I was slow to realize that his interests weren’t journalistic, or even ideological, as much as they were aesthetic, thrilled by the imagery of raw power. In the tradition of authoritarian propagandists, he was awed by neoclassical buildings, guns and, later, Donald Trump’s crowds. And, after we fired him for plagiarism in 2014, he went on to lead the content arm of Mr. Trump’s youth wing, Turning Point USA, and host a show on Newsmax. Last week, he was cheerleading attempts to overturn the election (though he pulled back when the violence began and later blamed leftists for it). He’s also selling his skills in the “viral political storytelling” that we worked together on at BuzzFeed to a generation of new right-wing figures like Representative Lauren Boebert, who has won attention for vowing to bring her handgun to work in Congress. (Neither Mr. Gionet nor Mr. Johnson responded to email inquiries.)
While we were refining the new practice of social media at BuzzFeed, we were slow to realize that the far right was watching closely and eventually imitating us. Jonah Peretti, who founded The Huffington Post as well as BuzzFeed, was surprised when Steve Bannon, who ran Breitbart, recalled to a writer that he’d borrowed elements of his strategy from Mr. Peretti in the run-up to the 2016 election. Mr. Bannon told me before that election, in an interview in Trump Tower, that he was surprised we hadn’t turned BuzzFeed to pure Bernie Sanders boosterism, as Breitbart did for Donald Trump. He noted, probably correctly, that the traffic for a pro-Sanders propaganda outlet would have greatly exceeded what we got for fair coverage of the Democratic primary.
“Some of the innovative things we did early on, in understanding social media and digital media, have been taken up by alt-right groups, racist groups, MAGA groups,” my old boss, Mr. Peretti, told me in an interview last week. But Mr. Peretti, an eternal optimist, noted that some of the same social mechanisms that Mr. Gionet exploited were also crucial to the sweeping progressive social movements of the last few years, from Black Lives Matter to #MeToo. “The story’s not done and there’s an opportunity to fight for a good internet,” he said. (Disclosure: I don’t cover BuzzFeed extensively in this column, beyond leaning on what I learned during my time there, and The Times has required that I not do so until I divest my stock options in the company.)
I’m already hearing what seem to be two competing explanations of what happened in Washington last week: that the overwhelmingly white, sometimes overtly racist, mob embodied old, deep unexpurgated American evil; or that social media reshaped some Americans’ blank slate identities into something radical.
But Mr. Gionet’s story shows how those explanations don’t really conflict. A man his colleagues saw as empty and driftless turned his identity into a kind of a mirror of that old American evil, and has become what many Americans told him they wanted him to be.
At one point in Mr. Gionet’s livestream during the siege of the Capitol, an unseen voice off camera warns that President Trump “would be very upset” with the antics of the rioters.
“No, he’ll be happy,” Mr. Gionet responded. “We’re fighting for Trump.”