Last Monday, I watched Al Gore deliver the keynote address at a low-profile conference. He gave a pleasant, even boring, speech about how video games can inspire social change. Afterward, there was a brief discussion that touched on global warming, education, and women's empowerment. I recorded a couple snippets with my Flip camera and popped them onto YouTube.
By Wednesday, I was receiving scores of messages from far-right commenters. Many heralded me as a hero of their cause; others simply sought an outlet for more Gore-bashing. I'll explain.
Among the videos I uploaded was a shaky, minute-long clip in which Gore mentions that empowering women stabilizes communities and economies, and has the added benefit of reducing pollution in the long run. He advocates for lifting child survival rates, educating girls, and providing access to birth control.
Although I had only posted the clip to a blog I help run called the Utopianist, the far-right media soon discovered it and went ballistic. Longtime Gore critic Chris Horner sent it to the climate-denial website Watts Up With That, and it ricocheted to noted conspiracy theorist Alex Jones' Infowars site, then to Examiner.com, the Blaze and over to the Fox Nation blog. Before long, my video was the subject of the most popular story on the Daily Caller.
The headlines were sensational: "Al Gore branches out into population control theory" (Watts Up With That), "Have Less Kids! Gore Pushes Population Control" (Fox), "Gore promoting fewer children to curb pollution" (Daily Caller).
The comments on the clip's YouTube page soon swamped my inbox. (My account is set to notify me of new comments on my videos.) Direct messages to me rolled in as well. The video was rapidly accruing thousands of page-views. The responses were angry, expletive-laced, occasionally violent, and paranoid to the core. They were nasty even for YouTube, where commenters are notoriously unrestrained. A sampling of those suitable for print:
"Al Gore is a genocidal Malthusian, nothing else."
"Al Gore should be hung for crimes against humanity"
"The Globalists unveiling their desires in Eugenics."
"Don't they just love to sugercoat [sic] their eugenics agenda. We are post-industrial now and the parasitic elite doesn't need as many slaves, that is what it boils down to."
"Shut your face, Al Whore."
All this from a quote plucked, free of context, from a grainy 60-second YouTube video. Which, I should mention, not a single reporter contacted me about, despite my eponymous profile handle. To my knowledge, the text of Gore's speech isn't yet available, and I haven't been able to find any other public footage of it. Not even the mainstream media outlets sought the full context of the quote. Only a lone Media Matters researcher seeking to debunk the anti-Gore froth bothered to ask me about the background of the meme-generating clip.
Here's my transcription of the segment of Gore's speech that conspiracy theorists found so controversial:
You have to have ubiquitous availability of fertility management so women can choose how many children to have, the spacing of the children. You have to lift child-survival rates so that parents feel comfortable having small families. And most important, you have to educate girls and empower women. And that's the most powerful leveraging factor, and when that happens, then the population begins to stabilize and societies begin to make better choices and more balanced choices.
I had posted the clip without thinking twice. The "have to"s don't help, but Gore is clearly saying that better education, better medical care, and better access to birth control make for healthier societies. How nefarious.
Family planning is a contentious topic, especially coming from a figure as polarizing as Gore. But to rile readers over a quote this dry, the headlines shouted about "population control," which clearly implies a bureaucratic agenda to crack down on reproductive rights. (Family planning, on the other hand, broadens reproductive rights by providing women with access to birth control, education, and other resources.)
The more tactful articles merely employed the power of suggestion, leaving it up to readers to 'uncover' the implicit Brave New World in Gore's words. The Daily Caller's Jeff Poor demonstrates:
[...] when the world's top global warming activist is talking about the size of population and how that contributes to the choices societies make, it might be worth taking note... [Gore] offered some ideas about what might be done for females in the name of stabilizing population growth.
That's knowing your audience. These sentences are carefully worded to hint that Gore harbors a dark intent to install some kind of one-child policy or forced sterilization regime, to stir up latent feelings of anger Poor surely knows his readers have toward the man.
My head spinning from all this nonsense, and feeling partly responsible for unleashing such venom, I angrily took to Twitter to lambast Poor's article—the most popular of the lot—and we had a protracted war of words. But it was no use.
The methods of the fringe are overwhelmingly effective: They made a poorly shot, haphazardly edited YouTube clip a sensation in deeply conservative circles. They rallied a small army under the banner of a common hatred for an outspoken Democrat. I've got an inbox filled with seething comments to prove it. I would have had more if I hadn't removed the video from YouTube.
Tired of the openly hateful remarks, the bizarre displays of rage, the assortment of inexplicable anti-Muslim comments, and the various descriptions of murder, I pulled the plug on "Al Gore: How Empowering Women Fights Climate Change."
This decision sparked some outcry from those who thought me a fellow conspiratorial crusader and killed the popularity of any article associated with it.
"Please, please, please, please put it back up ... You can be a HERO if you so choose!" YouTube user FreeinTX wrote me in a direct message. An author of right-wing dystopian novels mocked me for taking it down in a tweet. It seems my days of celebrity in the far right were to be short-lived.
And for that I'm grateful—it was a truly unsettling experience, coming digitally face-to-face with so many misguided people with unhinged perspectives and violent urges. Tapping into the undercurrent of bilious hatred for Gore, I couldn't help but worry a little for his safety.
There's a pervasive rumor amongst his detractors that Gore doesn't allow recordings to be made of his talks. It's not true, of course. But getting caught up in this outpouring of malevolence, seeing firsthand the unrepentant distortion of even innocuous comments, I can't blame him for wanting to keep the cameras out.