one can be trusted and their water is being poisoned by the Democrats.
And that’s why someone like Cernovich can say “I’m awoken to what’s really going on, and if you want to be awoken and see the truth also, you’ve gotta buy my nootropics which are going to start firing off your neurons at a rate you’d not believe!”
People are full of shit. It’s all fear, that gets people to the point where they need to buy nootropics and water filters. It goes from fear tactics to get someone to vote for somebody, which is what the politicians use, to fearmongering to buy products. It’s a good persuasion tactic, and it works.
On the history of Cernovich, and #GorillaGate
Yeah, it does. Is that Cernovich’s business, then? Books and untested medicine?
Cernovich is definitely the one at this point that I’ve looked into the most. Right now, I’ve just released a mini-documentary. I’ve put together some of Vic’s videos, and with the help of my friend we’ve investigated Cernovich’s rape case and what really happened.
We’ve dug up the real story of what happened.
His whole thing, how he makes his money… He had a wife, he’s a lawyer, he went to Pepperdine Law School, so he’s not a dumb guy by any means. I think he has some mental issues, though. He was married to this woman who had worked for Facebook really early on. You write for tech publications, so you know how it goes. You know how it goes when you work at a tech company like that: you take a very big pay cut to take equity in the company.
So, Cernovich had helped his first wife get into Facebook really early. She took a lot of equity, and made seven figures from the IPO. Her and Cernovich got divorced. It seems that, at this point, he was getting super anti-feminist and she was a staunch feminist. They had some disagreements, and eventually got divorced.
As part of the divorce, Cernovich gets alimony and got a huge payout from his wife. That’s really what he lives off of. He has the Gorilla Mindset, and he pushes whatever nootropics he sells, but that’s his nest egg.
He’s got a shitload of free time to sit around and conspiracy-theorize. You know, you said how he caused problems with his wife because she was so feminist and he started getting against it. I wonder if he figured out he could use his character to sell products.
100%. I agree with that, but I think for him it’s maybe an exaggerated version of himself that he does on his Periscopes, but at least what I’ve seen is this: he divorced his first wife, he has all this money and time, and started spiraling deeply into a crash-and-burn state. He got very into steroids. That’s when his rape case happened, too. His life went to shit. He went from being a pickup artist/steroid addict that was lifting weights, womanizing, and shielding his emotions — that was all at the tail-end of his divorce. And so, that triggered a lot of the Gorilla Mindset stuff. He went to being a self-help guru, which was the misogyny and men’s rights bullshit.
The rape case and the divorce led to a lot of his current personality. I’m not sure if you’ve seen the Alex Jones court case?
I was about to ask you about that. What do you think? Was he playing a character? He denied it, right. He said “I’m only acting when I’m dressed up in costumes”.
It’s interesting. I have to look at it unbiasedly. Sure, he could be seen as a performance artist. I can see it, if they get more into mainstream media, they’re going to run into more issues. They can use that loophole to protect themselves in court, they can say it’s satire, just like Stephen Colbert.
Whether it lands or not, I think we’ll see that argument being used more, but I don’t believe it for a second. If you look at what these people have done in the past… Cernovich has had rape cases, he’s done tons of steroids, he’s mentally unstable. He’s spouting out stuff because he wants to be famous, and wants to be in the limelight. The more ridiculous things they say, the more followers they get. It gets people engaged. I don’t believe it’s performance art, I think that they think these things are true but they could exaggerate things to make a point.
They came up with an insane theory, #PizzaGate, just to make the point that you can’t trust Hillary Clinton. Saying “Hillary Clinton is untrustworthy”… we all know that! They take it to the next level with that.
On Alex Jones’ coverage of Waco
Alex Jones, back in the day, was mad into conspiracy. He dropped out of college so he could go and do a public access TV show on Waco.
Oh my God. The Waco stuff. That’s bizarre. Do you know much about it?
I came across it when I was writing an article about Alex Jones recently. I didn’t fully grasp why he was so fired up about Waco. Which one of his few triggers did it hit?
It’s his idea that the government overstepped the mark. It’s a free speech thing. Waco was this guy David Koresh, from an extreme part of Christianity, the Branch Davidians. There’s radical Islamic terrorism, and this was the United States version of this. Extremist Christians, that believed David Koresh was literally Jesus. He was a prophet, and everything he said was truth because God was speaking to him.
So they holed up in this compound in Waco. They were apparently sexually abusing kids, and breeding people together. A lot of disturbing stuff. It got to the point where the government had to do something about it. They had firearms in there, they weren’t complying. Who knows what could happen? Maybe tomorrow David Koresh says “we need to go and cleanse this city of everyone who doesn’t believe in what we believe”. When does it take the step towards violence?
Alex Jones said these people were peaceful people, let them live, and let them do what they want to do regardless of how extreme their believes are. It’s all about free speech, and that’s something the right often hide behind. Eventually, it got to the point where Koresh isn’t abiding by the laws and the FBI is sent in. The FBI bulldozes the entire compound. Jones thinks they kicked the back door in and opened fire on the kids. He thinks the government exterminated them. But really, it’s more like there was a firefight and the FBI had to retaliate. I’m sure they’re both at fault. I mean, the FBI did kill almost everyone in there, which is disturbing. That’s the case that Alex Jones was making, trying to make the point that the government interferes in free speech.
So, Alex Jones wasn’t on David Koresh’s side? He was just against the government.
It was easy to pin the government of doing something wrong, because they did kill children. The FBI says the cult accidentally shot their own pile of ammunition and bullets started firing off and killing the people inside. Who knows, man? I’m sure both sides were at fault.
There’s all these conspiracy spins, and the idea that the FBI showed up and Koresh just opens the door and they start killing everyone… It’s like “c’mon, that’s not the case”. When you don’t know what’s true and what isn’t, you can say anything. It’s the grey area he takes advantage of.
On Trump as a figurehead of the alt-right
Do you think he’s just riding the wave of Trump, too?
That’s what all these people are doing. Even Neil Turner. For these people Trump is an imperfect vessel. He’s malleable, he’ll say anything if it serves his agenda. When Cernovich comes out and goes on 60 Minutes, it’s because they see Trump as a way to ride to the top. And it’s working. Alex Jones interviewed Trump early on and has been a huge part of owning news cycles with propaganda. Anything from Hillary’s health to propaganda and spirit cooking.
Wikileaks Exposes Clinton’s Satanic Network
— Alex Jones (@RealAlexJones) November 4, 2016
Although Trump might not belive in the exact same things as these guys, he’s still America First; he’s a nationalist, and these guys are white nationalists. So, anyone from this kid in Finland, Neil, who hates Jews, to someone like Alex Jones who wants to build his media empire, to someone like Cernovich who wants to have his ridiculous views heard and get famous… Trump is a vehicle for all these people.
Even if what he’s saying isn’t exactly what they believe, he’s the closest thing they’ve got.
Exactly. And they all love Steve Bannon, for sure. If Bannon wasn’t there, I’m not sure they’d be as enthusastic.
On Steve Bannon and state-run media
I thought Bannon was a weird choice for such a high position. He really is an extreme guy, and it’s scary.
It is horrifying because of the potential of state-run media. Bannon was in Hollywood, making propaganda documentaries. Before that, he was at Goldman Sachs. He has some really dark views of the world.
Like the Fourth Turning.
Yeah, the Neil Strauss stuff! You know, it’s also a big part of me. I get torn on this stuff. I don’t like the establishment on the right, I don’t like the establishment on the left, I don’t like the mainstream media. So when there’s stuff like this going on, I feel like it serves them right.
Chapo Trap House did this really great episode with Matt Taibe where they were talking about Clinton not going into those rust belt states. She just sent in college students from Okerland to come in like “Howdy folks! We all voting for Hillary Clinton?”, with no idea what these people go through.
They’re used to working in factories. They’re used to having a union job. Now, maybe their family hasn’t had work for a couple of generations and their cousin is an opioid addict. They don’t need these establishment left people knocking on their door with no idea of their problems.
The more leftist people, and those on the alt-right… It’s less like different sides, it’s more like a circle. The extremities are similar in many ways. Going back to Steve Bannon, he’s the face of the alt-right. He’s running Breitbart and he can push those real populist thoughts through his media channel. It becomes a form of state-run media.
Breitbart becomes even less of a credible news source.
To me, there’s no way there’s no cooperation between Breitbart and Bannon. You know how you have to put your assets in a blind trust if you’re a government official. Of course he still has influence. When there are things that Trump does that are against Bannon’s agenda, you’ll see Breitbart putting out tons of articles that are slamming Trump. The bigger it gets, the more power these people get.
The longer Steve Bannon is in the high levels of government, the scarier the future of free press becomes.
What’s the history of Steve Bannon, pre-White House?
He went to the Navy, he was an engineer. He didn’t have to go to the front lines, but he was in the army. Then he went and got his Harvard MBA, then went to work for Goldman Sachs for a number of years. After he made a bunch of money there, he started making a ton of documentaries to promote things like the Tea Party and other far-right conservative politics. He was the chairman of the company that owned Breitbart, but Andrew Breitbart was the CEO and chief editor.
Bannon wasn’t the guy with the vision, but he aligned with Andrew Breitbart on a ton of politcal views. If you listen to some of Bannon’s talks from that 2012 election cycle, he’s predicting a lot of the stuff that happened in 2016. He’s talking about a populist movement, and disintermediation.
It’s like back in the days when you only had 4 TV channels and everyone opened up the New York Times in the morning because it was put in their mailbox. Those days are over, he says, and individuals can be trusted as much as these big media outlets. He was spot on with everything from social media to people tossing away the establishment.
On the filter bubble and algocracy
Yeah, I suppose that Cernovich’s popularity and people’s refusal to get news from credible sources goes hand in hand.
It’s saying “don’t believe the left-leaning bias”. In some ways, putting out a podcast like I have, people could listen to what I say, or what Cernovich says, and trust that. People trust people. You can trust brands, but a power of those big media outlets is diminishing as people get their news from Facebook and Twitter.
There was a guy yesterday that I was talking to who referred to all of this as an algocracy (rule by algorithm). All these algorithms are feeding us exactly what we’re going to see, and telling us what to think. That’s underlying everything, and it’s a scary thought. We no longer have the ability to pick and choose what we’re going to see.
We’re fed stuff on Twitter and Facebook by algorithms. We talk about AI being a scary thing when there’s a robot that’s passed the Turing test and has the ability to lie and manipulate, but what are these algorithms already doing? With the filter bubble, we’re already there.
We don’t have the choice to go and make an objective decision on what we read and see. We’re fed information based on our views on the internet and the clicks we make. We don’t have that freedom like we used to.
62% of U.S. adults get their news from social media (source). When you’ve got the filter bubble controlling what people are seeing, and when these algorithms can’t even detect what’s real and what isn’t, it’s going to go viral because it has all these sensationalization. It’s marketing — you juice the story up with some power words, and it starts to gain social proof from its shares, creating a new version of the truth.
When you start to mix sensationalization with tech tools for distribution, like I was doing for the #WhoIsNeil thing, you have a distribution mechanism that’s a really simple script but acts as a powerful propaganda machine. I was using it to promote my own stuff with that tool!
250,000,000 views… The power is insane.
And that tool is such a weird workaround. It’s strange that it hasn’t come to the forefront already.
Twitter eventually changed the algorithm. On mobile, the algorithm was chronological, so it was a speed test. Literally, whoever got the first reply was the first tweet to show. It’s not some amazing innovation, it’s just a simple script. They eventually changed it because they saw this happening during the election.
For months, we were getting the first reply, but now it’s based on whether you’re verified. Only verified accounts get the first replies, and it’s also based on speed, likes, followers. Even now, I’ve been testing it, and I’m usually still in the top 4-5 replies. That’s 7,500,000 views just from the last month.
On dealing with hacking and death threats
How is it, using your personal account for this stuff? Isn’t it horrible waking up to millions of hateful notifications?
I used my personal account during the elections and with Neil. I attached a script to it, and was able to queue up content that’d autoreply.
I was used to getting a lot of death threats, and threats to dox me. But I’m still here. No one’s come to my apartment yet and shot me.
You were saying though, how your computer got hacked by remote access and you had to run to unplug everything.
Yeah, that was pretty scary. It was the first time anything like that had happened to me. I’d set up stuff like a VPN just to protect myself, even. It was the middle of the election, I’d been doing the first reply to Trump for a couple of months at this point, and someone had tried to hack into my computer. They started moving the mouse around, the screen started to break up. I pulled out all the plugs, and went up to my roof like, “holy shit, why am I even doing this?”
That must’ve been the moment when you realized you were getting into something much deeper and more sincere than it first seems.
There had been some threats from people on Twitter. It’s funny when you get people on Twitter with tech skills, and people look at that and think they’re some kind of ‘computer whisperer’. Some messiah that can do anything. This guy just builds mobile apps, basically, but he’s throwing out all this tech jargon, he’s threatening me, trying to dox me. That stuff isn’t scary. It’s like “ok dude, I know what it takes. I know the level of skill you need to actually attack me”. When I saw my computer being taken over, it was real. Someone saw this, and someone is doing something about it.
That’s how I am as a person. I have a piece of paper over my camera. I stuff something in my audio outlets, because I assume that if anyone wants to see what I’m doing, they can do that. They have access to everything. If you have the skills you can do what you want.
All this security technology is made by people. This computer is made by a person. Encryption, any sort of app, is made by people. They’re flawed, they make mistakes, and anyone can find these loopholes. There’s no such thing as privacy. Anyway, that’s how I feel in my paranoid mindset.
At least it’s not Alex Jones-style paranoia.
I hope that doesn’t come across as conspiracy theorizing. It’s the reality we live in.
It is real. People have those skills. You’re also selling the first reply software you wrote, right?
Yeah, after the election we started to get some inbounds from companies asking if we could sell them the tech. We’d given the app to Todd Dracula and Vic Berger because we’d made an interface on it so people could load their content up.
We got a lot of media companies who wanted to get their word out, so we started selling it to media companies. Eventually, bigger companies go in touch that didn’t really want the Twitter bots, but they wanted to know if we could build other bots for their companies. That’s how we started Co Studio, and how we started doing this as a dev shop and something we could make money from.
What an insane starting point.
I know, man! It’s been a good story when we go and talk to people about it. We didn’t make any money when we were doing it as a hobby. My brother worked together with me on this, but we weren’t making money. I wanted to do something around making content for the election, and something that I was interested in.
On getting sucked in by dark conspiracies
What’s the next content you’re planning?
I want to start making more video content. The thing I did on Cernovich’s rape case is like a video podcast. It has a few of Vic’s videos in there, it has one video I made myself. A lot of it is a conversation with my friend, getting his first impressions on the evidence. He’s not heard of the rape case before. The next step is more documentaries and video content. I’m super excited about it! I put a lot of time into #GorillaGate. Even though I just shot it in my apartment in Brooklyn. We put up 2 cameras, and hooked up two mics. I do blog readings as well, which drives the story.
It’s a dark story, dude. Every single night after work, I was listening to Cernovich’s videos and podcasts. I have to say, it really messed with my head. It makes you not healthy.
I know what you mean. When I was writing up this Alex Jones article, it felt like it was starting to get to me.
It does that, dude. I do this out of a place of being vindictive and hating these people. Hate is a really strong word, so when I say it, I mean I really hate this person. I’m not an angry person but these people bring something out me. Fuck these people. When you watch so much of this and think about it a lot — at least for me — it makes you question yourself. What does it mean about me as a person that I get enjoyment out of doing this? Am I really any better than these people?
Those are the thoughts that start popping up. As you watch more Cernovich, you realize he’s doing it out of a place of insecurities. Everyone has insecurities, you know. It makes your head spin, and it’s hard to watch so much of it. It’s disturbing. It’s a rape case, and the way he got out of it, is gruesome. It’s a smear piece, basically.
You fell deep into this stuff while you were making the documentary?
Cernovich is a sick person, but when I started doing #WhoIsNeil, that was a lot more extreme. He’s a legit neo-nazi. I spoke to his two friends: one was this nazi guy Jason Bergkamp, and one was brought up in FBI briefings for his extremism. That sort of stuff was highly disturbing. At this point in my life, I have work that takes up a ton of time during the days. My mind isn’t focused on this stuff in the day time, but when I was doing #WhoIsNeil, I was fully immersed in it. My days were making content, updating the tech; I was on Twitter a ton, in code a ton. I was abstracted from the world. And those times were the darkest because it’s what I was doing consistently, over a long period of time.
When I’m doing tons of research, it gets me in a very dark place. I’m happy to be towards the end of making it.
Thanks so much for giving me an hour out of your day, considering how busy you’ve been.
No worries, I was frustrated for having to push it back on you that time. The tech work has been super-heavy. We’ve really ramped up with client work, and we’re about to work with the Education Department for the U.S., building some really cool tools for teacher accountability. That’s why I had to push back last time! They were like “we need to meet today”. We’re starting to get some really cool projects, and the press from VICE helps, even though the content and tech are two very separate parts of my life.
Nathan Bernard’s first documentary, #GorillaGate, is out now: