When Steve Bannon, Breitbart, and other conservatives cut ties with far-right activist and congressional candidate Paul Nehlen, he turned to his private Twitter direct message group, CityRevoltVoteNehlen. Nehlen was facing criticism for a handful of alt-right provocations, among them a string of incendiary tweets with the white nationalist hashtag “#ItsOkayToBeWhite” and his touting of The Culture of Critique, a book written by the director of a white supremacist political party and denounced by the ADL as anti-Semitic.
“There are a list of goys attacking me, and a separate list of Jews,” Nehlen messaged the group, according to screenshots viewed by BuzzFeed News.
According to two individuals with knowledge of the group, such requests were common from Nehlen, who frequented the group to solicit its help with trolling his critics and political opponents.
“It’s pretty obviously coordinated,” Nehlen continued, referring to remarks from conservative and pro-Trump personalities like Town Hall’s Kurt Schlichter and the Rebel’s John Cardillo who’d denounced his tweets. “Cardillo and others like him are working for Jewish media then there are the fake conservatives who happen to be jewish,” he wrote to the group telling members to add Schlichter to his list. “Im going to decimate them all and y’[all are gonna help me.”
Group members responded to his rallying cry, offering support with a volley of fist, thumbs up, and American flag emojis. “Yes we will,” one replied.
Nehlen, a Wisconsin businessman who unsuccessfully challenged House Speaker Paul Ryan for his congressional seat in 2016 (and is running again in 2018), has faced criticism in recent months for his anti-immigrant views and controversial conduct. Even Nehlen’s most ardent media backers were forced to sever ties. On Dec. 27, Steve Bannon and Breitbart, who had championed Nehlen’s 2016 primary campaign against Ryan, disavowed him, purging his articles from the site. “Nehlen is dead to us,” Bannon adviser Arthur Schwartz told CNN.
Nehlen, for his part, has largely ignored questions about his anti-Semitic views and white nationalism, dismissing any inquiries as attempts to derail his commitment to an “America First” agenda. But screenshots reviewed by BuzzFeed News show Nehlen associating with and soliciting help from people who appear to be prominent members of the alt-right to wage trolling and harassment campaigns.
Nehlen and other members of these groups declined to speak with BuzzFeed News.
“There were all kinds of troll accounts in the group making memes for Paul to use,” one person with knowledge of the group told BuzzFeed News, noting that many of the accounts that made memes for Nehlen quickly left the group after posting them. “Paul had a backup account and he'd put smear info on the backup account and ask random people in the group to tweet it out and they'd tweet it out from there,” the individual claimed.
Among the members of the group appear to be the pseudonymous Jazzhands McFeels, one of the hosts of an alt-right podcast called Fash the Nation (on which Nehlen has appeared multiple times) and Eli Mosley, a leader of the white nationalist group Identity Evropa and a leading voice of the alt-right. A Richard Spencer acolyte, Mosley is perhaps best known for helping fellow white nationalist Jason Kessler organize the “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville last August, which resulted in the death of a counterprotester.
Screenshots show that shortly after joining the group an account with Mosley's name and avatar enlisted its members to harass Nehlen’s enemies on Twitter, including former Red Sox pitcher and Breitbart Radio host Curt Schilling. On Dec. 29 Schilling invited Nehlen on his radio show to discuss his controversial remarks, but withdrew the invitation a day later, telling his followers he did not want to give Nehlen a platform for his views.
“Let’s get really offensive against Curt shilling and anyone who attacks Paul,” Mosley wrote to the group on Dec. 30. “Make sure they understand that people don’t like when they attack their own.” Mosley did not immediately respond to an email request for comment.
Around the time of Mosley’s call to action, Schilling was bombarded on Twitter by Nehlen supporters attacking him for the reversal. Echoing Nehlen’s combative attitude toward “Jewish media,” Nehlen supporters accused Schilling of being a “paid Jewish shill.”
Other Nehlen supporters photoshopped crude images using derogatory cartoons of Jews including one cartoon of a figure with the Breitbart logo for a face fellating a man whose face was replaced by the Israeli flag. Many of Nehlen’s trolls adopted the moniker “Schilling for Sheckles” — an insult first tweeted by Nehlen himself.
The screenshots reviewed by BuzzFeed News offer a glimpse into the world of coordinated harassment campaigns on Twitter by troll armies. According to one former member of the group, CityRevoltVoteNehlen was one of numerous DM groups Nehlen used to coordinate messaging campaigns with supporters.
“Everyone uses these private DM groups, it seems,” one former Nehlen DM group member said. Indeed, screenshots appear to show some users claiming participation in dozens of direct message groups. “A lot of the time it’s how the #MAGA sausage gets made,” another pro-Trump media personality told BuzzFeed News, referring to the use of DM groups.
One pro-Trump Twitter personality who told BuzzFeed News they’d been invited to a number of similar groups said that the groups are mostly used by unknown accounts looking to grow their followings. “Most of these, the groups are just people who’re thirsty for retweets. But they’re not worth the trouble in my opinion — in these big open chats all it takes is one person to bring it all down. In some of them the things people say are really stupid,” they said.
Whether its harmless gossip, sharing articles, retweet schemes, or coordinated harassment campaigns, the groups suggest that underneath Twitter's chaotic political discourse a second, equally important conversation is taking place.