Theo Wilson gained global internet fame in 2015 when he posted a video on YouTube about the state of race in America. In his own words, “I took a cell phone and accidentally made myself famous.” His first video, “Are Black People REALLY Owed REPARATIONS???” addresses his thoughts about if black Americans should be entitled to restitution for slavery (spoiler: he thinks they should be). Overnight, simply expressing his thoughts online catapulted Wilson to messiah status among some, but also brought out the internet trolls.
While Wilson isn’t one to be easily offended, he is a survivor of police brutality and lost a childhood friend to police violence, so he doesn’t take issues of race lightly.
“To these trolls I wasn’t a human,” Wilson says in his TED Talk on the subject, “I was an idea, an object, a caricature.” In contrast, Wilson was well aware that the people on the other side of the computer were humans, and some of them were pretty smart. That realization made him curious about who they were and how they formed their ideas about race. Specifically, where they got the information on which they based their arguments.
Wilson explains that his Facebook timeline–where he got most of his news–was just a reflection of his own arguments and stories that he wanted to see written from a liberal perspective. He was seeing MSNBC, The Daily Show and CNN, with no rightist contrast from the likes of FOX news and Breitbart. So he chose to go undercover as a white supremacist to learn where they come from and how they navigate the world.
The concept of tailored news isn’t unique to Wilson. Facebook, Google and other websites that we spend a lot of time on tailor the content they show us to what we’ve viewed before. That puts all of us in a sort of news echo-chamber. You see all the news that interests you, but you aren’t handed the stuff that the other side is saying. You would have to seek that out. But a lot of us don’t do that.
“I started… mirroring the anti-black sentiments that were thrown at me, and to be honest, it was kind of exhilarating,” he said. Wilson created a fake white supremacist online profile for himself and participated in conversations all over the alt-right web. From that vantage point, he could not only see the information that fueled the alt-right movement, but also the effect that the left’s demonization of ‘all things white and male’ had on the right’s resilience.
This is where Wilson found a shocking similarity. He had spent a lot of his life apologizing for and defending himself for being a black man. The white men on the other side were also finding themselves in a position where they were ‘hated for what [they] could not help but be.’ Both sides feel attacked by the other, and both fight back.
That’s not to say that both sides are equal (Donald Trump learned the hard way that equating the two is not okay). White supremacy believes in the superiority of the white race and is concerned about a loss of their culture and history to a ‘white genocide,’ which is something that we need to understand to be able to address it.
‘One of the best ways to overcome this is to have courageous conversations with difficult people,’ Wilson prescribes, ‘People who do not see the world the way you see the world… Remember: language was the first form of virtual reality. It is literally a symbolic representation of the physical world and through this device, we change the physical world.
‘Conversations stop violence. Conversations start countries. They build bridges. And when the chips are down, conversations are the last resource humans use before they pick up the gun.’