These are some of the questions Elspeth Reeve, correspondent for Vice News Tonight on HBO, and Andy Mills, audio producer at The New York Times, wrestled with at The Power of Storytelling conference last month in Bucharest, Romania. Under the theme Rewrite, the 8th edition of the conference – which is the only one of its kind in Eastern Europe – focused on how good storytelling can change our understanding and perspective of the world, and how good stories can open ways of reconciling with the polarized world we’re living in.
ELSPETH REEVE is a correspondent for Vice News Tonight on HBO. She covers national issues and radical and fringe political movements. Previously, she was a senior editor for The New Republic, and a political editor for The Atlantic Wire.When Elspeth Reeve started investigating the alt-right movement, as well as the incel groups online, she found the online spaces they operated in to be a complex hall of mirrors; it was difficult to determine what was real and what was not. A forum that started as a joke for one wave of commenters became real for those who discovered the messages later; communities that launched to make fun of subcultures eventually became places for that subculture to interact and grow. When Microsoft’s artificial intelligence chatbot Tay was transformed to a Nazi by Twitter users who shared extremist messages with her, Reeve was following the conversation on 4chan.
I’m from the American South and I’m very familiar with racism and it really permeates society there. But overt racism, overt subjugation of other people – that’s considered a low-status thing. That’s for the uneducated, for bullies, for thugs. And these kids weren’t like that. They were very smart and they were educated and they were very tech savvy. That’s what pulled me deeper into this world because it wasn’t just a funny joke; they did believe it.
Reeve’s documentary, “Charlottesville: Race and Terror” took viewers to the streets of Charlottesville, Virginia, for an August 2017 political march that turned fatal. The coverage netted Reeve four Emmy awards for news and documentary, and offered a greater understanding of how the alt-right and white supremacists movements draw in their acolytes.
The alt-righters Reeve spoke to, mostly by phone, talked her ear off – even though the conversations often started with misogynistic remarks.
The things they talked to me about were their origin stories, their feelings of alienation, dissatisfaction with their place in society, and these are things that I think a lot of people can identify with, that I can identify with. They had no meaning in their lives and no identity. They don’t believe in God, so they get no meaning from religion. Their families had moved around, they don’t live in their hometown, so they don’t have meaning from an ancestral homeland. They have boring, banal jobs, kind of meaningless office jobs. And many times for these guys there was a woman problem, a terrible break-up, an unrequited crush. That includes the white nationalist that I’d interviewed in Charlottesville, Chris Cantwell, who explained to me, a year later, that his descent into white supremacy began with a bad break-up.
The white nationalist march was supposed to be this coming out party for this online movement, but when they stepped offline and into the real world, it collapsed because they had, in essence, bought their own hype; they had bought into the illusion. When they had to actually do something in reality, it completely collapsed.
Reeve then went on to document the world of incels – men who label themselves as involuntary celibates and bond over their self-perceived exclusion from the dating world, and who communicate almost exclusively online but whose ideologies have made a mark in the real world. Several murders and other acts of violence have been committed in North America by men self-identifying as incels or quoting incel ideology on social media.
While the idea of people who have made virginity into a political ideology is ridiculous, said Reeve, what she found in her reporting was much darker than she ever imagined.
The subculture included young people with untreated mental illness that came together to carve a space for each other, but in the process acted very cruelly to each other.
They encouraged each other to believe that they were so disgustingly ugly that they could never find love, they could never find companionship. So, in essence, at least some part of this is this collective delusion of a lot of people who are isolated from society and hurt very deeply.
One of the questions that Reeve hears often is whether she’s worried about humanizing them, but it’s a point of view that she finds strange.
They’re not these aliens or monsters from outside of the society; they are from inside our society and they reflect it. They reflect its cruelties and its superstitions and its failures and that is how these ideologies spread. It’s not what’s strange about them, but what’s familiar.
ANDY MILLS is a producer and reporter for The New York Times, where he helped create The Daily (which was Apple’s most downloaded new podcast in 2017 and won a duPont Award in 2018), and Caliphate – an audio series following Rukmini Callimachi as she reports on the Islamic State and the fall of Mosul. Previously, Andy worked for several years at Radiolab where he made dozens of stories, including some about friendship, forgiveness, old dead things and addiction. Before all that he worked at bars and cafes, and told stories on house show tours with his friends’ bands.In the 10-episode serial podcast Caliphate, Andy Mills and The New York Times reporter Rukmini Callimachi offer a deep look at former members of the so-called Islamic State, the inner workings of their system, and their victims.
Especially as journalists, we need to fight the temptation to ever portray people as boogeymen. I am not here to say that there aren’t horribly flawed people – there are racist people, there are violent people, there are immoral people. But I am here to say that the story generally doesn’t stop there.
The mission of this podcast is that not understanding the complexities of the bad guys is costing us. Because we’re fighting them wrong, we are failing in our attempts to rid the world of them.
(For more, read an interview with Rukmini Callimachi in the Guardian, in which Callimachi discusses getting deep inside the story she was reporting, and made her personal responses to situations and characters an integral part of the tale. Or watch a “5 Questions With…” interview done by Stony Brook University.)
The podcast started with Mills’ idea to follow Rukmini’s reporting on the terrorist group. Early in their reporting, they were contacted by a man from Canada who said he was formerly an ISIS member, and he became a key character in the podcast.
We were willing to sit down and to ask questions and to listen, and we were even open to the idea that what we might hear from him might be upsetting. We understood that this could be something very dangerous for us. But we thought it was worth it. We went in with an open mind and I think it really paid off.
He showed up about an hour and a half, two hours late, and he had on a hoodie. It was a scary experience to be there with someone who was proclaiming to formerly be an ISIS member but says is all good now. We sat down and started talking and I was very surprised by what I heard.
Realizing that the earliest motivations, his background were more similar to mine than I would have assumed was really surprising, and hearing him talk about how he was bored was not exactly where I thought the story was going to begin.
He goes on to talk about how he felt a sense of loneliness, his search for community – that he found online and he never had in his life – that he was looking for a sense of purpose, that he didn’t exactly want to be a dentist although it seemed that’s where his life was headed. Also seems like he spends a little too much time on the internet, and I thought ‘Oh. Desires community, purpose, spends too much time on the internet.’ That’s like everybody I know.
Portraying the world’s “boogeymen” in a more complex way, showing the way they make decisions or following them through a transition in their lives will make the stories of their victims more powerful, Mills pointed out. As the team behind Caliphate chose what to include in the podcast and which scenes to leave out, they had to strike a complicated balance.
We know that eventually this character that we’re introducing you to, this person you’re sharing the planet with, is going to do something really awful. We are hoping as good storytellers that by the time he gets to do this awful thing that it won’t just be a surface level disgust that floods up in you, but maybe something messier and more complicated that we don’t even have a word for.
It’s very important that we focus on the victims of atrocity; I am not here to say that we need to up our numbers of sympathy for the bad actors of this world and decrease our interest in the people who are on the receiving end of their atrocities. I think that there is a difficult balance to be struck but I do think that your stories become more interesting when you lean into the messier emotional complicated aspects of covering the world’s worst offenders.