Confronting Ben Howe: My own personal Twitter troll

Matt K. Lewis Senior Contributor
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When you have strong opinions — and write controversial things (as I sometimes do) — it’s bound to piss people off. As you can imagine, some people disdain me.

I’m okay with that. It’s actually part of my job. And it’s sure better than people not caring about what I say.

But things have gotten worse over the years, as evidenced by the tweet below:

That’s right. After going back and forth about what a jerk I am with some of his Twitter pals Tuesday night, Heritage Foundation consultant and RedState blogger Ben Howe thought it would be fun to accuse me of having sex with animals.

This is either outright slander — or a terrifically unfunny joke. Either way, it’s something you’d expect from an anonymous basement dweller — not from someone who as recently as November was paid to create videos for a prestigious conservative organization like The Heritage Foundation.

What is more, I have no idea why Howe doesn’t like me. Until today, I’m not sure we’ve ever interacted.

So why do people like Howe harass writers who are willing to actually be a part of the Twitter community?

According to a recent article titled, “Confessions of a Troll,

Journalists and politicians should realise that when they go out there and express a strong opinion, they will make some people very angry.

And some of those people will speak up. We’re not going away, so whiny public figures should get used to being disagreed with and stop acting like divas. The world has changed and the people now have a voice. It’s time for the establishment to get used to hearing it, at last.

Fair enough. But the troll who wrote that column is an anonymous troll. Howe isn’t anonymous. He speaks from fairly influential platforms.

My recent observation is that a surprising number of the worst offenders are young-ish professional consultants and political operatives — the very kind of people who might get burned for later, say, accusing a center-right journalist of engaging in bestiality.

I wanted to get to the heart of why this occurs (I may soon write a longer column on why today’s consultants and operatives feel Twitter is a safe zone.), so I contacted Howe and The Heritage Foundation.

Here’s how my conversation with Howe went down:

 Me: I’m working on a post about things said on Twitter by pols, consultants, staffers, etc., and couldn’t help but notice some pretty harsh things you said about me recently. I’d love to include a quote from you, though. Basically, I’d love to know why you do this?

Howe: Can you direct me to which quotes you are referring?

Me: [Referring to me]: “not to mention he has sex with animals.”

Howe: – I see. “I couldn’t help but notice” sounds a lot more like “I want to use my spot at the Daily Caller to attack the livelihoods of conservatives that don’t like me.”

Me: So that’s a no comment?

Howe: That is my comment. I look forward to reading it at the Caller.

It’s interesting that Howe worries that pointing out what he said about me will hurt his career. But he has no thought as to how what he says about me might impact my career or life.

Excuse me, but when a consultant for the largest conservative think tank accuses a conservative writer of such things, it at least warrants a phone call. And so, I picked up the phone.

“The Heritage Foundation believes in a civil debate on ideas. We don’t like ad hominem attacks. We also deplore intramural conflicts within the conservative movement,” Michael Gonzalez, Vice President of Communications for The Heritage Foundation, told me.

“Ben Howe is a talented video producer who created seven videos over a two-month period last fall” Gonzalez said, adding: “The Heritage Foundation has never had and does not currently have a contract with him.”

This may be a distinction without a difference. Gonzalez stressed to me that Howe doesn’t have a contract, but Howe apparently believes he is employed by them.

Minutes after I spoke with Gonzalez, Howe posted this on Facebook:

I have a similar policy: No matter how much I dislike or disagree with fellow conservatives, I never accuse them of f*#%ing animals.

Howe clearly believes I was trying to get him fired, but I was instead attempting to confirm he was, in fact, a paid consultant for Heritage. (Had I posted this — without verifying — you better believe I would have heard about it.)

In any event, this whole episode speaks to a larger point. Twitter democratization is a double-edged sword. The socially-awkward gadfly who might once have been relegated to writing letters to the editor of Ron Paul’s newsletter, can today build an online identity that disguises his quirks.

What is more, today’s gadfly doesn’t just have a megaphone and a platform — he can also essentially set it up outside your front door. There are no editors, no fact checkers, and no referees.

Some of my colleagues actually take perverse pleasure in fighting with their stalkers. But my typical move is to block Twitter trolls, and try to ignore them. I’m going to try to go back to that for now. My arms are getting tired from punching down, as it is.

Matt K. Lewis