Sian Butcher / BuzzFeed / Via Lauren Southern / YouTube
Last month, a Canadian woman started streaming live on Periscope from a tiny boat on the Mediterranean Sea off the coast of Italy. In a grainy, four-minute video, she tells her Twitter followers about her mission: She's joined by Italian, Austrian, and French right-wing supporters who want to disrupt a ship that rescues refugees stranded at sea.
“If the politicians won’t stop the boats, then we’ll stop the boats,” says Lauren Southern, a 22-year-old journalist turned activist, who has become popular among far-right online communities in recent months.
Southern’s livestream hit 1,000 active viewers as she and the European members of Generation Identity, a far-right youth group, approached a ship called the Aquarius, a 250-foot-long vessel operated by a charity called SOS Méditerranée and Médecins Sans Frontières (also known as Doctors Without Borders), which has been working to save refugees and migrants who make perilous journeys across the Mediterranean to Europe. Southern and her crew set off flares and unfurled a large red banner that read “NO WAY FOR HUMAN TRAFFICKING.” They were all detained by the Italian coastguard for civil disobedience.
“We’re able to come out and sit in front of them with our flag, with our flares, with everything,” Southern told BuzzFeed News in an interview in London. “We wanted that picture of defiance so that we could fundraise for bigger projects.”
The stunt worked. She made international headlines, which immediately put Generation Identity’s Defend Europe project on the map. As of June, the crowdfunded campaign to stop organizations like MSF, which they believe are “a part of the international human traffic ring and the migrant business,” has raised over $60,000. Southern said she wanted to act as a bridge between European far-right groups behind the project and the far-right communities in the United States that have been emboldened by Donald Trump’s presidential victory. By all accounts, Southern’s stunt was a success: thousands of views, thousands of tweets, dozens of 4chan threads, and coverage in the mainstream media.
Southern periscoping from the Mediterranean Sea last month.
Lauren Southern / Periscope
Southern is part of a sprawling new universe of far-right internet personalities who have aligned themselves with a “new right” or “alt-right” or “new far-right” political youth movement in the US. That group is now at the forefront of trying to make connections with other far-right factions abroad by taking their trolling offline and out into the real world.
“I don’t think the alt-right would call me alt-right. They call me alt-lite usually. I just consider myself a nationalist or a traditionalist,” she said. “Even though [Trump] has not worked out — he’s bombed Syria — he was still the chaos that we wanted to prove our power.”
Southern’s protest on the Mediterranean Sea is one of several recent far-right real-life stunts: In May, white nationalist and alt-right founder Richard Spencer led a protest against the removal of a Confederate monument in Charlottesville, Virginia; on Saturday night, Jack Posobiec, a far-right writer and internet personality, hijacked a New York production of Julius Caesar starring a Donald Trump stand-in.
“We have a movement going on here,” Southern said.
Southern moves around a lot. She was recently in France, then Italy and London, and is traveling next to California, where she will deliver a speech called “Return of Traditional Women” at California Polytechnic State University.
Nailing down exactly what it is that Southern does is also tricky. She uses the term journalist, but acknowledges she’s not a traditional one. “A Hunter S. Thompson kind of thing, you know?” she said during a recent interview.
In another life, Southern said, she’d be working as an intelligence officer in the Canadian military. After spending two years studying political science at the University of the Fraser Valley, she dropped out of school. But a chance meeting with Ezra Levant, the founder of Rebel Media, at a conference changed everything. Southern said he asked her to make a few YouTube videos for his startup and she quickly dived headfirst into video production full-time.
In a short time, Southern has become one of the most recognizable faces of the new American far-right’s Upside Down media. She’s got about the same Twitter following as Mike Cernovich. She’s good friends with Milo Yiannopoulos. She used to make videos for Rebel Media — Canada’s answer to Breitbart — that regularly pulled in millions of views on YouTube and Facebook. Three months ago, she quit her job and set up a Patreon account, and has since doing speaking engagements and raising donations.
She has around 300,000 followers on Twitter, 60,000 followers on Instagram, another 10,000 more just on her Periscope, a YouTube channel with 200,000 subscribers, and a public Facebook page with 95,000 likes. All of that is propped up by her Patreon page with around 600 patrons that asks for about $5,000 a month.
“We were pretending to be journalists from different organizations… they were so happy to give us all the information.”
Southern said she found her niche in 2015 while working for Rebel Media and making videos with Yiannopoulos. She gained a lot of attention for disrupting several SlutWalk protests, ridiculing attendees, and quickly publishing highlight reels to Rebel Media’s YouTube channel and Facebook page. Southern said the experience was revelatory. It was there that she figured out exactly how her social media accounts could come together around one event for maximum impact.
“It can be confused for activism — we're going up there and we're protesting what's happening, right? But we also learned a ton about how these feminist protesters react to people who disagree with them,” she said. “They attacked us, they ripped up our signs, they shoved us. We got it all on film, and we got to see what it's like, being in the protest and disagreeing with them.”
Since then, she’s adopted that playbook for her stunts on the road — show up with a camera, antagonize people, build it up on social media as a live event that her fans can follow at home, and then release a summary of the whole thing on YouTube the next day. Her videos are slick. The one about her time in Italy is titled “HAVE I LOST MY MIND?” and it opens with 20 seconds of her riding around a boat full of flares with dubstep playing in the background.
Southern describes her work as “gonzo” — in Italy, she said, she called up NGOs in the area and tricked them into giving her and the members of Generation Identity information about when MSF would carry out missions to pick up refugees.
“We were pretending to be journalists from different organizations just asking for information on these boats, and they were so happy to give us all the information,” she said. “At one point I accidentally said ‘migrants’ instead of ‘refugees,’ though, and I think they started to clue in.”
But a spokesperson for MSF told BuzzFeed News Southern’s description of events made no sense. “All of that information is publicly available on maritime sites,” the spokesperson said. “We have nothing else to say on the matter, as we do not wish to engage in a media war with far-right activists.”
A still from Southern's video about her MSF protest in Italy.
Lauren Southern / YouTube
The night Southern went live on Periscope, far-right social media lit up with chatter about what she was doing. This was easily her most ambitious stunt yet, but it wasn’t so different from her usual schtick. Instead of taking a sign that reads “‘Rape culture’ and Harry Potter… both fantasy” to a protest against sexual assault, she took a “no human trafficking” sign out on a boat and planted it directly in the path of the MSF ship.
Her antics have made her especially popular on 4chan’s politics community, /pol/. In the days leading up to, and after, her stunt in Italy, 4chan had so many simultaneous threads about her that users were complaining about it. At first, though, 4chan’s community was worried she wasn’t a true white nationalist. Then, as it became clear that she was serious, a few users attempted to get people to rally around Defend Europe’s crowdfunding. “Got dayum, I’m starting to love this Canadian blonde shitposting jewess,” one user wrote.
By the end of the whole stunt, the 4chan community — always suspicious of women attempting to court their favor — had completely bought into her project. “Help defend Europe and win a date with Lauren Southern,” one huge thread about her work with Generation Identity was titled.
“4chan is drawn to things where they're like, maybe we can troll this journalist out of writing this story, maybe we can actually find these boats and actually make a difference here, maybe we can actually find this flag,” Southern said. “Whether it be through simply trolling some journalist into oblivion until they delete their Twitter account or finding a ship.”
By “find this flag,” she is referencing the 4chan community’s months-long feud with Shia LaBeouf. LaBeouf first set up a 24-hour livestream in New York City to protest the inauguration of Donald Trump. The plan was have it going for all four years of Trump's term. But 4chan members ended up trashing LaBeouf’s art exhibit, harassing the actor and his supporters to the point where the original livestream was shut down. The exhibit, titled He Will Not Divide Us, moved three more times, but was disrupted by 4chan each time.
In the last six months, Southern has been seeking out things users on Reddit, 4chan, or Twitter can latch on to from the comfort of their computer screens. She’s been to the Deploraball in Washington, DC, in January, the Battle for Berkeley in April, the recent election protests in France in May, and most recently she had “piss or some sort of poison” thrown at her at an anti-sharia protest in New York.
Since the election of President Trump, a new community of influencers has emerged. However, people like Southern, Tim “Baked Alaska” Treadstone (a former BuzzFeed employee), Richard Spencer, Cassandra Fairbanks, and Mike Cernovich are now struggling with a cycle that has plagued new media personalities for nearly a decade now. They accumulate tremendous amounts of online power, go to war against the mainstream media they see as old and out of touch, then usually, as a community, implode with infighting as they struggle to figure out how to make an impact with their newfound fame.
Former Breitbart editor Milo Yiannopoulos had already been permanently banned from Twitter for harassing Ghostbusters star Leslie Jones, but was still writing for Breitbart and ended up securing a major book deal with Simon & Schuster. But after a clip surfaced of Yiannopoulos saying relationships “between younger boys and older men … can be hugely positive experiences,” he lost his job at Breitbart, as well as his book deal. Now he’s running a Facebook page where his videos struggle to crack a million views. Alex Jones, the infamous host of Infowars, turned out to be a ratings disaster for Megyn Kelly when she made the controversial decision to air an interview with him for NBC News on Father’s Day.
Southern and other new far-right influencers like her have been able to reach a huge number of young people in a fairly short time. But because of what they’re using social media to say, no platform will really let them make money off it. YouTube has demonetized Southern’s channel and she said it isn't running ads on her videos anymore.
“I spent a long time really not wanting to do Patreon and just wanting to do it on my own. And you know what, I would have done that, but YouTube also fucked us over with the advertising,” she said.
Since then, she has cobbled together other social media services like Facebook and Twitter, opened them up for donations, and turned the real world into her monetization platform. Every week, there’s a new He Will Not Divide Us-type event for her followers.
She also believes that by taking her work out into the world, she’s separating herself from people in the far-right who aren’t real activists.
“I know for a fact there are a lot of people that want to make money [with the far-right],” she said. “And they're happy to sit in their basement making videos all day or their studio making videos all day, just so that they can get as much money as they can from this right-wing outrage.”
“It's kind of like, you know in Kevin Spacey's House of Cards when he talks to the screen?”
Another Rebel Media alum who recently made headlines by taking his far-right trolling offline is Jack Posobiec. Posobiec and a Rebel Media journalist named Laura Loomer attended a controversial modern production of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar featuring a Donald Trump lookalike in the title role. Loomer — with Periscope livestreaming from the phone in her hand — rushed the stage as Posobiec sat in the audience screaming “Goebbels would be proud.” Posobiec calls this type of stunt “breaking the fourth wall.”
“It's kind of like, you know in Kevin Spacey's House of Cards when he talks to the screen? Like, directly talks to the audience?” Posobiec told BuzzFeed News. “That's kind of how I view it, but in a social media mode.”
Posobiec left Rebel Media last month and has recently published a book. He has a Patreon account, but he hasn’t switched to Southern’s crowdfunded model. Loomer, Posobiec’s partner in the Julius Caesar stunt, is currently crowdfunding her legal defense fund against charges of trespassing and civil disobedience. Posobiec said that for him these instances of “breaking the fourth wall” are about pushing his message.
“I could have jumped up at a movie theater or any random — take your pick of place here in New York. It wouldn't have had the same effect because it wouldn't have had the context of the Shakespeare play, the ‘Trump assassination play’ moniker,” he said. “And so it's that context that's key to all of these things. It's about pushing back on that other message they've got there. They've got their narrative, we've got our counter-narrative, essentially.”
A still from a Twitter video Posobiec shot from the audience of a New York-based Shakespeare in the Park production of Julius Caesar.
Jack Posobiec / Twitter