Last week you may have stumbled across ExVegans.com, a list of “Vegan Sellouts.” It’s a barbed directory of former vegans that exists solely so that current vegans can publicly shame them, writing descriptions of their fall back into meat-and-egg eating gluttony. If you were one of the people that found the site, you probably experienced the reaction that most people did: outrage, disbelief, heightened annoyance. It’s the sort of site where you can actually smell the stench of self-righteousness through your laptop. It was Internet-shaming to the Nth degree, right up there with Revenge Porn sites and creepshotting.
But as it turns out, the creators of the Vegan Sellout List also think it’s pretentious and horrible – because it was nothing more than a trick.
The creators were using the insane sellout list to get attention, luring readers to the site, which after it had accrued some media notice, redirected to a stream of slaughterhouse videos.
Reporters at Gawker, Fox News, The New York Post, The Observer, and a number of other high-profile sites (including many vegan blogs, horrified by the bad press this insane list engendered) ran posts highlighting the Vegan Sellout List, and vilifying it as one of the worst examples of Internet-shaming to date. The journalists covering the story linked to the website, obviously, so that readers could see check out the site for themselves.
And that’s exactly what the creators of the Vegan Sellout List wanted. Once the controversial site had gathered enough media attention, the creators redirected the URL; instead of seeing angry take-downs of former vegans, people who went to the exvegans.com URL were sent to Veg-TV, a website with information and videos about veganism. The page that pops up first streams the vegan documentary Meet Your Meat, narrated by Alec Baldwin. The webmaster for Veg-TV noticed things picking up as well: “There’s a spike since July 4,” he says.
Peter Young, one of the people behind the Vegan Sellout List and creator of the Animal Liberation Frontline, wrote a blog post detailing why the group chose this tactic. He was inspired by Ryan Holiday, the author of a book called “Trust Me, I’m Lying: Confessions of a Media Manipulator.” Holiday is the director of marketing at American Apparel and has an impressive penchant for generating buzz through controversy.
Of course, while the Vegan Sellout List was a ruse, not all of the people prominently featured on the site were.
Young took Holiday’s tactic of “chaining” – where you feed controversial material to small blogs eager for tips, and their coverage begets bigger coverage which begets stories in the mainstream media – and applied it to his radical animal liberation cause. Holiday used this type of tactic, along with emailing fake and anonymous tips, to promote his book – and he later wrote about just how easy it was to trick major publications into covering him in order to generate online interest, even if the stories were actually true.
Does Holiday find the homage to his tactics flattering? While he isn’t going to start carrying a “Friends Not Food” picket sign any time soon, but he finds this appropriation of his methods intriguing. “It’s not a cause I agree with, but I am always impressed when someone manages to take something we are reluctant to talk about and forces that uncomfortable conversation through the media and their messaging,” he says.
He’s also impressed by how Young and his cohorts managed to massage graphic, disturbing images into the mainstream media. “There is a lot of research that says that things that are unpleasant – and you’d have to consider slaughterhouse clips to be unpleasant – have a hard time getting views because people are disinclined to share them,” he explains. “What these guys did expertly was take something that is viral and newsworthy – outrage over this list – and use that as a Trojan horse to get people to see what they wanted them to see.”
So the Vegan Sellout List was but a decoy, but a necessary one toward the group’s effort. Simply showing the video to media wasn’t a story that anyone would want to pick up; a site outing ex-vegans though? That has a hook.
The big outlets were never going to write about Meet Your Meat on their own. Young admits that the concept of the Vegan Sellout List is nasty, but he believes the ends justify the means here. Holiday even points out that it’s the media the is the problem, not the methods of manipulation Young and his group used. “It’s interesting to me too that what they did would be considered ‘media manipulation’ while the bloggers who are so easily baited and deliberately sensationalize and gravitate towards outrageous things are not,” Holiday says. “The way I see it, this is how the game is played, and like it or not if you want to spread your message it’s what you’ve got to do.”
Young did not respond to requests for more information about his campaign, but his blog post makes it clear he considers the Vegan Sellout List trick a success. “The media-storm has passed, and I consider the entire stunt to be ‘mission accomplished,'” he pointedly says. Of course, while the Vegan Sellout List was a ruse, not all of the people prominently featured on the site were. One woman, Juniper Russo, wrote about being included on the list shortly after it went live and starting gaining attention:
The Vegan Sellout List features my name, photo, city, and state, and calls me an “Ethical vegan turned unethical carnivore.” Linking to an article I wrote five years ago, titled “My Recovery from Veganism” – in which I express full support of vegan lifestyles but explain that veganism became something of an eating disorder for me and made me very ill – the Vegan Sellout List offers the following “shameful” information about me: “Craved cow flesh during her pregnancy and went for it. The ones who are insecure about their decision always talk about it the most.”
Using real people means that more than just the media was the butt of this joke, and anyone who would likely support the Animal Liberation Frontline’s purpose but found their faces on ExVegans.com probably want nothing to do with the cause now. It’s a Catch 22: Sure, more people saw the video – but those targeted in the process were likely lost along the way. You gain some eyeballs, you lose potential supporters. Is that really positive traction?
Regardless of how the Vegan Sellout List ploy played on real people’s dietary choices, it’s impossible to tell whether Young and his group actually did meet “mission accomplished.” While the stunt definitely got a lot more eyes onto a webpage that streaming slaughterhouse videos, there’s no way of knowing how many people immediately clicked out. After all, as Holiday pointed out, it’s a really unpleasant video. Or, upon realizing that this wasn’t a list of ex-vegans, some users (including some of us at Digital Trends) thought it was an unsafe site and X’ed out right away. It’s also worth noting that few updates or corrections have been issued: Everyone covered the news about this horrible, ex-vegan shaming site, but few have bothered to explain what really happened … and that’s because our attention spans are very, very short.
What the ExVegan.com stunt does prove, however, is that media-baiting is a time-honored tradition that the Internet will fall for nearly every damn time.