The return of YYN: The horrifying specter of November 4th and a very disturbing ice cream recipe.
PJ VOGT: From Gimlet, this is Reply All. I’m PJ Vogt.
ALEX GOLDMAN: And I’m Alex Goldman.
Welcome once again to Yes Yes No, the segment on our show where our boss, Alex Bloomberg – who, you know, he’s aging out of being with it and hip – comes to us and says, “I don’t really get what’s going on on this thing on the Internet.” And then we explain it to him.
ALEX BLUMBERG: Hello.
ALEX GOLDMAN: Do you feel like my characterization of you as was mean or incorrect?
PJ: Those are your two options.
ALEX BLUMBERG: (laughing) No, sadly – it was mean and correct.
ALEX GOLDMAN: Umm…So do you have something for us?
ALEX BLUMBERG: I do. So here here’s a here’s a tweet from somebody named Rich “Lowtax” Kyanka.
PJ: Uh huh.
ALEX BLUMBERG: Umm, @Richard_Kyanka and he says, “ANTIFA SUPERSOLDIER UPDATE:” –all in caps– “My cumbersome mech suit is too large to fit through the door to Arby’s”
PJ: No comprehension.
ALEX GOLDMAN: Uhhh – PJ Vogt, do you understand this tweet?
ALEX BLUMBERG: And it’s got 237 likes and 47 retweets.
PJ: No, I do not understand this tweet.
ALEX GOLDMAN: Alex Blumberg, do you understand this tweet?
ALEX BLUMBERG: (laughing) I do not understand this tweet.
ALEX GOLDMAN: (laughs)
ALEX BLUMBERG: Alex Goldman, do you understand this tweet?
ALEX GOLDMAN: I do. I do.
PJ: What is going on?
ALEX GOLDMAN: All right.
ALEX BLUMBERG: It’s fallen to you my friend.
ALEX GOLDMAN: All right. So you guys know what Antifa is, right?
ALEX BLUMBERG: I do. I do. But I could use a little refresher actually.
ALEX GOLDMAN: OK.
PJ: How much do you understand Antifa?
ALEX BLUMBERG: I know they are opposite fascists.
PJ: Yes like against, against.
ALEX BLUMBERG: In fact, anti.
ALEX BLUMBERG: And that’s what anti stands for.
ALEX GOLDMAN: Antifa is basically a loose coalition of groups around the country that tend to show up at protests wearing all black, sometimes holding shields, often covering their faces with masks or bandanas. And the thing that sets them apart from most protesters is that some of them are willing to be violent. .
ALEX BLUMBERG: So their believe is like, we’re not gonna just like, march and stuff. To fight fascism you have to be willing to actually fight.
PJ: The whole like, should, the like, should people punch Nazis thing, it’s like a political movement that’s like, “Yes, yes, and we should punch Nazis.”
PJ: Like, when the shooting in um, Texas happened this month, there were–there were people on the- not Breitbart, but like Mike Cernovich, and like Gamergate-y, like alt-right Internet, were like “The shooter was Antifa. This was an Antifa plot.” Like, they’re kind of like constantly… It’s like one of the menaces that they’re sure is always about to show up at their door.
ALEX BLUMBERG: Got it, got it, got it. OK. Alright. OK, so that’s good. So I know what Antifa is now.
PJ: You’re now, we are now through the first word.
ALEX BLUMBERG: (laughing) We’ve got the first word down.
ALEX GOLDMAN: So, this tweet is in reference to something that has that sort of spun out over the course of the past couple of months. There’s a group of left wingers that’s called Refuse Fascism, and it’s run by this guy named Bob Avakian.
PJ: I’ve not heard either of those things.
ALEX GOLDMAN: So Bob Avakian was kind of well known in the 70s and 80s as like a political organizer. He is this communist guy. He publishes books, he does these really long lectures, he describes himself as a “poetic revolutionary.” But most people have no idea who he is. And, he is definitely not part of Anitfa.
So on August 5, Bob Avakian posts this things on his website that says, “This nightmare must end. The Trump Pence regime must go.” And basically, he says he wants to take to the streets in cities across the U.S. and continue protesting until the Trump administration is removed from power.
PJ: Like he’s calling for… right
ALEX GOLDMAN: And this massive protest he called for probably would have come and gone, and no one would have noticed it. But it caught the eye of this conservative Youtuber named Jordan Peltz. He posted this Youtube video that was called, “Antifa Has to Go!” Here, you can take a look.
JORDAN PELTZ: Good morning, everyone.
He is not a police officer, but he dresses like a police officer.
JORDAN PELTZ: Um, I usually don’t… make posts, especially vlogs like this, but there’s been a number of things that have happened over the last seven days (fades down)
He wears like, the shou–the chest-mounted walkie talkie that cops talk into, and he’s sitting in his not police car.
PJ: But it looks like a police car.
ALEX GOLDMAN: Uh huh.
ALEX BLUMBERG: Uh huh.
PJ: Like, it has the divider behind the seats.
ALEX BLUMBERG: Oh my god He’s got like a- like a- and he’s got like a big, like star–
PJ: Like a fake sheriff’s star, and like uh-
ALEX GOLDMAN: So, just so we’re clear, the star on his shirt…
PJ: Is printed on his shirt.
ALEX GOLDMAN: … is printed on his shirt.
PJ: Oh no, I have depth perception. Fully.
ALEX BLUMBERG: (laughs)
ALEX GOLDMAN: And so Jordan’s video is all about this November 4 protests. But Jordan’s not describing a protest, he’s describing like an all-out war, and he’s replaced the name of Bob Avakian’s group, Refuse Fascism, with Antifa.
JORDAN PELTZ: And to Antifa’s next step, on their website, they are calling for an open civil war that they will start here in the United States in November. They are fundraising for weapons, training, ammunition, supplies.
PJ: He also has a massive rifle behind him.
ALEX GOLDMAN: Yes.
PJ: And all this stuff about like, an armed insurrection, like Bob Avakian was not saying that.
ALEX GOLDMAN: Absolutely not. So, Jordan Peltz makes this video, and it starts taking off.
And then, this thing gets even bigger, because this Facebook group called “Our Vets Before Illegals” posted this, like distilled version of the Peltz video with a bunch of menacing music behind it, and they cut in scenes from violent Antifa protests.
(dramatic, patriotic music)
JORDAN PELTZ: Honestly, if our leaders and our leadership isn’t going to step up and finish this, we have to.
ALEX GOLDMAN: So that got viewed 3.1 million times.
ALEX GOLDMAN: And then the fears around this uprising on November 4 are exacerbated when in late September, some of the members of Bob Avakian’s group Refuse Fascism-
PJ: The original group.
ALEX GOLDMAN: Right – and I’m talking maybe eight or nine people-– go, they block traffic on the LA Freeway, holding like, you when you’re at the… You know when you’re at like, a sporting event and people hold individual letters to spell out something? Their’s says, “November 4, it begins.”
ALEX BLUMBERG: Whoa.
ALEX GOLDMAN: So they shut down traffic, they all get arrested, but that is- that is-
PJ: Now there’s like proof.
ALEX GOLDMAN: Yes. And then, this argument that Antifa’s trying to start a civil war, it starts to spread. Like Alex Jones, the Infowars guy, he picks it up and talks about how this violent group of people are now planning this big revolution.
ALEX JONES: Antifa plans civil war to overthrow government. And they’re handing out AK47s, shanks. They’re planning their attacks on public officials, police.
Meanwhile, lefty Twitter people, they like get wind of the fact that suddenly the right-wing is very scared that there’s going to be this huge uprising. And they think it’s hilarious.
PJ: Right, and their favorite thing to do if somebody on the right is really scared about something, is to just like, mess with them.
ALEX GOLDMAN: Yeah. So, they start making jokes about how ridiculous this thing is. They tweet stuff like… Do you remember the beginning of The Real World, the TV show?
ALEX BLUMBERG: Yeah.
ALEX GOLDMAN: This was like: “On November 4, millions of Antifa supersoldiers are going to stop being polite and start being real.”
ALEX BLUMBERG/PJ: (laugh)
ALEX GOLDMAN: And the one that really made a- an actual- actually surprising impact was this Twitter goof who goes by the name Krang T. Nelson.
ALEX BLUMBERG: Uh huh.
ALEX GOLDMAN: Tweeted: “Can’t wait for November 4, when millions of Antifa super soldiers will behead all white parents and small business owners in the town square.”
ALEX BLUMBERG: (laughing) OK. (laughing)
ALEX GOLDMAN: But what happened is that people who thought that Antifa was actually going to have an uprising on November 4th, they took these jokes very seriously.
ALEX BLUMBERG: Oh, really?
ALEX GOLDMAN: And another pretty fringey right-wing website, this website called Gateway Pundit, they reported on these joke tweets.
ALEX BLUMBERG: As real?
ALEX GOLDMAN: As real. They were saying, “Left-wing Antifa threatens to overthrow the government,” and they would have a bunch of these tweets where people were making goofs.
ALEX BLUMBERG: It’s like the actual exaggerated fear and the- and the- and the mock exaggerated fear have literally met and are fully overlapping.
ALEX GOLDMAN: They totally are.
ALEX GOLDMAN: So like-
ALEX BLUMBERG: That’s wild.
ALEX GOLDMAN: And there are videos on Youtube of concerned, armed citizens planning on how to defend against Antifa.
MALE VOICE 1: November 4 is coming! Are you ready? Are you ready for what’s gonna happen on November 4?
MALE VOICE 2: Go home, clean your rifles, load up your magazines, make sure your food preps and your water preps, your medical supplies…
MALE VOICE 3: You want a war with us? Bring it on! That’s all I can say. [cocks gun]
MALE VOICE 4: Honestly, I’m happy. I’m happy. Dude, we’ve been on the verge of the great war or whatever for what seems like forever, and I’m just ready to get it going
So, as this sort of anxiety continues, this starts going sort of more and more mainstream.
ALEX BLUMBERG: OK.
ALEX GOLDMAN: And then the morning of November 4, Fox News does a piece of it.
PJ: (gasps) Oh no.
ALEX GOLDMAN: Yeah.
PJ: Oh my god, it’s Fox and Friends. “Antifa Apocalypse?”
FOX AND FRIENDS MALE VOICE: The group known as Antifa, anti-fascists, they’re going to be holding one of 20 protests being held across the country. The group, Antifa Refuse Fascism is planning 20 rallies- 20 rallies across the country, to try to drive President Trump and Vice President Mike Pence, drive them from power using violence [fades out]
ALEX BLUMBERG: Oh my god.
PJ: Uh, so the giant chyron is, “Antifa plans to overthrow president.”
ALEX BLUMBERG: Wow. What?
PJ: And like the other thing that’s crazy about this is like, Donald Trump loves Fox and Friends. Like, he tweets about it all the time. He seems to watch it most mornings. Like he probably saw this story.
ALEX BLUMBERG: Do you think that the president of the United States thinks that this was really going to happen?
PJ: Yes, I do. He said after Charlottesville, like, something that people didn’t totally like–
ALEX BLUMBERG: Holy shit. It didn’t even occur to me. But of course.
PJ: When they asked him to denounce white supremacists, and he was like “There are bad guys on both sides.” He was talking about Antifa. Like he actually clarified a couple days later when he was like doubling down on his comments, he was like “Antifa.” Like that’s… He lives in a news reality where like there’s a left wing militia that’s like organizing the overthrow of the state.
ALEX GOLDMAN: And where that tweet, Krang’s tweet, which is sort of like, “We’re coming to behead white people and small business owners,” is real.
ALEX GOLDMAN: So on the morning of November 4, all of the Twitter goofs wake up, and immediately start tweeting things like, “Hey Antifa super soldiers. Um, I’ve got a bunch of PB&J in my wagon. We’re gonna meet down at so-and-so, and start beheading white people. What do you say?” And like, there were a lot of jokes to that effect.
ALEX BLUMBERG: (laughing) Uh huh.
ALEX GOLDMAN: And so what ended up actually happening is that a lot of the armed preppers from the Youtube videos, they like, went out anticipating an Antifa civil war. And, of course, that’s not what they found, because that didn’t exist. What they found was like, in a couple cities, there were some normal protests, people holding signs, banging drums, saying “Hey hey, ho ho, Trump and Pence have got to go.” And so all these armed people who were anticipating this violent Antifa uprising, their takeaway was like “Well, yeah, of course. The reason that Antifa didn’t show up is because we scared them away.
PJ: Wow, that is so crazy.
ALEX BLUMBERG: All right, I think I’m ready to, um, I think I’m ready to recap, everyone.
ALEX GOLDMAN: Alright.
ALEX BLUMBERG: Alright, here it is. The tweet again: Rich “Lowtax” Kyanka says: “ANTIFA SUPERSOLDIER UPDATE: my cumbersome mech suit is too large to fit through the door to Arby’s.”
OK so, I’m assuming a mech suit is sort of like a- a soldier suit, or something?
ALEX GOLDMAN: It’s a giant robot from anime that you can run around in.
ALEX BLUMBERG: Oh, cool. (laughs) OK, great. OK, so anyway, this tweet. I now know that this tweet is in response to the armed uprising, um, by Antifa, on November 4, that many people believed was going to happen, but was actually never going to happen, because it was just the idea of like, um, some rando who nobody takes seriously, but then it got picked up, and blown out of proportion. And this, and he’s resp- and he’s talking about that whole thing.
And he’s- and he imagines a world in which there was an actual um, armed uprising, and he was one of the supersoldiers and he’s sending out an update that he couldn’t come to the war because his mech suit got stuck at the door of Arby’s.
ALEX GOLDMAN: We’re at Yes Yes Yes.
PJ: We’re at Yes Yes Yes.
PJ: Coming up after the break, we get stuck in some buffalo.
ALEX BLUMBERG: Hey fellas, here’s a tweet.
ALEX BLUMBERG: OK. (laughs)
PJ: We should call this segment, “Hey fellas, here’s a tweet.”
ALEX BLUMBERG: (laughs)
ALEX GOLDMAN: That is- that is a catchier name than Yes Yes No.
ALEX BLUMBERG: (laughs). Uh- OK, so uh-so-so– This one is interesting because it’s got like a lot of things that I sort of half know, but then they’re all- they’re all in the way of things that are sort of like, mashed together in- in a way I find confusing
PJ: Like you know the words, but then when you arrange the words together…?
ALEX BLUMBERG: I know the words, and I even know some of the words that are- are certain memes, because you’ve explained them to me on previous Yes Yes Nos, but now they’re coming back in like new and confusing forms.
ALEX GOLDMAN: OK.
PJ: That’s the way of things.
ALEX BLUMBERG: Ready?
ALEX BLUMBERG: Alright, so here’s the tweet. It’s from Brian Feldman. “Constable Frozen milkshake-ducked for being horny on main” is 2017’s “Buffalo buffalo buffalo buffalo buffalo buffalo buffalo buffalo” (laughs)
PJ: Alex Goldman, do you understand what this tweet means?
ALEX GOLDMAN: Yes. PJ Vogt, do you understand this tweet?
PJ: Mostly, yes.
ALEX GOLDMAN: Uh, Alex Blumberg, do you understand this tweet?
ALEX BLUMBERG: No, no.
PJ: Okay, we’re back at Yes Yes No.
ALEX BLUMBERG: Yeah
PJ: Back in the comfortable place
ALEX BLUMBERG: Familiar territory
ALEX GOLDMAN: Before we start, do you guys know the “Buffalo buffalo buffalo…” thing?
PJ: I don’t- that’s the part I don’t know.
ALEX GOLDMAN: So buffalo written nine times with, what, three, with three that are capitalized is a grammatically correct sentence using different uses of the word “buffalo.”
ALEX BLUMBERG: Eight.
PJ: Oh, so it’s like Buffalo the animal. Eight times
ALEX GOLDMAN: Buffalo the animal, buffalo to intimidate, buffalo the city in New York. If you write it- write it, the sentence construction is like…
PJ: The first three actually make sense to me, the next five you kind of lose me a little bit.
ALEX BLUMBERG: Wait.
ALEX GOLDMAN: Right, I mean there’s more to it than that, and it’s actually very complex, but the whole joke of it is that, this is – even though this looks like gibberish, this is an actual sentence.
PJ: I’m not moving forward until I understand this sentence.
ALEX BLUMBERG: Yes.
ALEX GOLDMAN: Oh my god. Buffalo buffalo, animals that call themselves buffalo, the animals called buffalos from the city of Buffalo.
ALEX BLUMBERG: That’s a Buffalo buffalo (laughs).
PJ: So New York bison.
ALEX GOLDMAN: Yes. So Ok, it’s Buffalo buffalo, which are buffalo from the city of Buffalo, that intimidate- that the animals from the city of Buffalo bully, so that Buffalo buffalo buffalo…
ALEX BLUMBERG: Wait.
PJ: Oh my god.
ALEX BLUMBERG: Wait. Buffalo buffalo – so it’s animals – buffalo from- bison from New York.
PJ: I feel like we’ve been here for a thousand years, and this is just hell. Like we’ll never get out of this sentence.
ALEX BLUMBERG: Buffalo… Wait. But then I’m like, at the third buffalo, I’m still confused.
ALEX GOLDMAN: Ok so the third buffalo is, again, describing, um, New York cit- New York State buffalo.
PJ: Ugh, this is so painful.
ALEX BLUMBERG: Got it.
ALEX GOLDMAN: So the… Alright, so think of this way, you have to draw this for it to make sense.
PJ: Alex’s explanation, by the way, so far is, “OK so vuffalo from the city of Buffalo, uh, swindle buffalor… Ok so, so, buffalo from the city of Buffalo.” You literally keep doing the first three buffalo.
ALEX GOLDMAN: Just hold on a second.
PJ: I can’t!
ALEX GOLDMAN: Hold on a second!
ALEX BLUMBERG: Get to the fifth buffalo!
ALEX GOLDMAN: Let’s start with the first two.
PJ: No! No.
ALEX GOLDMAN: Think of the first two as their own independent thing. The first two are buffalo from the city of Buffalo.
ALEX BLUMBERG: I got that: New York bison.
PJ: That is well established.
ALEX GOLDMAN: The second three buffalo are…
PJ: The second three buffalo?
ALEX GOLDMAN: …the second three words “buffalo.”
ALEX BLUMBERG: Uh huh.
PJ: The first two and the second three?
ALEX BLUMBERG: The second three are?
ALEX GOLDMAN: The second three describe their own clause. Which is… Um, so it’s Buffalo buffalo that, buffalo Buffalo buffalo, that buffalo from the city of Buffalo bully…
PJ: What are you doing?
ALEX BLUMBERG: Wait.
ALEX GOLDMAN: … are buffaloing buffalos from Buffalo, New York. That’s the last three.
ALEX BLUMBERG: (laughs)
PJ: I’m just going to pretend that makes sense to me so we can move on. I’m sorry that I wanted to know this.
ALEX BLUMBERG: I don’t, I- it doesn’t make sense to me.
PJ: OK, so what we know is the buffalo thing is a joke about words.
ALEX GOLDMAN: Right.
PJ: And how one word can mean a lot of things, and you can use it over and over again.
ALEX BLUMBERG: So, allegedly, this, this- this sentence that is just the word buffalo eight times is an actual grammatically correct sentence about bison from New York swindling other bison from New York.
PJ: Oh. Now I understand what’s going on. Because the first sentence in this tweet, “Constable Frozen milkshake-ducked for being horny on main” seems like a bunch of words, but it also connotes meaning. I think that’s what’s going on here.
ALEX GOLDMAN: Yes!
ALEX BLUMBERG: Oh.
PJ: But we still have a ways to go.
ALEX GOLDMAN: Mhmm.
PJ: So Alex, just going through the first part: “Constable Frozen milkshake-ducked for being horny on main.” I know that you know some of these things.
ALEX BLUMBERG: I know milkshake-ducked.
PJ: And do you want to do a refresher on that?
ALEX BLUMBERG: Milkshake-ducked is- is how…. Is-is-is- is a term that means when the Internet loves you for a second, and then it turns on you.
PJ: Yes! Yes. OK.
ALEX BLUMBERG: Much like the milkshake duck.
ALEX GOLDMAN: In the tweet that originated the phrase “milkshake duck,” there is a premise that there’s a cute duck that drinks milkshakes, and then you find out that the milkshake duck is racist.
ALEX BLUMBERG: Right.
PJ: So like this- the tweet that we’re talking about refers to uh, for lack of a better word, a scandal that erupted a couple of weeks ago. Alex, have you seen Frozen?
ALEX BLUMBERG: Yes. I have kids. Actually, my kids won’t ever watch the whole thing through because they’re afraid of everything so they can’t… (laughs) It’s too scary for them.
PJ: Is Frozen scary?
ALEX BLUMBERG: No. (laughs)
PJ: What is it about?
ALEX BLUMBERG: Yeah, there’s two princesses: Anna and Elsa. And they’re- they grow up in the castle together in the happy land, but then their parents go off on a voyage, and then their ship wrecks, and they die. And then the one with the powers is like, can’t, um, isn’t allowed to hang out with the one without powers.
And then there’s- and then when she finally lets… She runs away, and then she finally lets loose and she rips off her gloves, and that’s when she sings her signature song.
ALEX GOLDMAN and ALEX BLUMBERG: (singing) Let it go, let it go!
ALEX BLUMBERG: (singing) Don’t hold it back any more.
ALEX GOLDMAN: I don’t know any other part.
ALEX BLUMBERG: (singing) Let it go…
ALEX GOLDMAN and ALEX BLUMBERG: (singing) The cold never bothered me anyway
PJ: Is it like a Queen song?
ALEX BLUMBERG: (singing) Duh dun-un-un-uh
ALEX GOLDMAN: No, we’re just not very good singers.
PJ: It sounds like a Queen song. OK so basically the point is that the Internet really likes Frozen. The Internet really likes Elsa.
ALEX BLUMBERG: Mhm.
PJ: And it being the Internet, there’s, like, a lot of… A lot people taking Elsa and putting her in weird situations. So there’s like a whole genre of Youtube videos that is like adults dressing up as Elsa pretending to be pregnant, there’s like Elsa pregnant with her husband Spider Man stuff. It’s just like, once you hit a certain level of entering into people’s imaginations, like things start to happen.
ALEX BLUMBERG: Elsa… Imagining Elsa pregnant?
PJ: Yes. Like that’s like the weird edge of it. There’s- in like the less weird version of it, there’s this really popular Tumblr blog called Constable Frozen.
ALEX BLUMBERG: OK.
PJ: Which is made by this unknown person who loves Frozen and is just good at these like super meticulous Photoshops. Where they’ll take characters from Frozen like Elsa, and put them into other movies and things like that. Just like, what if Elsa was everywhere?
ALEX BLUMBERG: Uh huh.
PJ: And people go crazy for it. Like tens of thousands of notes, which is Tumblr’s version of just like, likes, or retweets, or whatever.
ALEX BLUMBERG: Got it.
PJ: There’s also like a bunch where it’s Elsa crossing over to different Disney franchises.
ALEX GOLDMAN: There’s like a lot of like, Frozen/Moana crossovers that this person makes.
ALEX BLUMBERG: My daughter was also afraid of that one. She also got too scared with that one when she was sailing across the sea, and there’s a lava monster that she has to fight. But…
PJ: That feels reasonable.
ALEX BLUMBERG: But, and so she was literally doing the same thing which she always does, which she was scaring, and telling us to turn it off, but then we would go to turn it off, she would be like, “No! No!” And so then, she was just sort of like crying, and like turning away, and then not letting us turn it off, and not wanting to leave the room. And she was like, in that state of crying, not wanting us to turn it off, but also not wanting to leave the room for like a good half an hour, and then she defeated the lava monster, and then she sang her song, and then Samira was so overwhelmed that she just started weeping, and she was standing in front of the TV, like, singing along.
ALEX BLUMBERG: (laughs) With tears coming out of her eyes. And she was singing like, (sings) “They are descended from warriors.” And like… Anyway, that’s the power of Disney. Or whatever, whoever makes that thing.
ALEX BLUMBERG: Uh. Yeah.
PJ: OK, so Constable Frozen, like does all these mashups. Some of them have Moana. A lot of them don’t. Can I just… Can I show you one of them? This is like a series that Constable Frozen made.
ALEX BLUMBERG: (laughs) OK.So it’s- it’s Elsa getting off a big plane and waving at people.
PJ: And she’s like, so it’s like, she’s computer generated or whatever, but this is like a picture of a plane.
ALEX BLUMBERG: This is a real picture of a plane. OK.
PJ: Second frame.
ALEX BLUMBERG: Second frame… She’s getting off a plane that says Arrendale, which is the land of which she’s the princess in the movie.
PJ: And she’s surrounded by Marines.
ALEX BLUMBERG: And she’s surrounded by Marines, and she’s about to descend a big staircase. And then she’s standing next to Donald Trump. (laughs) And then she’s at the-
ALEX GOLDMAN: She’s in Congress.
ALEX BLUMBERG: She’s in Congress, standing in front of Joe Biden and John Boehner, and then she’s shaking Donald Trump’s hand.
ALEX GOLDMAN: That is a good photoshop.
ALEX BLUMBERG: Yeah, it really is.
ALEX GOLDMAN: Oh and she’s freezing him!
ALEX BLUMBERG: There’s a close-up of her freezing his hand.
PJ: And that’s it.
ALEX BLUMBERG: That’s it.
PJ: So it’s kind of just like, I don’t really understand, that had, um, 29,000 notes. And I don’t get it. Like I don’t actually get what’s good or bad or whatever about it, it’s just like-
ALEX BLUMBERG: Well, just imagine the world in which Princess Elsa from Arendelle was making a diplomatic visit to the United States, and meeting Donald Trump, and appearing before Congress. Or the person.
PJ: Right it’s like- this person has like, Being John Malkovich brain, but for like, Elsa, and they represent it, and like people…
ALEX BLUMBERG: Love it.
PJ: … Love it. In that way that people love things on Tumblr which is like I never understand what’s going on.
ALEX BLUMBERG: Got it.
PJ: But then, this month, Ryan Broderick, who does the Internet Explorer podcast. He was like, “Hey everybody, I’ve gotten to the bottom of like the weirdest, strangest, Internet mystery I’ve ever found. I’ve gotten to the bottom of like the weirdest, strangest Internet mystery I’ve ever found.” Which like, for him, is a very large claim to make.
ALEX BLUMBERG: Wow.
PJ: And he’s like, “It’s about Constable Frozen. And like something that was under our noses the whole time.”
ALEX BLUMBERG: (gasps) What?
PJ: So. Some of the Constable Frozen creations feel… slightly adult?
ALEX BLUMBERG: Mhmm.
PJ: Um, so like the thing that unlocks it for him is like there’s one post in particular from October 27 of this year that a lot of people noticed because it’s…
ALEX BLUMBERG: Mmmmm
PJ: Yeah. It’s Rapunzel from the movie Tangled. She’s tying up a woman using her hair, which is like whatever. And then the next scene of it is, like, Rapunzel strapped to a table with her arms restrained, and then, off to the side, there’s this prince. And you could miss it at first, but he’s off to the side and he has like a ball gag in his mouth,
ALEX GOLDMAN: It’s a bit soft focus, so it’s not the first thing your eyes are drawn to.
PJ: It’s the kind of thing that once you see you kind of don’t not see.
ALEX GOLDMAN: (laughs)
PJ: And so when that happened, and people saw the ball gag, they starting going back to old Constable Frozen posts, and they were like “Huh. There’s stuff under her nose that like just seemed weird at the time, but in retrospect feels like significant.” And so Ryan’s theory…
ALEX BLUMBERG: Right because it’s like going back and watching like the Louis CK movie.
PJ: Where it’s like “Oh this guy constantly talked about masturbation, maybe that was meaningful”
ALEX BLUMBERG: Yeah.
PJ: Yeah. So Ryan’s theory is that this whole time, Constable Frozen has been like a hidden in plain site vore fetish blog
ALEX BLUMBERG: What… what kind of fetish?
PJ: So vore is like…
ALEX BLUMBERG: Vore?
PJ: Vorarephilia is a fetish where you sexualize the idea of people consuming other people. But it doesn’t have to be, like, cannibalism, like it can be…
ALEX BLUMBERG: (laughs) That’s the best “but” I’ve ever…
ALEX BLUMBERG: But it doesn’t have to be cannibalism!
PJ: So like there’s soft vore. It’s usually like Furries or Disney characters. Like cute things. Like a giant Genie from Aladdin, and like a small version of the Genie from Aladdin will be like going into his mouth.
ALEX BLUMBERG: Right
PJ: It’s not like gnashing teeth or viscera
ALEX BLUMBERG: It’s not like Hannibal Lector like cutting off arms, and drinking them with Chianti.
PJ: No it’s like every time there’s a kid’s movie where somebody like goes a giant whale or the schoolbus going into a body, but sex…ual
ALEX GOLDMAN: Sex-tual?
ALEX BLUMBERG: How do they know it’s sex-tual?
PJ: They know that people are getting some sort of complicated pleasure out of it, because a lot of those people are like making Tumblrs, and like sharing vore pictures. So once you know… Like Ryan is someone who’s done a deep dive on soft vore. And so he was like “Oh my god, like, look at some of these posts.” Like um…
ALEX BLUMBERG: Some of these Constable Frozen posts?
PJ: Yeah. So like, there’s one where it’s like Elsa, and her sister, and they’re talking to Merida from the movie Brave, who’s got red hair.
ALEX BLUMBERG: Ok.
PJ: First panel, they’re talking to her. Then like Merida disappears, and she and her red hair are gone, and they’re like… Elsa and her sister are sharing red spaghetti, which looks like a lot like the missing person’s hair.
ALEX BLUMBERG: Merida’s hair.
PJ: Merida’s hair. Or like there’s this one very popular post that’s just called like “ice cream.” Where…. Anna is Elsa’s sister?
ALEX GOLDMAN: Yes.
PJ: Anna sees Olaf ,the frozen snowman, in the library, and she’s like “Olaf! Soft serve ice cream!” Olaf quickly drinks a glass of milk, flies over Anna’s head, and then sort of spews soft serve ice cream from above her into her like, smiling mouth below.
ALEX BLUMBERG: Into her smiling open mouth.
PJ: Smiling open mouth.
ALEX BLUMBERG: And so he- he becomes an animated snowman soft serve ice cream dispensing machine that flies over your mouth and…
PJ: Spits it out. Which is vore-ish, because he is feeding himself to her.
ALEX GOLDMAN: He’s made of ice. He drank milk.
PJ: Well and the funny thing is like Tumblr is a place where people are often going to share their, like, weird sort of sexual fetishes, so it’s not like these are people who are like, “Oh my god.”
ALEX BLUMBERG: Sexual fetishes on the internet!
PJ: Right, it’s not like they’re saying like “this is gross” even, they’re just like “What you’ve done is you’ve gone horny on main.” Which is when you tweet or post porn from your main, actual account instead of some porn-specific alt account.
ALEX BLUMBERG: (laughs)
ALEX GOLDMAN: I think it sounds, I think it sounds so funny. Because like in the 70s, that totally could’ve been a Bruce Springsteen album.
PJ: “Horny on main?”
ALEX GOLDMAN: And it’s just like, yeah, the E Street band playing fucking trumpets, or whatever.
ALEX BLUMBERG: Right.
PJ: But like Ted Cruz like accidentally faved a link to porn, or like his intern, according to him–
ALEX BLUMBERG: Uh huh.
PJ: –did a couple of months ago, that’s Ted Cruz going horny on main.
ALEX BLUMBERG: Oh! Got it!
ALEX GOLDMAN: Um, has Constable Frozen responded to the controversy?
PJ: Well so this other reporter, Brian Feldman, who was actually the guy who… He does Select All, the blog- the internet blog for New York Magazine, but he’s also the guy who actually tweeted this tweet that we’re Yes Yes Noing. He tracked down the person behind Constable Frozen, who turns out to be a man.
ALEX GOLDMAN: Which is interesting, because everybody in the responses on Tumblr just automatically assumed that it was a woman.
PJ: A lot of people did. Yeah, I don’t know. But it’s a man, he’s South Korean. His name is Shin Chul. And over a very hastily put together Google translated-assisted interview, where Shin Chul said “I hate vore, this is not vore.”
ALEX BLUMBERG: I d-I don’t– I believe him.
ALEX BLUMBERG: It definitely feels porny.
PJ: Yeah. Definitely like something is going on here. Like this isn’t just some big, cultural misunderstanding. I mean, there’s like an image on this blog that I won’t open at work because it looks much like a “Two Girls, One Cup” with like, chocolate ice cream and Elsa.
ALEX BLUMBERG: Yeah. Whatever type of horny on main he was…
ALEX GOLDMAN: They’re definitely horny.
ALEX BLUMBERG: They’re definitely horny on main. Yeah. That definitely feels established.
ALEX BLUMBERG: Whether it’s like, like really, really out there horny main, or it’s sort of like, eh…
PJ: Just, Disney character horny on main.
ALEX BLUMBERG: Yeah, yeah exactly.
ALEX GOLDMAN: Do you want to uh, explain this tweet back to us?
ALEX BLUMBERG: Yes. OK so let me just… OK so, here’s the original tweet. It’s from @bafeldman. “constable frozen milkshake-ducked for being horny on main” is 2017’s “Buffalo buffalo Buffalo buffalo buffalo buffalo Buffalo buffalo”
So, the first phrase, “Constable Frozen milkshake-ducked for being horny on main,” refers to the owner of a Tumblr who would create scenes with photoshopped Disney characters– usually the character from Frozen – doing like, funny things but then like, slightly porny things. Um, and so the owner of Constable Frozen got milkshake-ducked, which means that like, first the Internet loves you, but then they turn on you, for being horny on main, which means um, tweeting out porn from your regular account, rather than from your secret account.
ALEX GOLDMAN: Uh, that is correct. And now you’re going to make him explain the buffalo thing?
PJ: Yeah. Now just do the easy part of wrapping up the buffalo sentence.
ALEX BLUMBERG: So that seemingly nonsense sequence of words, is 2017’s this seemingly nonsense sequence of words, “buffalo buffalo buffalo buffalo buffalo buffalo buffalo buffalo.” Which I still don’t know exactly what that means, but apparently it is a, there, if you, you can grammatically make it, you can make it all make sense. If there’s a bison from New York…
ALEX GOLDMAN: Alright.
ALEX BLUMBERG: So the Buffalo buffalo.
ALEX GOLDMAN: buffalo Buffalo buffalo… They bully bison from New York, who also buffalo Buffalo buffalo.
PJ: Alex, I think that was a perfect explanation.
ALEX BLUMBERG: But how- where’s the who? Just bison from New York.
PJ: We’re staying here until this is done.
ALEX GOLDMAN: No. We’re at Yes!
PJ: No, we’re not at yes!
ALEX BLUMBERG: (laughs)
ALEX GOLDMAN: Bison from the city of Buffalo.
ALEX BLUMBERG: Proper noun Buffalo noun buffalo (fades down).
PJ: Reply All is hosted by me, PJ Vogt, and Alex Goldman. If you happen to illustrate a vore image of a cartoon Alex eating a tiny cartoon Alex, please tweet it at me. Our show is produced by Sruthi Pinnamaneni, Phia Bennin, and Damiano Marchetti. Our editor is Tim Howard, his band Soltero has a new album out called Western Medicine Blues, it’s extremely good. Go listen to the song “New Revelations,” you’ll be glad. Our intern is Anna Foley. We were fixed by Rick Kwan. Special thanks this week to George Ciccariello-Maher, Merritt K, and Brian Feldman. Fact checking by Michelle Harris. Our theme music is by the mysterious Breakmaster Cylinder. Our ad music is by Build Buildings. Matt Lieber is cookies someone brought to the office. You can visit our website on replyall.limo. You can find more episodes of the show on Spotify, Apple Podcasts, wherever you listen. Thanks for listening. We’ll see you soon.
This year we’ve gotten one question from listeners more than any other: is Facebook eavesdropping on my conversations and showing me ads based on the things that I say? This week, Alex investigates. Further Reading Our guide to keep Facebook from following you around the internet can be found at http://replyall.limo/donttrackme . Facebook’s official statement that…
ALEX GOLDMAN: From Gimlet, this is Reply All. I’m Alex Goldman.
PJ VOGT: And I’m PJ Vogt.
ALEX: So over the course of maybe the past year, we’ve gotten a fair amount of emails from people who think that Facebook and Instagram, which is owned by Facebook, are using the microphone on their phone to listen to their conversations and advertise stuff to them, based on the things they’re saying.
PJ: Yeah, I have also gotten some of these messages. I’ve- I basically have felt like I don’t — I think it would be such a risky thing for Facebook thing to do, they’ve been like, “Oh, it’s probably just a coincidence, and people are imagining stuff.”
ALEX: Yeah, but I’ve been talking to this guy named JP, and some of the stories that he’s been telling me are super hard to dismiss. He told me that he that he first started noticing this happening at the beginning of the year.
JP: I was baking pizza dough. I was, you know, making pizza dough, and I said, “This would be a lot easier if we had one of those fancy Kitchenaid mixers.” Ten minutes later, there’s an ad for Kitchenaid mixers on sale.
ALEX: Okay wow.
ALEX: Not long after that, JP is in Target, with his partner Gary, and he yells down the aisle “Hey, can you pick up some Red Bull?”
JP: And then I opened Instagram on the way home, you know, I wasn’t driving, I was in the passenger’s seat, (laughs) and there was an ad for four new flavors of Red Bull. “Try them now.”
JP: And I was like, “This is insane. This is crazy.” You know, they just kept coming. And I was like, “Let’s try something funny.” And like we would say something ridiculous, like, “Man, I could really use a pair of really sexy underwear.” And like, these weird mesh underwear ads started showing up in our feeds. And it was nonstop
ALEX : And then JP told me a story that just felt really crazy. Let’s call it the perfume story.
JP: The thing that really got us, was uh — my partner’s mom came to visit from Oklahoma, a very nice lady, but, you know, doesn’t travel that often.
ALEX: Her name’s Debbie, and she was going to visit JP and Gary in San Francisco. And on her way there, she gets a bottle of perfume confiscated by the TSA. So, when she arrives in San Francisco, she says, “Hey, I want to go the perfume store and get a new bottle of perfume.”
JP: And my partner and I, we don’t wear colognes, we’ve never bought perfume that I know of, never search for it. And within 30 minutes, he had opened his Facebook and there was an ad for a women’s perfume store in San Francisco.
PJ: That’s weird.
ALEX: Yes! It’s weird!
ALEX: On a scale of like, 1-10, what would you say your belief that this is actually your phone listening to you?
JP: Uh, 10. I’m convinced.
ALEX: Wow. OK.
JP: And it just, it creeps me out. And I have no idea how to stop it. I actually- this week, removed the Facebook app and Facebook Messenger and Instagram from my phone, and now I just have links to the websites. I’m like, this close to just deleting my account.
ALEX: So naturally, the first thing I did was contact Facebook. Ask them for an interview.
PJ: They said no.
ALEX: They said, “No, we won’t do an interview. And also, listening to people’s conversations via the microphone on their phone to target ads to them is not something Facebook does.” They said that unequivocally.
PJ: Right. Which… Again, I don’t think they do it, but if you’re a person who does, you’re like, “Well, of course they would say that. Why are they going to tell you about how they’re secretly spying on you?”
ALEX: Um, right. But the thing is that Facebook wouldn’t offer me a satisfactory explanation as to why these ads were showing up in JP’s feed. So, I looked into this, and after doing some reporting, I realized the reason they don’t want to talk to me about this is probably because the technology they use to target people with ads is really invasive. I talked to the guy who first built that technology. His name is Antonio Garcia Martinez. He’s since left Facebook, but he started at the company back in 2011.
ALEX: So just to be clear, there was no targeted ads division before you, right?
ANTONIO GARCIA MARTINEZ: (laughs) You use the term division like a whole part of the company. It was literally me and three engineers.
ANTONIO: Remember, the only Facebook ads were those little postage stamp sized little turds on the right hand side, on the right hand bar. There was no commercial content in feed.
Antonio’s big insight was that they’d make way more money if they just squeezed more information out of their users. And the most obvious piece of information was location. People’s devices were telling Facebook where they were, and the targeted ads team could weaponize that.
ANTONIO: All of location targeting was the responsibility of one guy. He’s a friend of mine, a guy named Pierre. He’s a kind of weird, quirky, idiosyncratic French dude. And he would basically take, you know, the lat/long data off your mobile phone, your check ins, um, you know, IP address lookups, if you’re logging in from a laptop or a desktop machine. And that would kind of go into Pierre’s magic location machine, and out would come a location.
ALEX: Location is important to Facebook because A) Just where you live tells them a ton about the kind of stuff you’re probably interested in. And B) if you suddenly appear in a different location, a location that Facebook doesn’t recognize, then it knows that you’re traveling.
PJ: So like, with the perfume story, it’s like she was telling them that she was traveling even if she didn’t realize she was telling them that.
ALEX: And so the next thing I learned was that in 2012, Antonio came up with what is probably his enduring legacy at Facebook — the thing that he will be remembered forever for.
PJ: Which is what?
ALEX: So he wanted to figure out a way to keep tracking people after they left Facebook. Like, to be able to see what they were doing all across the internet. And so he developed this thing that’s now called Facebook Pixel, and it’s installed on millions of websites. So when you go to one of these sites with Facebook Pixel on it, it watches what you do and reports that information back to Facebook. It can see how long you linger on a certain webpage, it can see if you purchase something, it can see if you put something in your cart on a website and decide not to buy it. It’s kind of like an internet surveillance camera.
PJ: Got- so that’s why like, that’s why, like, when you look at a pair of shoes or whatever- it follows you around Facebook.
ALEX: It follows you around the internet. Right. There’s this app that I use called Ghostery that shows you if Pixel is on a site that you’re visiting. And it’ll also show you all the other ad trackers that are on that site. Like, if you go to the New York Times website, there may be 30 or 40 of these trackers.
PJ: Like, as soon as there’s an ad, you basically have to picture 30 or 40 like helpful friendly sales associates like following you around the store–
PJ: –trying to guess how much money’s in your wallet, like, guessing your like weight and age, and like being like, “Oh, he looked at the hooded sweatshirt, oh my god, OK, OK, write that down, write that down, he likes hoodies.”
ALEX: Right, So by 2012, the targeted ads division has figured out how to follow you all around the Internet. They have all this info on everything you’re purchasing, everything you think about purchasing.
But once they figured out they could do this, they got, like, data hungry. They weren’t just interested in the information that you could give them online, they wanted to know things about what you were doing offline. And so they figured out a way to buy your personal history.
PJ: So it’s like, I have a file on Alex Goldman. I’ll go buy Alex Goldman’s credit report. I mean, probably not that but–
ALEX: No, yeah. I mean, we don’t know exactly what Facebook is buying, because they’re a black box, but we do know that they’re buying from companies that sell credit reports.
ALEX: Yes. I talked to this reporter from ProPublica, her name is Julia Angwin. She’s investigated a lot of this stuff.
ALEX: Wait, where are they buying this stuff?
JULIA ANGWIN: Oh you can buy this from these delightful places. Uh, one of them just had a big breach, Equifax, you may have heard of them.
ALEX: Yeah, Equifax. Right.
JULIA: Experian, Axiom. You know, there’s about- there’s tons of them.There’s probably about seven or 10 big ones out there who sell information about your income, the square footage of your house- within 25 square feet.
ALEX: These companies sell information on whether you’ve been married, whether you’ve been divorced, whether–
PJ: Your credit score?
ALEX: Whether your name has showed up in a lawsuit. They know your income. And you know those loyalty programs that like supermarkets and pharmacies have? The data brokers often run those programs. So they know how often you’re buying diapers or cold medicine or birth control.
PJ: So like, if Debbie had like, a loyalty card at like, her local perfume store. They would know like, this is the type of perfume she buys. And even like, in theory it’s like, they would know like, oh and she bought it like eight months ago. Like, she’s due for some new like, eau de Debbie, or whatever.
ALEX: (laughs) Absolutely. They’re basically learning everything they can about you, and then they break your personality and your interests down into all these hyper-specific traits. And Julia told me there are a ton of these.
JULIA: So, we were able to put together a big database of about 52,000 attributes that Facebook was collecting about its users.
ALEX: (laughs) Oh my god.
JULIA: So they had some categories that were just mind boggling. There was one that was just my favorite called, “a person who likes to pretend to text in awkward situations.”
ALEX: (laughs) How did they even figure that out?
JULIA: I have no idea.
ALEX: There’s actually a page on Facebook where you can see how Facebook categorizes you.
PJ: I want to check mine.
ALEX: Ok, so when you go to your Facebook, you go to settings, and then you click on ads. And then, uh, there’s a section called “your information,” and under that you can click “your categories.”
PJ: Your categories.
ALEX: “Close friends of men with a birthday in seven to 30 days.”
PJ: So that’s like a reason somebody… That’s a category where you’re buying perfume for other people. Who are they trying to hint that I need to buy a birthday present for?
ALEX: “Away from family. Gmail user. Millennial.”
PJ: “Housemate-based households: People living in households where one or more people are not immediate members of family. Away from hometown. Frequent traveler.” I don’t know, it’s weird.
ALEX: It is weird. And this is not a complete picture of the information that they have on you. Facebook knows so much more, but they just keep a lot of it secret. And honestly, we only get a real glimpse of how much they know when they screw up. For instance, I talked to Charles Duhigg, he used to work at the New York Times, and he’s written a lot about how big companies track you. And he had this story about a friend of his who learned something really disturbing through Facebook.
So,his friend’s this liberal guy, lives on the East coast.
CHARLES: His brother-in-law lives in another different state, they don’t see him often, but his brother-in-law is kind of one of those, like he’s into guns, and he’s really conservative. But my friend, he wants to have a relationship with his brother-in-law. So like, he like friended him on Facebook and they’ll like cross post, and he always tries to, like, like the posts of his brother in law that aren’t, like, totally crazy.
ALEX: But then this really weird thing started to happen on Charles’ friend’s Facebook feed.
CHARLES: Which is that he saw- he started getting these like, these right-wing political ads that were like a little white supremacist. Like not really white supremacist, right? Because you can’t put white supremacist stuff on Facebook. But it was- it used a lot of the code words.
ALEX: Which freaked Charles’ friend out, because it’s not like he had ever expressed any interest in white supremacy or anything like that. So Thanksgiving rolls around, and he sees his brother-in-law, and he’s like, “Hey, um, I’ve been getting all of this sort of like stuff that feels disconcertingly, to me, like white nationalist or sort of, like racist. And you’re probably like the only conservative that I friend online. I’m wondering if you have any idea what this might be happening.” And he was like, “Come outside. We need to talk.”
ALEX: And they go outside and he says listen, “I disavowed this, I’m not into it anymore. But for a couple of months last year, I was going to a lot of like white pride, white nationalism meetups.”
ALEX: Yeah, so one of the things that Facebook can do is if you like something, it can advertise that thing to your friends. So the brother-in-law obviously signaled to Facebook that he was into white supremacy somehow, and Charles’ friend was liking a lot of the guy’s posts, and they were friends on Facebook, so Facebook was like, “Alright, well, why don’t I advertise this white supremacist stuff to you.”
PJ: Wow. That’s wild. It’s like Facebook built a machine that just like as a side-effect outs white supremacists, but that’s not even like the point of the machine, like, they don’t care. Like, the whole point of it is just to like to learn things about you to sell you crap.
ALEX: Yeah but think about all of the stuff that this thing can do. Like if you look at everything that I just talked about, and you apply it to JP’s perfume story, I think it explains it.
PJ: Oh, totally.
ALEX: So, like Debbie is going through the TSA in Oklahoma. She gets her perfume confiscated, and she’s like, “Aw, crap. Now I’ve gotta buy new perfume.” She searches for it on her phone.
PJ: She like- she looks at it, she’s like, “Oh, it’s kind of expensive, I’m not going to buy it right now.”
ALEX: Right, but she goes to a page where Facebook has a, has a Pixel on it.
PJ: Facebook knows this person is now in the market to buy perfume. And-
ALEX: And it knows that-
PJ: -she’s traveling.
ALEX: She’s traveling-
PJ: Right. And they probably know that she’s traveling to visit her son because like he’s her son, he lives in San Francisco. She’s logging in in San Francisco, so is he.
PJ: So why not show the son a perfume ad because he could be like, “Oh mom, isn’t this the perfume you like?”
ALEX: (clears throat)
JP: Hi, this is John Paul
ALEX: Hey, this is Alex, how are you doing?
JP: Hey, I’m great how are you?
So I called JP, and I told him that while I couldn’t say with 100 percent certainty that Facebook wasn’t listening to him, I had a lot of evidence that they just didn’t need to.
ALEX: So then Facebook knows that she wants perfume, right?
ALEX: Knowing your relationship, Facebook might have given your partner that ad because it knows that she’s nearby and it knows that she wants perfume.
JP: Okay. (laughs) I mean… So maybe they’re not listening on the microphone, but- I don’t know. It just feels like they are. It’s just really, like, it-it-this is a weird thing we’ve signed up for and–and allowed. You know, thank you for the additional information. I- (stammers and laughs).
ALEX: (laughs) Um–
JP: Oh boy.
ALEX: So I actually kind of thought my work was kind of done here, and then a couple of days later, I got an email from JP with the subject line, “I’m not sure I’m convinced.”
ALEX: And he just told me another story, a story about talking about having a leg cramp, and then getting an ad on Instagram for cramp cream.
PJ: I actually don’t find that surprising. Like, I feel like, I think you can learn as much as you want, I don’t think you’re ever going to convince anybody who already believes that Facebook is spying on them that they’re not. And I think it’s actually Facebook’s fault. Like, they’ve created this problem because they’re really good at collecting information about us, they won’t be very transparent about what they collect or how. And so, you’re basically forcing people to come up with the simplest possible solution for how Facebook knows stuff about them, and that’s that they’re listening in.
I would be surprised if you could find literally one person in the world who thinks this is happening who you could tell them what you’ve learned, and they would be like, “Yeah. You’re right.”
ALEX: I could find one person.
PJ: You cannot find one person. We can- we can literally open the phone lines, we can let people call in, you will not find a person.
PJ: After the break, Alex takes some phone calls.
PJ: Okay, so Alex.
PJ: So I tweeted out, and I just like, “Hey we’re going to take calls. If you believe this thing is true, call in.” Before we even open the phone lines, I just want you to know how screwed you are. (laughs) So like, let me just actually bring it up, hold on.
ALEX: I saw.
PJ: Like, like hundreds of people, I think. Like, everybody thinks this is true. Including like, including tech journalists who I respect a lot. Like it’s not just like a fringe belief. Like everybody thinks this is true. Literally like the VP of Facebook’s ad division jumped in and was like, “We’re not doing this!” And there were just like all these people being like, “You’re lying, you’re lying.”
Like, you are- I think you are walking into something that is maybe a little bigger than either of us realized. And I’m really excited to watch you walk into it.
ALEX: I still think I can do it.
PJ: Okay. let’s take a call. Let’s open the phone lines.
ALEX: Sounds good.
ALEX: Hi, who’s this?
MONIQUE: Hi, this is Monique.
ALEX: Hi Monique, this is Alex.
PJ: And PJ.
MONIQUE: Hi guys
PJ: So what’s going on here is that we’re talking to people who believe that Facebook is listening in on them using their microphones. And Alex, who’s done a lot of research, and as far as I can tell believes it’s not happening, he’ll try to give you an alternate explanation
MONIQUE: Ok, so I have a very quick story, and this is so funny, I was just telling my friend about this last night. Um, so, a few months ago I was on the phone talking to my friend and she was talking about this device that she had bought, um, to help her open coconuts.
MONIQUE: It was this really weird thing and she was trying to explain–she was explaining this tool, but she couldn’t remember the name. And we get off the phone, and then that was it. And maybe 15, 20 minutes later, I’m scrolling on Facebook and I see an ad for this device called the Coco-Jack.
PJ: (laughs) The Coco-Jack?
MONIQUE: I screenshot it. And was like “Is this what you were talking about?” And she was like “Yes.” And ever since then, I’ve been convinced that they’re onto me.
ALEX: OK (clears throat).
PJ: God, this is like watching a conductor warm up.
ALEX: OK, is this person your friend on Facebook?
ALEX: Did she buy the Coco-Jack online?
MONIQUE: I don’t know for sure, but I don’t think she did.
PJ: I just watched a balloon deflate–
ALEX: No! Not necessarily.
ALEX: Do you know where she bought it?
MONIQUE: If I recall correctly, she was in Vegas at some, like um, weird little shop, like “as seen on TV” shop. And she picked it up there.
ALEX: Do you think that she was, like, frustrated by all her coconuts beforehand, and so she Googled like, “How to open coconuts?”
MONIQUE: Perhaps. Maybe. But why would I be seeing it on my- like I saw it on my feed?
ALEX: So Facebook has the ability to follow you around the internet as you browse. When you’re logged into Facebook, and you go to a shopping site, and you put something in your cart, and you decide not to buy it, the site will then transmit that information back to Facebook, saying, “Hey, this person’s really interested in the Coco Jack.” Right?
MONIQUE: Uh huh.
ALEX: So another thing that Facebook does is that it allows advertisers to advertise certain products to the friends of people who have either purchased or shown interest in that product. So your friend-
ALEX: -Being really into the Coco Jack, her favorite new device, might have left some kind of digital trail.
MONIQUE: I think that it’s a possibility, um–the way it happened. It happened so quick. As soon as we were off the phone, not long after I saw it in my feed. So I was convinced, like, oh, they heard me talk about about a coconut opener, and now they’re trying to sell me one. That’s what it looked like.
ALEX: I understand. And that sounds creepy.
ALEX: And I empathize with feeling creeped out by it. But given an alternate explanation that does not require Facebook to be clandestinely listening to you using your microphone, which one feels more likely to you?
MONIQUE: (sighs) You know what? I’m still kind of convinced that they might be listening to me.
ALEX: Aw, Monique! You’re killing me here!
PJ: This is not happening for you today.
MIKE: A coworker of mine had, this is going to sound silly, but she had brought in a brand of cough drop that I had never heard of before. It was new. We were talking about how I’d never heard of this cough drop before, and I didn’t Google it. I didn’t get on my phone and look it up. And I’m scrolling through Instagram like, maybe an hour later. And all of a sudden, there’s an ad for this cough drop.
PJ: Alex Goldman, how do you explain that?
ALEX: Are you friends on Facebook with this friend who suggested, who- who brought in the cough drops.
MIKE: But can I- can I add a caveat?
MIKE: I wasn’t friends with them until after the cough drop incident.
PJ: (laughs) You’re so screwed.
ALEX: Oh boy.
JASON: We were talking about whether we prefer like a firm or a soft mattress. And a couple days later, I started getting served ads for a mattress company called Casper.
ALEX: So, Casper may have decided that they have, like, not penetrated the market in your town of people who are about to graduate from college and are probably going to need a mattress when they move into their own apartments. It’s very possible they know how much money you make because they buy information about you from data brokers. Facebook buys information.
PJ: Sir, are you finding this convincing?
JASON: It- it’s a decent explanation. It just, like this one sounds as like plausible as, my phone heard me have this conversation with my friend, and immediately after that conversation, I’m immediately being served this ad about mattresses.
ALEX: What could I possibly do to tip the scale in this situation?
PJ: Ok, let’s try another person to see if you have any chance of-
ALEX: Oh I’m definitely- I’m definitely going to convince someone.
PJ: So you are now 0-4?
ALEX: I can’t remember. Three or four.
TOM: Sillicon Valley startup idea of a milkshake.. And then for the next week I saw ads for Soylent in my Facebook scroll.
ALEX: And like what was the lag time between you mentioning it and seeing Soylent ads?
TOM: So I was visiting some family in a different town, and I remember the next week when I came back. It was within a couple of days.
ALEX: OK. Where were you visiting, and where do you live?
TOM: So I live in Des Moines, Iowa.
TOM: And I was visiting my wife’s cousins in Kansas City.
ALEX: OK. Both hotbeds of Soylent consumption. Do you have any friends who, um, consume Soylent?
TOM: Um, I had a coworker who was trying it for a while.
ALEX: Uh, around–
TOM: But I don’t think I’m friends with them on Facebook.
ALEX: Do you have any friends who live in San Francisco?
TOM: Uh… No.
ALEX: Can you (laughing)? PJ has to keep turning away from me because he’s laughing too hard about my futile attempts to convince people that-
PJ: I’ve never watched anyone do something so badly.
PJ: It’s like watching someone in the Olympics just fall down (laughs).
PJ: I didn’t think this would go like perfectly, but I did not think it would go this catastrophically so fast (laughs).
ALEX: What am I supposed to do? The problem here, which is the same problem with reporting out this story, is that Facebook not only is like a black box that tends to not want to tell you about how their stuff works. It is done using so many complex algorithms, that they don’t even know. If I was like, “Hey tell me how this ad got served to this gentleman,” the people of Facebook would say like, “I don’t know the answer to that.”
PJ: I feel like you’re reverse convincing me.
ALEX: What, like now-
PJ: I feel like I’m starting to go to the other side now.
JULIA: Hi, uh, my name is Julia.
ALEX: This is Alex. How are you doing?
JULIA: I’m great. How are you?
ALEX: I’m good. I’m going to try and convince you that Facebook is not listening to you. Is Facebook listening to you?
JULIA: Oh. 1000 percent. Um, so I was at a friend’s house a few weeks ago.
JULIA: We were talking about a guy that she went to high school with, and I went to college with. We did not look him up. We did not google him. We did not go on his Instagram or his Facebook.
JULIA: And the next day, both of us got him as a recommended follow on Instagram.
JULIA: And this is like not somebody who I had interacted with online literally in any capacity for like a good many years. And it was both of us that got the recommended follow, and you don’t get the recommended follows that often. So, it’s definitely listening to me.
ALEX: PJ’s- PJ is smirking at me because he thinks that I can’t answer this.
PJ: No, I’m just smiling because your face is covered in flop sweat
ALEX: And you’re absolutely right that I can’t answer this one.
ALEX: Because ad targeting and the “people you may know” data sets are totally separate. I don’t- I haven’t been researching this. I have no idea. I have- I can’t answer this one.
JULIA: I do it tells you though that the microphone is definitely listening.
ALEX: Uh- I-
JULIA: What it’s being used for…
ALEX: PJ can’t- PJ can’t keep it together. He’s losing his mind. He thinks this is so funny.
PJ: (laughing) I just think it’s funny because Alex had a lot of confidence (laughing harder, barely audible) he would have all the answers, and would be able to explain it to people.
ALEX: (laughing) I’m sorry Julia, I can’t answer this one. I going to have to let you go. Maybe they’re listening to you, and suggesting friends based on that, but I haven’t been paying attention to that.
PJ: (laughing) Wait–wait–you’re giving up instead.
ALEX: (laughing) I’m sorry?
JULIA: [Skype breaking up] You need to follow this. I do think it is like irrefutably the microphone is on.
JULIA: I think this is fair.
PJ: You’re not even arguing, Alex!
ALEX: Why would I argue? He’s like, “Why aren’t you arguing? Why aren’t you arguing?” I don’t know anything about how they decide who they should suggest to you as friends. They could be.
JULIA: But don’t you think this means that like the microphone is on, and is listening, and is recording information.
ALEX: I have no idea.
PJ: (laughing) Oh my god.
ALEX: PJ can’t take it. You need to pull yourself together. I’ve got to convince someone before the end of the day, and I’m definitely not going to do it with Julia.
PJ: (laughing) Well, I think that your argument is that maybe the microphone is listening to you is not going to convince anybody that the microphone is not listening.
ALEX: (laughing) It might. It might.
PJ: Julia, thank you so much.
ALEX: So, I wasn’t able to convince anybody, but whether you think Facebook is listening to you or not, we are going to put a bunch of information up on our website about how to prevent them from tracking you as much as they do. And if you do believe that Facebook is listening to you, we’ll also have instructions on there for how to disable the microphone privileges for your Facebook app. You can find it at replyall.limo/donttrackme.
Reply All is PJ Vogt and me, Alex Goldman. We were produced this week by Sruthi Pinnamaneni, Phia Bennin, and Damiano Marchetti. Production help from Jon Hanrahan. Our editor is Tim Howard. Our intern is Anna Foley. Fact checking by Michelle Harris. The show was mixed by Rick Kwan.
Special thanks this week to Zoe Kleiman, Christine McClellan and Emily Taylor. Matt Lieber is sitting on your couch and looking around at how nice your house looks after you just cleaned it. Our theme song is by the mysterious Breakmaster Cylinder and our ad music is by Build Buildings. You can listen to the show on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or wherever you get your podcasts. Thanks for listening, we’ll see you in two weeks.
Continued: Sruthi Pinnamaneni follows the world’s best bounty hunter on a peculiar case. Further Reading Michelle Gomez’s website Michelle Gomez’s Twitter Dallas’ Voiceover Site POLITICO story on The Remembrance Project
PJ VOGT: From Gimlet, this is Reply All. I’m PJ Vogt. If for some reason, you’re just listening to this randomly, this is part two of a two-part story. Make sure you go back and listen to part one, or nothing you hear will make sense. Ok, here’s Sruthi:
SRUTHI PINNAMANENI: So, Michelle and I arrive in this town in North Carolina. It’s the middle of June, a Monday, very hot and sticky.
SRUTHI: Hey Michelle
MICHELLE: Hey, how you doing?
SRUTHI: Good, how was your flight?
And just a quick reminder: the reason we have come to this particular town, I’m not going to tell which one it is, is because Michelle is after a man named Luis Rodriguez. And after a whole lot of searching, she believes that a woman named Blanca, who lives here, is Luis’ shelter.
ALEX GOLDMAN: Right.
SRUTHI: So, Michelle’s thinking either Luis is at this address that she has for Blanca, like he’s living with Blanca and her family–
PJ: ‘Cause you said people stay close to their shelter.
SRUTHI: Right. Or, if he’s not there, she’s sure that Blanca knows where he is. So her plan is to confront Blanca, scare her, and get her to give up Luis’ location. So that’s her plan. Michelle tells me she’s already checked in with her client, Maria Espinoza, and we are off.
We meet up with this former bounty hunter. His name is Dallas McLean.
DALLAS MCLEAN: I’m Dallas Mclean.
He’s this big dude in sixties, has a goatee, tells me that he’s a voiceover actor on the side.
DALLAS: Do I get a picture with the famous, uh, the famous Michelle?
So Dallas is going to be Michelle’s wingman for this whole trip, and he’s just doing it as a favor, like letting her use his office as a home base, and he tells her like, “Listen, I’m going to drive you anywhere you need to be.” So we go to his car.
SRUTHI: Wow. You have–you really do live out of your car.
I get in the front seat. It’s this like, giant black SUV with, of course, tinted windows. And there’s, like, all sorts of bounty hunter stuff in it.
SRUTHI: A water gun? Oh no that’s not a water gun, that’s a taser?
DALLAS: I’ve got like laundry that–
MICHELLE: It’s a taser.
DALLAS: –I was gonna drop off, and all that.
Michelle hops in the back, and we head off. The trailer park is about 20 minutes outside of town. And, at this point, Michelle is just planning to do a driveby, like scope out the place and come up with a game plan. She’s done all this extra research on Blanca since the last time I saw her. Like, at this point, she knows, you know, exactly where Blanca works, um, she has this extended family tree for Blanca, has her daughter’s name.
SRUTHI: Is there any part of you that’s like, feels a little–
SRUTHI: –kind of bad for her, or anything?
MICHELLE: Nope. Nope, nope, nope, nope. My heart’s cold, my heart turns cold. Because um, she’s aiding and abetting a fugitive who killed somebody. And she knows it. When she could’ve–already, four or five years have gone by. She could easily make an anonymous call and say, “Hey, I’m so and so, I know about this case, I need for you to come get him,” or “he works here.” Something–that’s, um–it’s what you do. It’s the principle thing. And that’s it.
NAVIGATION: In .1 miles, your destination is on your left.
DALLAS: This is it.
We pull into this trailer park.
DALLAS: It’s like a loop, so we can come out down there.
We are slowly driving down this dirt road until we hit this one trailer where, by the number on the door, they know it’s Blanca’s. And they start to figure out what are the possible escape routes.
DALLAS: Yeah. Front door and a back door.
Dallas keeps driving, uh, Michelle has her camera out and is taking photos through the window. We see that there’s this front porch coming out of the trailer, and there’s a little girl there eating ice cream.
DALLAS: Yeah a little girl, about five or six.
We loop around and drive by again. And, now there’s another girl who has come out, an older girl, late teens, and she’s also standing out on the porch.
MICHELLE: Yep that’s her.
DALLAS: Did you get it?
MICHELLE: Yea-. That’s the-the–the daughter. Uh, Blanca’s–Blanca’s daughter.
DALLAS: There’s the dog. He’s no problem.
SRUTHI: And there’s just woods behind, like, thick woods.
MICHELLE: Perfect for them.
SRUTHI: What does that mean?
MICHELLE: He’s been on the run!
DALLAS: He knows he’s gonna be in jail. He’s been out–the idea is to stay out as long as he can. Are we done here?
We leave the house, and Michelle now wants to go to the restaurant where Blanca works. She says, “It’s a weekday, and I think she might be there.” So, we stop by, it’s in a mall food court, and the girl behind the counter tells us: “Blanca just left.”
Dallas says “You know what let’s get some food, I know this great Italian restaurant,” and then for the next two hours, he and Michelle just tell war stories. And finally, at 9:30, Michelle says to him, “Hey, I want to go back to the trailer, I want to see it at night, and see who’s living there besides Blanca’s family.”
First they get their gear together. Dallas opens the trunk of the car.
DALLAS: I left my binoculars…
MICHELLE: I have binoculars.
DALLAS: Ok. I got some night vision.
MICHELLE: Yeah, I got night vision too. A water–uh, water resistant. Let me see.
We head back to the trailer park. Again, I’m up front, Michelle’s sitting in the back. And, she puts on a badge. It’s a Texas investigator badge, but it looks a lot like a police badge.
DALLAS: Alright, we’re almost there.
SRUTHI: What are you going to do, Michelle?
MICHELLE: No, I’m just–I don’t–I don’t ever, like–I noticed that you’re always like, “What are you going to do? What are you going to do?” I’m calm. I’m very calm, you know–?
DALLAS: You want me to pull in the driveway or stay on the street?
MICHELLE: You can do it in the driveway. Let them know that we’re not afraid of them.
We just sit there in the car, in front of the house. Just watching. It’s pitch black. And then–
[Car doors slam]
Michelle just opens the door, jumps out, and starts marching towards the front door.
[Car doors slam again]
She’s got a cellphone in her hand, and she’s just using it like a flashlight.
MICHELLE: (knocking) Hello? Hola. (knocking, dog barking) Hello? (knocking) Hello?
The whole trailer’s dark, except for this one light that’s on in the back, and in front of us is this giant “Beware of Dog” sign.
MICHELLE: (loud knocking)
MICHELLE: What time is it here? 10 o’clock?
SRUTHI: It’s, uh, 10:06.
MICHELLE: It’s late.
SRUTHI: Do you think they might be sleeping?
MICHELLE: Yeah–they’re–we’ll get them tomorrow morning.
She seems pretty satisfied, and we walk back to the car. And, just when we we’re about to get inside.
SRUTHI: Oh somebody’s, somebody…
The front door opens, but we can’t see who it is.
MICHELLE: No, no. No. Good boy. Good boy. (makes kissing noises and speaks Spanish)
It’s this older girl we’d seen earlier, she’s here with this dog, looking extremely confused and disheveled, like as if she’d just been, woken up out of bed.
MICHELLE: Tú mama es Blanca?
MICHELLE: Como te llamas?
And then Michelle shows her the photograph of Luis.
MICHELLE: Luis Alberto Rodriguez?
DAUGHTER: No. No sé.
And this girl says, “No, I’ve never heard of this person.” And, at that point, this middle-aged lady in a nightgown comes out looking completely scared.
MICHELLE: Ok. Yo soy Michelle Gomez. Como está?
MICHELLE: Perdón. Ústed es Blanca?
MICHELLE: Yo soy Michelle Gomez. Yo soy detectiva de Texas.
Michelle has her badge out. And they get into this whole back and forth.
MICHELLE GOMEZ: Estoy buscando este señor. Tú lo conoces?
MICHELLE: No lo… mira?
Blanca’s saying does not recognize this photo of Luis either, and she clearly has no idea what Michelle is asking about. She’s like, “I’m not from Honduras…
MICHELLE: Ustedes son ilegales? O tienen papeles
BLANCA: No tengo papeles, un permiso, my hijo también.
…And, I’m legal.” And, she tells Michelle: “Come into my house, and I’ll show you my papers.”
[tape going into trailer, speaking Spanish]
And we sit down in their dining room, her husband’s out, the whole family is out, there’s like six different people there. And they’re all taking out all their paperwork–like, there’s driver’s licenses, work permits.
PJ: Just like, all proof that they’re allowed to be here.
SRUTHI: Exactly. And Michelle is like taking photos of all their documents and then, through the front door, walks in this young-looking guy.
MALE VOICE: Hola.
FEMALE VOICE: (introducing Tomas in Spanish) Tomas
That’s Tomas. Turns out the guy we thought was Blanca’s husband is actually her son.
MICHELLE: You speak English?
MICHELLE: Ok, perfect!
Michelle starts asking him all these questions and finds out like this person has the same first and last name as Tomas, that guy that she’s been thus far theorizing is the partner-in-crime of Luis. But this guy is not Honduran, he’s from El Salvador. He’s, like, 20 years younger than we expected. Definitely the wrong guy.
I look over at Michelle, I mean, she has just barged into an innocent family’s house in the middle of the night with a badge. I am mortified and confused, but Michelle seems almost excited. Like, she pivots immediately to this new theory: the original Tomas who she was looking for, the friend of Luis’s, he must have stolen this kid’s identity.
MICHELLE: And, um–you’re the victim, you’re–for identity fraud.
And Michelle starts giving this kid security advice. She was like, “Ok, so here’s what you need to do: You need to write a letter to all these credit bureaus and tell them, like, your Social Security number is compromised.” Uh, I mean, at one point he’s giving her his contact info, so she can get back to him about things.
MICHELLE: And no–you don’t use Yahoo. It’s no good.
TOMAS: No Yahoo?
MICHELLE: You get hacked so many times.
MICHELLE: Yeah. You need to change. Go to Hushmail.
MICHELLE: Or go to–are you, you computer savvy?
The whole family is just rapt–like, they seem really grateful for all this advice. And they just keep saying, “Thank you so much.”
[Michelle laughing and talking with the family]
We’re there for two hours.
SRUTHI: By the end of it, they all lined up around her…
MICHELLE: Ok, everybody say cheese. (iPhone shutter sound)
… and took photos.
SRUTHI: Great. Ok, I got it.
Here, can I show you a photo?
PJ: (laughing) Wow
ALEX: (laughing) It looks like a family photo!
SRUTHI: It is a family photo!
ALEX: It’s like, absolutely looks like someone was like, “Alright–let’s go to Sears and get our photo taken.”
[laughter and indistinct chatting]
SRUTHI: We leave the house. It’s midnight at that point. Michelle is in a great mood. To me, the whole thing still felt like a mistake. The next morning, it’s back to the drawing board.
We station ourselves in the kitchen of Dallas’ office, and Michelle, she’s working on a laptop. And this time, she’s says, she’s going a different route.
She’s found a new lead: a guy named Tony. He’s an actual friend of actual Luis– an old friend. But, he’s willing to help track him down.
SRUTHI: Welcome back to the show. So where we left off, Michelle and I were sitting in Dallas’s office
DALLAS: There’s coffee there.
And she was about to call this guy named Tony. And here’s who that is: Remember how the court lowered Luis’s bail? Tony, who was his friend and coworker, he actually appeared in court early on to testify on Luis’ behalf.
MICHELLE: (on phone) Hello? Hi, sir, my name is Michelle Gomez. I need to speak with you regarding, um, the situation with Mr. Rodriguez.
MICHELLE: Me puede ayudar por favor?
MICHELLE: Ok. You know–you know, Luis Rodrigo, verdad? El Rodriguez.
TONY: Verdad. Yeah.
MICHELLE: You testified on his behalf as a credible person.
MICHELLE: Why did you do that? What happened there?
TONY: Well he was–he was–he was good person. He was good people to hang out with, you know, and you’d go over and drink with him. He hangs out with everybody, talked nice to everybody and stuff. He wouldn’t–yeah, he wasn’t mean–he wasn’t aggressive or nothin’.
MICHELLE: OK. How did you feel when he was gone?
TONY: Like shit man. He burnt me. He played me stupid. He plays the people real good and everything, and then he runs from them when he gets in trouble.
He says last time he saw Luis was the night just before he took off.
TONY: I see him about 1:30 that morning. And, we had a beer and stuff. And he said, “Ok, I’ll see you tomorrow.” Bullshit. They were gone the next day.
TONY: Daughter, son, him–all of ‘em.
The next day he found out that Luis, his wife, his two kids, um, had just got in a van and, like, left. So, it was planned.
MICHELLE: Ok. Um–anything else that might help me to find him as far as what he’s–what he would do?
TONY: Yeah. The last time the guy that seen him, he was in Tennessee. His wife’s still here.
MICHELLE: Marina’s in Tennessee?
He says, “If you can find the wife, Luis would be close by, because they have a little daughter.”
TONY: If you can get a hold of his wife, you might get lucky, man. Because, the man loved the shit out of his daughter, he’s not going to let go of his daughter for nothin’.
TONY: He’s been a good dad. He was a good dad, believe me. (Voice in background: “He was a good person”). He’s a real good person, in real life, he’s a good person, he really is. But uh, the only thing is that when he killed this man, other people told him he was going to do life in prison and all kinds of shit, and he didn’t want to go do it, so he hauls ass.
MICHELLE: Yeah. Was he afraid of being deported?
TONY: Yep. Yep, because they want to kill him back home–they killed his mom and everything.
MICHELLE: (gasps) Oh my god.
Tony said he didn’t know all the details, but it was something related to these drug gangs– like maybe MS-13– and that they had killed Luis’mother in front of him.
MICHELLE: That is so sad. No, but he can plead down–the United States will protect him.
TONY: He got himself into a spot, because he got hit with a machete in the arm.
TONY: And he got hit with a machete across the top of the head. He’s got scars that big.
MICHELLE: Oh my god. What a story.
TONY: So he’s scared of everything, you know what I mean?
MICHELLE: Yeah. Yeah, well they can’t deport him. Because mira: si él reclamo, que, si tiene miedo en su país, no lo van a ir p’atras.
Michelle’s saying, because Luis is afraid of the violence in his country, in Honduras, that there’s no way the US is just going to dump him over there.
MICHELLE:. If-if–if he calls you by some chance, by some light of day–you have my number. Ok?
MICHELLE: Um–there’s some kind of hope, but yet he has to do some time. He has to be punished.
TONY: Yeah! I hope you do get him man. Let me know if you do. Call me up, let me know something.
MICHELLE: I will. Thank you. I appreciate you.
TONY: Alright. Ok, bye-bye.
We got off the phone and I was really confused that, that Michelle was so sympathetic towards Luis
PJ: Yeah, like, I feel like it could be like a tactic? Like, she’s trying to convince Tony she’s on Luis’ side?
SRUTHI: Yeah, but I couldn’t tell because she was actually tearing up. But after that call she says, “Tony’s given us this big clue. And from now on, I’m going to focus on finding Luis’ wife and daughter.”
She spends the next like, five hours on this laptop. By 6 p.m., she confirms that yes, they are in Tennessee, but she still doesn’t know what town.
We head back to the hotel, and Michelle keeps working, like, keeps hammering away at this question. She’s barely talking to me. And then, at 1 a.m.–
[cell phone rings]
MICHELLE: That’s Gabbie, my daughter. Yes?
She gets this phone call from her daughter which starts off normal, but very quickly, it turns super emotional, her daughter’s crying, says that she’s decided to move to this other city. Finally, Michelle turns to me and says, “Listen I need to stop. I need to go home to Texas.”
MICHELLE: And as soon as I get home and say goodbye to my daughter, I’m going to make arrangements to take off to Tennessee.
SRUTHI: Do you feel like you– do you feel like anything happened today that makes you feel differently about him or about your search for him?
MICHELLE: Yeah. He’s had a rough life. He has had–you know, he’s, he’s witnessed the death of his mother right in front of him. I don’t know what age that happened, but it was emotional to know that– (chokes up)
MICHELLE: It’s emotional, because he’s had a rough life, you know? And shit happens to everybody. But um-he–he needs to he needs to pay for his crime, for the accident, for the closure of this stor–you know, the family. He needs to face, you know, the justice system in terms and grow from that. You know? He’s been running all his life. There’s always a day where you can start over and repair it. And that day I–the day I confront him is the day he’s going to start, because I’m going to sit with him as a friend. He’s going to be able to–he’s probably going to rest. Because usually they usually tell me, “I’m glad you found me, now I can rest.” Yeah, you’re going to be sleeping in jail. You know? And that’s the good part. And I’m probably going to make another friend. I really am. I really do believe it. I’ll probably have a photo album with him (laughs).
SRUTHI: You’re a confusing lady, uh–Michelle.
MICHELLE: I know!
SRUTHI: Yeah I–yeah. Let’s see–let’s see what happens.
MICHELLE: I mean I’m not the police, you know? I’m not a mean person. My life is about doing what I do best, and that’s finding the person.
SRUTHI: The next morning, I fly back to New York, Michelle goes back to Texas. And she says, “I’m going to plan for this Tennessee trip.”
I was very curious how The Remembrance Project would feel about Michelle’s new empathy towards Luis. But by that point, Maria Espinoza stopped taking my calls.
This was June, right about the time she found herself in this controversy. A bunch of her families turned on her. Like, there’s this POLITICO article, where they said they feel like Maria was harboring political ambitions, and she was using them to get close to Trump.
Maria told me, “I don’t want to talk to you until I hear your final story.”
Michelle and I, however, we kept checking in regularly.
MICHELLE: Well, I have a lot of cases, um. I have a lot of deadlines, and I have a lot of cases, and, these clients, they–they all need me, and they’re–they’re like, “You’re my last hope.”
When I called her in early July, Michelle was completely overworked, she said she was having migraines. But she said she’s still finding time to search for Luis.
And she told me “I looked into it, he’s definitely not in Tennessee.”
MICHELLE: I’m going to be brief with you, because I’m waiting for a call.
In September, she told me, “I found his sons on Facebook. I’m watching them. I think Luis had fled the U.S.”
MICHELLE: Now I’m 90 percent sure he’s in Spain.
SRUTHI: Uh huh.
MICHELLE: Ok? I’m 90 percent sure he’s in Spain, because the way–it’s because of the way the family is re–responding.
SRUTHI: Mhmm. So, oh, so, wait, wait, wait. Have you been texting with the son, or what communication are you having with the son?
MICHELLE: Um… little, little catfish lines here and there, I’m going to say it like that.
MICHELLE: Do you know what means?
MICHELLE: When you catfish somebody and you bring information out, without alarming them.
SRUTHI: You mean you’re–do you mean you’re pretending to be someone else?
MICHELLE: No, I’m, um, catfishing him in a place where he doesn’t know who I am! He didn’t even ask me who I am.
At one point, she told me, “I’m so close to figuring out his address, and I have this like local investigator there on the ground, and he’s helping me.”
MICHELLE: He’s gonna have to, um, take pictures and if he confirms Luis? Oh my god, I’m going to– I don’t know. I’m gonna scream! I gotta report this to Miss Maria.
MICHELLE: And let her know.
We’d also talk about the things that she said that night in North Carolina– about how the US would protect Luis, let him stay.
SRUTHI: I was wondering if you still feel that way, like–
MICHELLE: If he claims asylum, fear of life–for his life, you know? To go back? They’re going to protect him. No doubt.
I explain to Michelle, “I’ve been talking to a bunch of lawyers, and they all tell me it’s almost certain that Luis will not get asylum.” And I said, “Does that worry you? “
And she said, “Yes.”
MICHELLE: I would be worried for him. Because, I would be part of that–I would be part of putting that cub back into the lion’s den, you know? I would worry for his life. Because he’s a human being, Sruthi. You know, we all make mistakes. You can’t bring Joe Storie back. What you can do is have closure for the Storie family and say, “You know what? There is remorse in Mr., um, Rodriguez’s heart.”
SRUTHI: Does it make your job harder, Michelle, because, like, there is this risk that you know that he, like–that he will be sent back to the lion’s den?
MICHELLE: It’s a responsibility, um, I know that I can find him and… Umm, it’s emotional for me sometimes, (choking up) because I can say, you know, tomorrow’s the day you go to jail. This guy Luis is–he’s gonna be locked up, abroad, first in Spain, and then extradited over here and de–be deported. Who knows, I may be the one who ends his life by sending him back. And if they kill him–I’m gonna be part of that responsibility. (pause) I’ll never know that and I don’t want to know that.
When I would hear Michelle talk about Luis like this, I would think “Wow, you have more sympathy for him than I do.” You know, a drunk driver, allegedly, who killed someone and ran. How is it that you work for, of all people, Maria Espinoza. You know, Michelle seemed to feel like America had some kind of duty to protect Luis. But Maria and The Remembrance Project, their whole thing is, “Why?” You know, Luis, we owe him nothing. We need to protect American families. That guy, he’s not supposed to be here.
And these two ideas seemed really contradictory– like this country fights over them constantly. But I realized that for Michelle, they’re not contradictory,like they exist equally in her mind. So to her, it makes perfect sense that she’s worrying about Luis but also hunting him down for Maria.
MICHELLE: I want to be part of this agenda, because you cannot come to the United States and break the law. You will, you will, you will be punished. And we’re going to make Luis Alberto Rodriguez an example of what’s going to happen to you if your case comes in my hands. I want to be part of uh–of something good, that says, you know what, Mr. Trump is trying to do something. I still don’t know all of his agenda, because it changes all of the time, and he’s careless with his statements. But, there’s something we have to fight for. And-and–and that’s justice for Mr. Joe Storie. He didn’t deserve to die that day.
So Michelle feels this absolute clarity. This is what she needs to do, she is going to get Luis’ address somehow, she’s going to fly to Spain and capture him.
The thing is, it’s been nine months of hearing Michelle say she’s sure she can get him. I am not 100 percent sure. It does seem like a very complicated task, especially because he’s now out of the country. And on top of that, The Remembrance Project seems to have lost some of that steam it had had in the, you know, early days of the Trump victory. So it’s almost like there was this giant target kind of laser-focused on Luis. And now, it’s just lost its focus.
But that’s not the end of this story. Can I tell you this crazy thing that just happened?
SRUTHI: So I was just doing routine fact checking stuff. Like, just trying to confirm the most basic fact about Luis Rodriguez, just that he’s undocumented. Everybody had told me this, it was in the court records, but I just couldn’t figure out where this piece of information had come from.
I met with people from ICE, so I asked them for info on Luis’ status. They said “Sure, we’ll look into it.” And through the weeks, they were clearly working on it, like trying to run down this info. And then, just two days ago, they wrote to me saying, “Hey listen, our hands are tie. Due to privacy restrictions, we’re unable to comment.”
I called Chris Storie. Like, how had she first heard that Luis was undocumented? She couldn’t remember. But she did remember this thing, that at first she thought was bullshit. Um, a cop had told her that the reason they couldn’t, like report Luis to ICE is that he had some kind of special something, like special papers.
PJ: Special papers?
SRUTHI: Yeah. That cop, he was a captain. Retired years ago. But I found his 80-year-old mom, she found him, and he told me it was a protected status.
PJ: Luis had a protected status?
SRUTHI: Yeah, I didn’t know what that meant, but I found a law enforcement source who was able to confirm what he had.
SRUTHI: Luis Rodriguez had a Temporary Protected Status. It’s not asylum, it’s a little different. It’s a temporary thing that the US offers to citizens of certain countries that have experienced disaster, like an earthquake in Haiti, civil war in El Salvador, um, Hurricane Mitch in Honduras. Like, it doesn’t matter how you entered the US– legally or illegally– once you’re here, you can apply for this temporary protected status. And you’d be allowed to live and work here.
PJ: And Luis had this?
SRUTHI: Yes. So–
SRUTHI: So the central fact of this entire story was wrong. He was not undocumented
ALEX: Maria Espinoza’s posterchild, is now not really a posterchild at all.
So everything was supposed to be simple, it turns out it wasn’t. But Chris Storie is sure of one thing: Six years ago, a guy killed her brother and walked away.
Her friends told her that she needed to move on, and the DA stopped returning her calls. It seemed like she was the only one who cared about this.
Until one day, this woman showed up, who was so eager to listen– and she told her this story was worth something. She wanted the whole country to hear it.
I spoke to Chris last night. I told her about Luis’ status. I had no idea how she’d respond. She said you know, it really does not matter. This guy killed my brother and did not even stick around to apologize. That is the point of the story. What else did you need to know?
Reply All is me, PJ Vogt and Alex Goldman. We were produced this week by Sruthi Pinnamaneni, Phia Bennin, Damiano Marchetti, and Austin Mitchell. Production help from Jon Hanrahan. Our editor is Tim Howard. Our intern is Anna Foley. Fact checking by MIchelle Harris. The show was mixed by Kate Bilinski.
We are currently looking to hire a new producer to join our team. If you’re interested, we’ll have a job listing up on the website by the end of the week. We’re definitely looking for somebody who already has experience making radio.
Special thanks this week Hans Linnartz, Russ Lay, Vaidya Gullapalli, Domenic Powell, Gene Johnson, Barbara Gonzalez, Nick Kulish, and Emily Kennedy. Matt Lieber is a dog who sleeps on your keyboard. Our theme song is by the mysterious Breakmaster Cylinder and our ad music is by Build Buildings. You can find more episodes of the show wherever you found this episode of the show. Thanks for listening, we’ll see you in two weeks.
Sruthi Pinnamaneni follows the world’s best bounty hunter on a peculiar case. Further Reading The Economist article about bounty hunters Michelle Gomez’s website Michelle Gomez’s Twitter The Remembrance Project website The GAO’s 2011 Report on Criminal Alien Statistics
PJ VOGT: From Gimlet, this is Reply All. I’m PJ Vogt.
ALEX GOLDMAN: And I’m Alex Goldman.
SRUTHI PINNAMANENI: And–
PJ: And you are Sruthi Pinnamaneni, as far as I know.
SRUTHI: (laughs) Yeah. I’m here with a story. Um so a year ago, I read this article about bounty hunters, and there’s this one line in it that said, “Bounty hunters are now finding almost 90 percent of their fugitives,” which I thought sounded like a really high number.
SRUTHI: In this article, they say, “The success rate has a lot to do with technology for skip tracing, the term of art for locating a man on the lam.”
PJ: A man on the lam.
SRUTHI: A man on the lam. So this is a thing, like there’s this whole group of people. They’re called skip tracers, because the people they’re looking for are called skips.
And they’ve apparently gotten so good at tracking people’s digital trails that– no matter who you are– if you try to hide, they can find you. So like there’s a story that just totally captured my heart, which is this one guy he was trying to find the skip who was known to have a particular, a taste for 7-Eleven Slurpees.
PJ: Uh huh.
SRUTHI: And this guy, he got this database of all the video footage from all the local 7-Elevens. And he ran this, like, facial recognition software–
ALEX: Oh come, on really?
SRUTHI: –and, like, found which 7-Eleven the skip had most recently frequented, and staked it out, and caught the guy coming out with a Slurpee.
ALEX: This sounds very much like an episode of Bones or something.
SRUTHI: (laughs) I–
PJ: An episode of Bones?
ALEX: It sounds so ridiculous.
PJ: I’ve never watched Bones.
ALEX: I’ve seen every episode.
SRUTHI: So I, of course, wanted to follow one of these skip tracers while they did their job. So I did, and I ended up in this story. It is possibly– no, it is definitely– the most challenging, weird story I’ve ever worked on.
SRUTHI: And it centers around this one, very tragic thing that happened in 2011. I spoke to a woman who was there that night.
SRUTHI: Um, so just start by telling me actually, your name and, um, who you are.
CHRIS: OK, my name is Chris Storie, and, um, I’m uh, from North Carolina, and, um, my brother’s name was Joe Storie.
So it was early October, and Chris remembers it as this cool fall day…
…Which started out really nice. She and her brother Joe, and Joe’s whole family, they were on vacation in this place called Kill Devil Hills in North Carolina.
CHRIS: We had gone out, um, there were several- several of us that went down, the guys went fishing on the head boat and the girls went shopping. So, I don’t like shopping, so I went fishing with the guys.
CHRIS: Um, you know just caught some fish, he caught a croaker fish, and of course it was making a croaking noise, (laughs) he put it right in my face actually. And um, and so we just- we really spent some quality time that day.
Later that evening, they all pile into a pickup truck to go to dinner. And at exactly 7:32 p.m., they’re crossing this one intersection when this Chevy Lumina blows a flashing red light, and ends up directly in front of them.
CHRIS: And we actually t-boned him. And they said we hit him and the truck went up in the air and flipped over, uh, I- three times and landed flat on its top. They really don’t know how I made it, because I went through the back window of the truck and landed underneath the truck. Like, they said the only thing sticking out was my feet.
Joe, who was in the front seat, he was killed instantly. The cops tell Chris the guy driving the other car, his name is Luis Rodriguez, he’s an undocumented immigrant from Honduras, and he was driving drunk, so they arrest him.
And then, right away, two pretty crazy things happen.
So, number one, Luis is in the hospital, he was also in-injured in the accident, but the police aren’t watching his room. So he escapes, like just walks right out.
Number two, police catch him and bring him to jail, but then the judge reduces his bail, and he pays like $7,500 and just walks out.
PJ: But he’d already fled once?
SRUTHI: Right. And Chris said she felt as if she would never see him again. And so, the day he posted bail, she made sure that she was there.
CHRIS: I rushed outside of the courtroom doors so that I could meet him, to talk to him.
CHRIS: And I did, and I told him, I said, “I want you to know what kind of man you took from my family. He has three sons. I- I can’t talk to my brother, I can’t pick up a phone and call him,” I said. “Because of you,” and he turned around and looked at me and said, “Talk to my attorney.”
That’s the last time she ever saw him.
PJ: He disappeared again?
SRUTHI: Yeah, he didn’t show up for his next court date, totally vanished. And Chris told me, that this time, the authorities just didn’t seem that interested in finding Luis, and so she actually starts looking for him.
Um, she has this mugshot of him. Um, he’s this guy in his 40s, light green eyes, buzzcut, has this scar on his temple. And so she takes this, and she starts going to his old neighborhoods, like making friends with the people he used to know. And then she’s driving-
PJ: Is she like explaining why she’s there?
SRUTHI: Yeah. I think a lot of them felt sympathetic towards her, and they’re trying to help her. And then she starts driving to different towns where she’s a heard a rumor that he might be living there now.
CHRIS: We took his picture to convenience stores and said, “Have you seen this man?” And this-this– several of the store clerks were like, “Yes, I’ve seen him, he comes in here.”
Chris said that it’s been five years of this. Five years of looking for Luis Rodriguez every day, always convinced that she just missed him.
CHRIS: I’ve had–I’ve lost friends before because they’ve said, “You know, Chris, you’re gonna have to find something that makes you happy, again.” But I can’t–I can’t let it go. Joe was too important. The fact that someone is out there, they killed my brother, knows they devastated a family, and does not even care…Does not even care–that I cannot let go of. And I want him caught.
Last December, Chris finally got some help. In the form of a skip tracer named Michelle Gomez.
I talked to bounty hunters who told me, “Michelle is a legend.” Like, this 4’11″, Mexican-American woman in this field of big, white dudes. They said she’s found con men that the FBI couldn’t. She’s found stolen yachts, stolen oil tankers, a prized Arabian stallion.
And now she’s going to find Luis Rodriguez, and she’s doing it pro bono.
And so, I flew down to Texas, went to her house in this small town called Lockhart, which is like, 30 minutes south of Austin.
SRUTHI: Hi, Michelle.
MICHELLE: How are you doing?
SRUTHI: Good! It was quite an adventure to get here.
Michelle brings me into her house. It’s 8 a.m.
MICHELLE: Girl it was hell sleeping last night. I had to get [indistinct] and put them on my feet.
SRUTHI: Oh, cause you were sick.
MICHELLE: Yeah, and I never get–I never get congested, so I had Nyquil.
She’s eating her breakfast, which is a box of Girl Scout cookies: Samoas. And I ask her, “Were you a Girl Scout?” And she said, “No, but I did have to dress up as one once to take down this drug trafficker.”
I had a lot of questions. But Michelle’s phone just kept ringing. All these calls about different cases…
MICHELLE: (on the phone) And according to Jimmy’s statement last night… And I usually don’t guarantee everybody, but I find everybody, if you know what I mean.
MALE VOICE: Ah, OK, OK–
Finally, an hour and a half later, she says, “OK. let’s sit down. Let’s find this Luis Rodriguez.”
MICHELLE: Luis Rodriguez. Here’s everything. OK. Let me put this over there
We sit down in front of her old desktop computer.
MICHELLE: Um, where’s my glasses?
Her little dog jumps into her lap.
MICHELLE: OK. Tansy, you need to go over there mama.
So, here’s how Michelle plans to find Luis: He’s undocumented. He’s not going to show up in most official databases. So instead, she’s going to look for someone close to him.
MICHELLE: I want to know who is supporting him. He’s hiding behind somebody that- with an established name, or with some kind of establishment period, that has financial means to help him.
SRUTHI: She calls this person “shelter.” Here’s what that means:
Michelle says, “Listen, I’ve found, located tons of people who are undocumented. I live in an area where there’s lots of undocumented people, and I have a few friends who are undocumented. And all of them have the same problem. Like, how do you rent a house or lease a car if you don’t have the right documents.”
And she says, the way they do it is they have a trusted friend, with the right papers, who does it for them.
PJ: That’s their shelter.
SRUTHI: That’s their shelter. So, if she can find Luis’ shelter, she can find Luis. So, she starts with the one clue she has, which is this six-year-old police report.
SRUTHI: What’s on the police report?
MICHELLE: The accident date. The parties involved. The vehicles in question.
SRUTHI: Um, she’s scanning through the report and suddenly she says, “Hey! Look at this.”
The car that Luis Rodriguez was driving, that Chevy Lumina, is registered to a company. So she’s like, “Who runs that company?” She Googles, and she gets this name.
MICHELLE: His name is Thomas [BEEP]. I need to see who [BEEP] is. What, what kind of work he does. Is he able to financially help this guy?
SRUTHI: Just a quick note: we took steps to obscure or change identifying details about certain people in this story.
Okay so, Tomas. She puts him into this database, her go-to spot, it’s called, “Find My Skip.” Um-
PJ: Can anybody be on “Find My Skip” or it is it just–
SRUTHI: She was so secretive about it.
MICHELLE: You’re watching, you can’t put this on here.
SRUTHI: It’s a lot of sensitive information in there. But the outside of it looks like this…
PJ: Oh it looks!
ALEX: Oh wow. There’s like a, there’s like a dimly-lit street.
PJ: It’s like a very, it’s a noir black and white photograph.
ALEX: Yeah, yeah.
SRUTHI: It says, “Get ready. Set. Find.”
PJ: And so what happens when she gets into it?
MICHELLE: Um, let’s go here. There’s so much information here.
SRUTHI: So she puts in Luis’ friend’s name, and immediately, the database just starts spitting out tons of addresses.
MICHELLE: Um, when I see so many addresses like that, it gives me a flag that they’ve been evicted or they’re constantly moving so they can avoid being captured.
Michelle says that shelter should look, on paper, like an upstanding citizen. So, suddenly she’s doubting this friend would be shelter. Also, the friend has all these different social security numbers.
MICHELLE: Another social, another social, with different date of births.
SRUTHI: Oh, these are all different socials, so could they be different people? MICHELLE: No.
MICHELLE: I know they’re not. Because this guy, he’s illegal.
SRUTHI: So, Michelle told that the way someone who’s undocumented could end up with all these socials is there’s this whole system, like these illegal spots that would be hidden, say, in the back of an electronics store.
MICHELLE: Little hubs, little offices, that they–you can pay anywhere from $500 or $2,000, $3000. And they get all their paperwork. Their socials, their ITIN.
MICHELLE: They’re all over the place. And they’re private. If I were to go one, and I’m like, “Oye,” and they’re pretty much all Spanish. “I was recommended to come over here?” “Who sent you?” That name better be in the rolodex, because if it’s not, they’re not going to help me, for nothing.
SRUTHI: So, Michelle moves on from this friend. He may have lent Luis his car, but he’s not the shelter, she thinks. But one of the friend’s known associates catches her eye. This woman.
MICHELLE: So here we have, um, Blanca (beep)
SRUTHI: She thinks this is the friend’s wife. Same last name, lived at the same address.
MICHELLE: So we know they’re a match, Bonnie and Clyde.
MICHELLE: See her social?
SRUTHI: Mhmm. So now I have another live social to play with because, usually the woman takes care of–the bills.
SRUTHI: Michelle’s starting to develop a theory. Luis and his friend are both using the friend’s wife as shelter.
But, of course, for this theory to be correct, that wife, Blanca has to look legit. So Michelle goes over to Find My Skip, and looks up Blanca. And immediately she sees, unlike her husband, Blanca has just one social security number. Which is good.
MICHELLE: She’s got to stay clean. She cannot be–afford to have any evictions. Because they, they live under her social. That’s what I mean, shelter, she’s their shelter.
SRUTHI: Very quickly she finds a phone number associated with that address.
MICHELLE: Look at this! So I’m going to call her on my trapline.
SRUTHI: So that means…
MICHELLE: It’s another number.
SRUTHI: …She can’t–she can’t see you.
MICHELLE: I’m going to use it–honestly, I’m going to use an Austin number. [phone rings]
MICHELLE: So, she didn’t answer.
SRUTHI: Which I thought was a bad thing. But it wasn’t.
MICHELLE: And that’s ok. But I know it’s a live number.
SRUTHI: Yeah, yeah.
MICHELLE: Um, so what we’re going to do is–I need to go to Melissa Data.
SRUTHI: The question Michelle wants to answer now is: Is this still Blanca’s number? Like does she still live at this address?
She takes Blanca’s personal information, and just starts plugging into every conceivable local municipal database. Like, the websites that Blanca would use for like, local like, electricity company, the water company. She’s basically pretending to be Blanca, so that one of these websites will, like, just confirm for her, “Yes Blanca’s here and paying her bills.”
MICHELLE: Yes, OK. Oh my god I hate this shit. OK. First name, last name, company name. Here. [Yawns]
SRUTHI: So at this point it’s 4 p.m. We’ve been sitting in the front of the computer since the morning. And the next several hours is just watching Michelle try database after database.
MICHELLE: [dog yaps] Tansy, be quiet, Mia.
SRUTHI: I mean just to give you an example, she spends at least 40 minutes at this one deed registration site for, like, Suffolk County, North Carolina, just filling out forms. And then when she hits enter, it takes you back to the homepage.
PJ: (laughs) Oh, god.
SRUTHI: And my eyes are totally glazed over, but for Michelle, it’s almost like she was in a stakeout. She was a cop, in her car, looking at these websites in a way that she was like “Ok, something’s about to happen right now.”
PJ: What is she eating the whole time?
SRUTHI: She does not eat.
PJ: Is she drinking coffee?
SRUTHI: No. She has her chihuahua on her lap. Her cat was sitting directly in front of the computer screen.
SRUTHI: Like literally in front.
ALEX: That’s cute.
SRUTHI: And she would just work around the cat.
MICHELLE: Come on, little one
SRUTHI: It’s kind of like having kids who are all over you
MICHELLE: Uh huh. Let’s see. Property tax registry 2. Tax administration, property sales. Um, let’s go here.
SRUTHI: It’s 6 p.m., the sun goes down. It’s 7 p.m., it’s 8 p.m. We barely talk. We skip dinner, and then, at 9:05 p.m., she’s on this county website where you pay your property taxes.
MICHELLE: Ok. I’m going to act like I’m paying my bill. Owner 1, owner 2. SRUTHI: Oh here!
MICHELLE: Oh my god!
SRUTHI: And the website spits out these property taxes.
MICHELLE: Wow. Look! (sings) Duh, duh duh duh.
She’s got two houses in her name. These people, when they come to America, they invest in the land. OK? They invest whatever they get. Look she drives 2 oh 2–oh fuck yeah–2002 Toyota Camry, paid. I gotta print this out.
SRUTHI: Blanca, it turns out, paid the taxes on these two houses and car last month.
PJ: So she’s there.
ALEX: So, she’s definitely there.
PJ: And not only is she there, either she’s like, she’s pretty wealthy, or she’s shelter. Like a lot…
PJ: …She’s making a lot of purchases that could be for other people.
SRUTHI: For other people, exactly–so there might be multiple people living in the home with her. And Michelle believes that one of those people could be her subject, Luis Rodriguez
She has the skip in her sights.
ALEX: Welcome back to the show. Before the break, Michelle felt like she had a very good idea of where Luis was hiding
SRUTHI: So now Michelle needs someone local, like someone in North Carolina, to just gather more information.
MICHELLE: Hi Michael, how you doing?
MICHAEL: Alright, what’s going on?
She calls a bounty hunter she knows in North Carolina
MICHELLE: Sorry to call you over there, it’s 10:30 over there, right?
MICHAEL: Yeah, you’re fine.
MICHELLE: Okay, you’re–are you close to
They both pull up Blanca’s address on Google Earth.
MICHELLE: This thing does not give me–
MICHAEL: I’m looking at satellite view.
MICHELLE: Ok, me too.
MICHAEL: Oh shit yeah! This is a trailer park.
MICHELLE: Oh really? That’s fucking Honduran country.
MICHAEL: Oh yeah? That’s a big damn trailer park too, golly.
And she says, “Hey listen, I need you to go and root through the garbage.” Basically she wants to see what mail is coming into that house, like, who is actually living in the house? Because maybe Luis Rodriguez is getting mail.
SRUTHI: And, also, she sends him a photo of Luis Rodriguez.
MICHELLE: Yeah and if you see that Honduran there, shit.
She says, “When you see him, don’t do anything, I want to be the one who catches him.” And right away, she’s like planning her trip to North Carolina. She says it’s going to take a couple of weeks.
PJ: So like, at that point does she call the family and say like, “I think I’ve got your guy.”
SRUTHI: No. Michelle has actually never spoken to Chris Storie or anyone in Joe’s family. She’s never met them, doesn’t know them.
ALEX: But aren’t they the people that hired her?
SRUTHI: No. Michelle, at first, she hadn’t wanted to tell me who her client was, she said she had to get that person’s permission. It turns out that she was hired by this group called The Remembrance Project. And The Remembrance Project, it’s run by a woman named Maria Espinoza. You probably haven’t heard of her, but–
ALEX: I have not.
SRUTHI: You know, I think she actually prefers it that way. Like she doesn’t talk about herself much. But, I think you’ve seen her at least once.
Do you remember just a few days after Trump took office, he signed that big executive order. It’s the one where he’s saying he’s going to build a wall.
[Video of President Trump’s executive order]
The dark haired woman standing right behind while he’s signing, that’s Maria Espinoza. There’s actually this video of her, let me just pull it up. It’s her giving congressional testimony earlier this year.
MARIA ESPINOZA: My name is Maria Espinoza, my testimony is based upon my nearly 8 years of traveling across the country with the Remembrance Project, an organization that advocates for those families whose loved ones are killed by illegal aliens.
SRUTHI: You see her, and she’s in this crisp blue blazer, and she’s neatly laying out this picture of America that she has seen in her travels. One that is violent and unsafe.
MARIA: Based upon preliminary information, we believe that the American stolen lives may number in the tens of thousands.
Five years after Chris Storie’s brother died, she got a call from Maria, who she didn’t know. And, Maria says, “Hey listen, will you come and tell your story at this big event that I’m organizing?”
CHRIS: And I tell you what, at first, I told her no, I didn’t want to go.
SRUTHI: And why did you say no?
CHRIS: Because I get–you know, when I talk about it a lot, it does upset me, and it does–I think with the PTSD, it kinda sends me back in a tailspin kinda. But I did, I went and I’ll tell you what, that’s one of the best things I have ever done.
SRUTHI: Chris ends up flying to Houston to be a part of Maria’s, she calls it the “stolen lives quilt.” It’s not actually a quilt, it’s a line of family members who stand behind her while she’s giving a speech, and they’re holding up pictures of the people they’ve lost. When Chris arrived, she said that Maria was so welcoming.
CHRIS: She had never met me, but it’s like–I mean, they knew about my family, they knew my brother’s name, it’s not like they got mixed up about which family member you were, or, you know? You know, it’s just like you were special. SRUTHI: And it felt sincere?
CHRIS: Oh yes. Yes, definitely.
SRUTHI: I wanted to understand Maria’s interest in Chris and in Luis Rodriguez. I asked her to do an interview, at first she was hesitant, but there were negotiations, finally she agreed. So this past March we talked at her house in DC, her husband Tim was there too. The two of them, they started The Remembrance Project together, and they told me that before that, they used to spend their time fundraising for childhood diseases. Like they were not particularly politically active
MARIA: In fact, we hadn’t attended a town hall, I think, until after we got involved, so we were not—
MARIA: So we weren’t political.
TIM: What we were doing is just kind of living our lives. You know Maria was helping kids who have cancer. She was helping kids with spina bifida. I was–I was designing roads, bridges in Texas. And so at the time before we kind of were awakened by this news that we saw, we were like most people, who were thinking our representatives were taking care of business for us.
The news that Tim’s referring to just then, it’s actually one specific news story from September of 2006.
NEWS CLIP: Officer Rodney Johnson will be buried on Wednesday, he was murdered, allegedly by this man, Juan Leonardo Quintero.
It was the second time within a year that an undocumented immigrant had shot a cop in Texas. And Tim and Maria said they were wondering if there was some kind of pattern.
MARIA: I called around the police department and tried to find information out; they wouldn’t give me information.
TIM: So then I noticed that if I would just Google “child killed by immigrant” — and story after story after story. And so I started documenting that on a spreadsheet.
These sorts of stories — they’re the kind you find on Breitbart now. But not back then. Back then, many mainstream Republicans were pro-immigration, they didn’t want to risk the Hispanic vote and these victims were evidence in an argument that basically nobody wanted to make.
And so, Tim and Maria, when they start calling the people on the spreadsheet, they find themselves on the phone with people who maybe hadn’t even shared their stories before. Next thing they knew, according to Maria, she’s meeting them for coffee, even going along with some of them to murder trials. And she says it just became her life.
SRUTHI: I’m just curious like, there’s a world in which you could’ve said, “You know what, we’re gonna just keep working with fundraising, with these kids that have this terrible disease. Why not focus on them? Why this?
MARIA: Well, I think one point: this issue is forever, it’s permanent. And it’s just … make me cry. (light sobs)
SRUTHI: It’s ok to cry.
MARIA: No. (clears throat)
SRUTHI: We can wait a moment.
MARIA: Thanks, honey. I think that–
SRUTHI: Is it a particular story, Maria, that you think of when you get emotional? MARIA: All of them I guess, it is huge–because we know so many of the families. SRUTHI: Yeah.
MARIA: And it’s not something I wanted to do. However, if they’re suffering through it, why can’t we just go and listen, we’re not even, you know, directly affected. Um … and, you know, some of these cases, you know, a 14-year-old girl just shot in the back five yards from her safety, from her home, from her gate. And then a mother of five, stabbed in the heart with a three-inch knife over wanting to hijack her.
SRUTHI: Can I, can I–when people talk about crime within the immigrant population, like legal or illegal, they say, statistically on the whole, there’s far less crime in these communities and therefore like particular anecdotes, it doesn’t speak to a larger group.
MARIA: Well, two things. What the report has done is mixed immigrant crime and illegal alien crime.
What Maria’s referring to there is this big government report that came out in 2011.
MARIA: And that’s absolutely wrong. False. No. So, we’re concerned about illegal aliens who commit crime, and with someone like Chris Storie’s case, that takes place more often than you’d think.
So this question of how often. Like, how many times last year did undocumented immigrants commit crimes? This turns out to be surprisingly difficult to answer. Like, we’re not even sure exactly how many undocumented immigrant are even in the US. I talked to several people, academics, statisticians, think tanks like across the political spectrum, and none of them could agree on a number. They did agree that Maria’s numbers– tens of thousands of criminals– are just way too high.
But the thing that Maria has discovered is that you don’t even have to worry about the numbers when you have these horrifying stories. They’re powerful. They become a weapon in the right hands.
And in 2015, Tim and Maria finally met someone who wanted to use it.
TRUMP PHOENIX RALLY: I have met with many of the great parents who lost their children to sanctuary cities and open borders. So many people, so many many people. So sad. They will be joining me on the stage in a little while …
Three weeks after Trump announced his candidacy, he and Maria and the families, they met in private. And then he is giving all of these speeches with the backdrop of Remembrance Project families like standing behind him.
At this other event in Houston, he’s talking about the criminals sneaking across the border, and killing people, and at one point, he actually turns around and looks straight at the families — including, like Chris Storie was there — and he makes them this promise.
DONALD TRUMP: The many individuals who have committed crimes, but escaped justice, fled the jurisdiction, or were otherwise never caught–and many of the folks are in that position, where you even sometimes know where they are, and they’re never caught. We’re going to catch them. We’re going to catch them.
SRUTHI: In the weeks after Trump won the election, Maria and Tim decided that the time was right to try something new. They would find one of these guys, like one of these immigrants who’d committed a crime, and gotten away.
They pick their first case: Luis Rodriguez, the man who five years ago fled after being arrested for killing Chris Storie’s brother.
Tim and Maria wanted to help Chris find justice, sure. But Luis has a value beyond that; as a poster child in the larger war they’re waging.
So now, the best skip tracer in the world, Michelle Gomez is hunting Luis Rodriguez. It’s no longer just one gig for a bounty hunter or a family seeking closure, it’s part of something bigger now.
In Part II, Michelle goes to North Carolina to complete her mission.
DALLAS: There’s the mom and the other one.
MICHELLE: That’s her, that’s the daughter Blanca’s daughter
DALLAS: There’s the dog, he’s no problem.
Reply All is hosted by PJ Vogt and me, Alex Goldman. The show is produced by Sruthi Pinnamaneni, Phia Bennin, Damiano Marchetti and Austin Mitchell. Additional production help by Jon Hanrahan. Our editor is Tim Howard, our intern is Anna Foley, fact checking by Michelle Harris. We were mixed by Rick Kwan and Kate Bilinski.
Extra special thanks this week to Hans Linnartz, “Scott” MacLean III, Alfonso Aguilar, Walter Ewing, Alex Nowrasteh, Susan Long, Michelle Mittelstadt, Don Rosenberg, Frank Bean, Charis Kubrin, Steven Camarota, Joslyn Johnson, Nelson Votaw, Ryan Pfeifle, Nick Kulish, Chloe Prasinos, and Emily Kennedy.
Matt Lieber is when you are just sitting on the couch flipping through the channels and you find a movie you haven’t seen in a long time and you just sit there and watch the whole thing. Our theme song is by the Mysterious Breakmaster Cylinder and our ad music is by Build Buildings. Our website is replyall.ninja. You can listen to the show on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or wherever you get your podcasts. Thanks for listening.
This week, we help Alex Blumberg understand why a Google engineer ended up complimenting the KKK, and then Yes Yes No turns bizarro. Further Reading James Damore’s unedited memo Links to all of the tweets or stories mentioned in Yes Yes No can be found at http://yesyesnos.tumblr.com Article about Kevin Durant (includes screenshots of his…
ALEX GOLDMAN: From Gimlet, this is Reply All. I’m Alex Goldman
PJ VOGT: And I’m PJ Vogt
ALEX GOLDMAN: Welcome once again to Yes, Yes, No, the segment on the show where our boss Alex Blumberg comes to us with Internet ephemera that he can’t make heads or tails of, and then we try to explain it to him. And then he just feels a deep sense of regret for ever having coming to us in the first place. Hi, Alex.
ALEX BLUMBERG: Hi. I have a tweet (laughs)
ALEX GOLDMAN: Wow you really know the form of this segment very well.
PJ: You’re back.
ALEX BLUMBERG: I’m back. Yes. OK, so should I… should I just dive right in?
ALEX GOLDMAN: Yes.
PJ: Yes, let’s see what you got.
ALEX BLUMBERG: OK. The Twitter account is named “Manucy In The Sky,” from the guy whose Twitter handle is @ManuclearBomb. All right. And so this is the tweet. Ready? The caption is “Love that I can just slide this guy’s whole thread into the meme.” And then there’s a picture, and the picture is… Oh god.
ALEX BLUMBERG: Alright it’s two pictures side by side. And the right side is like basically a, um, it’s a series of… You know when you go to like a photo booth and you get like four pictures on top of each other?
ALEX BLUMBERG: It’s like that, except it’s like different pictures of sort, I guess, skull heads. Uh, but with the brains inside sort of exposed.
ALEX GOLDMAN: Okay.
ALEX BLUMBERG: So the top picture is a skull with like a smaller brain inside, and then the next picture, the one below it, is another sort of skull head, although it’s got more human features, and it’s got a bigger sort of sparkly brain with like stars and stuff coming out of it. And then the picture below that, the brain is even sparklier and shining. And the last picture is of this head where the brain is just sort of like sending out these radiant beams. If you needed a picture of like “my mind is blown,” that would be the picture.
ALEX BLUMBERG: And then the other side is a screenshot of a twitter thread that is four tweets long. And each tweet is aligned with a picture.
ALEX GOLDMAN: With one of the brain photos
ALEX BLUMBERG: With one of the brain photos. And the tweets are from a guy named James Damore. And the tweet number is “The KKK is horrible, and I don’t support them in any way, but can we admit that their internal title names are cool, e.g. Grand Wizard?” And then there’s like a poll, there’s a Twitter poll “Yes. No, names aren’t coll. No, that’s racist. No, other.” Okay. And then his next tweet: “You know you’ve moralized an issue when you can’t criticize its heroes or acknowledge any positive aspect of its villains.” Next tweet, next to an even sparklier brain. “It’s like teaching your child to be responsible about drugs and sex without addressing the fact that they can be fun.” Then final tweet, next to the exploding, enlightening blow your mind brain, James Damore: “If you make the actual KKK the only place where you can acknowledge the coolness of D&D terms, then you’ll just push people into the KKK.”
ALEX GOLDMAN: [laughing] Hearing it read outloud is mind blowing.
ALEX GOLDMAN: Ok. PJ Vogt, do you understand this tweet?
PJ: Yes. Alex Goldman, do you understand this tweet?
ALEX GOLDMAN: Yes, I do. Alex Blumberg, do you understand this tweet? I’m going to take your pause as a no.
ALEX BLUMBERG: No.
PJ: No, but?
ALEX BLUMBERG: No but… I think I understand it directionally.
ALEX BLUMBERG: I have seen this meme. Like I’ve seen the skeleton, into the head, into the brighter brain head, into the brightest brain head, which I’m assuming is sort of like…
ALEX GOLDMAN: Brain head (laughs)
ALEX BLUMBERG: Which I’m assuming is like the meme of like, where you walk somebody through an argument, then by the end of which it’s so mind blowing that the brain explodes.
PJ: Yes. That is completely true.
ALEX BLUMBERG: Ok. Right, so that’s what that meme is supposed to represent.
ALEX GOLDMAN: And his meme is typically used ironically, like to make fun of people. So the more enlightened the brain is, the more light is emanating from it, generally the stupider the opinion.
ALEX BLUMBERG: Got it.
ALEX GOLDMAN: And I’m pretty sure the first iteration of this was from earlier this year. The top panel said “who.” Second panel said “whom.” Third panel said “whomst.” And the fourth panel said “whomstd.”
ALEX BLUMBERG: (laughs) OK.
PJ: So that’s like a thing that people been doing all year, and like it’s it’s one of those memes that has a lot of legs, because it’s like it’s such an open form, that like anything you put into it is kind of, is going to feel satisfying. Do you know what I mean?
ALEX BLUMBERG: Right.
PJ: It’s very flexible.
ALEX BLUMBERG: Yes. Alright so I understand the exploding brain meme. But I still don’t understand what the other is. Like what’s the… all these tweets about the KKK? How does that… How do they fit together?
PJ: This is where it gets somewhat complicated.
ALEX BLUMBERG: Okay.
PJ: Okay so in early August, Google, the company, has like an internal… Some sort of internal message board system.
ALEX BLUMBERG: Oh, I know about this.
PJ: OK. You know about this.
ALEX BLUMBERG: The guy who wrote the… So there was a guy who wrote a thing about… Now I don’t even remember what the argument he was making. He’s making some argument about like, oh like diversity and women and engineers, and sort of like, “We should all just acknowledge that like men are better coders.” Or something.
PJ: That was basically it. It was this guy James Damore. 28 years old. Engineer at Google. Had to go to some sort of diversity workshop, which apparently he didn’t like. In August, he wrote a 10-page… it’s been called a screed and a manifesto. But he wrote a 10-page memo called “Google’s Ideological Echo Chamber.”
ALEX BLUMBERG: Oh James Damore was the guy who wrote that.
ALEX BLUMBERG: Oh
PJ: And he’s basically saying like “What Google believes is not enough women work at Google, and they think it should be like this egalitarian society, where it’s like 50/50, and they’re doing basically discrimination in trying to get women on board whether or not they’re like the best suited person for the job.”
ALEX GOLDMAN: Discriminating against white men?
PJ: Discriminating against whoever is best for the job. And so like, it’s weird. He’s all over the place, it feels very like pseudo intellectual. At one point, he says like, you know, we think is women aren’t in leadership positions because of sexism, but if you look at women biologically, they are more likely to be neurotic and have high anxiety, and so maybe they avoid high status roles because they don’t have the stress tolerance for high stress jobs.
ALEX BLUMBERG: Women are more likely to be neurotic
PJ: This is like according to like something the he read.
ALEX BLUMBERG: Wow
PJ: But when you literally click on the link for neurotic, it goes to the Wikipedia page for neuroticism.
ALEX GOLDMAN: So he’s citing… He’s fudging his citations.
PJ: In some cases he cites like studies. Some of the studies authors have actually come out and said like, “we don’t mean what he says we mean.” Or like some of the studies are very questionable. It’s like a mess. It’s not like a manifesto where he was like, “Men are good, women are bad.” He’s like “I’m a reasonable intellectual approaching this problem.”
ALEX BLUMBERG: I’m just asking questions here
PJ: I’m just asking questions here. And there’s parts where he has like fixes where that are not just like “women shouldn’t work here. Like maybe work/life balance is wrong or something.” But like the thing people took away was he’s a person who’s saying like gender stereotypes are real, rooted in biology, diversity is going too far.
ALEX BLUMBERG: Got it
PJ: So he posts the memo.
ALEX BLUMBERG: Right.
PJ: He’s fired. And becomes like basically a celebrity for certain parts of like the right. And they were kind of like… Like this is not what he was necessarily saying about himself, but for them, it’s like… He’s like this perfect symbol of like the qualified, brilliant, genius coder who’s the best person for the job, whatever his race or gender happen to be, who said one reasonable thing and like got fired because of political correctness.
ALEX BLUMBERG: Because of the intolerant left, yes.
ALEX BLUMBERG: Mmhmm.
PJ: So there’s these really weird interviews, like he went on Tucker Carlson. And like, he’s not quite playing the role he’s supposed to do. Like Tucker Carlson’s like, “Didn’t they shut you up? Like isn’t this messed up?” And then he’s just like, he’s like a little too mild mannered, he like doesn’t say enough words for it to work. Like hold on, can I plug in the aux?
TUCKER CARLSON: Did anyone at Google before firing you bother to respond to any of the points that you made? Or they just say, “You’re being punished for asking questions?”
JAMES DAMORE: Yeah when I shared it with individual Googlers, they actually had an actual reasoned discussion with me, but only when it became viral did this huge emotional outrage happen. TUCKER CARLSON: So of all…
PJ: Like he never says enough, they’re always waiting for him to say…
ALEX BLUMBERG: Oh no
PJ: …More things that are like more explicitly bad, but he’s like.. Do you know what I mean?
ALEX BLUMBERG: I’ve never actually felt like camaraderie with like Tucker Carlson before, but in that moment, where you’ve got like a tough interview…
ALEX BLUMBERG: …And they’re not saying enough, and you’re just kind of like “I’m teeing this up for you pal. Why are you stopping there?”
PJ: That like 3 second pause happens in every single… Cuz he’s not quite an ideologue. He’s like a not very thoughtful provocateur who’s like really stepped into a culture war.
ALEX BLUMBERG: Right.
PJ: But the people who were like, “Yes, proof. PC too far, men should be coders. They loved him, and I think he liked loved being loved by them. There was like this like love affair
ALEX BLUMBERG: Right
PJ: But then what happened over the course of the next month, is like a series of things that suggested… that kind of interfered with the idea that he was the most qualified person in the world fighting the PC tyrants. So like, it turned out like he had kind of… Like, this guy who was saying like “We shouldn’t like lower the bar, and let somebody who is not quite good enough into Google.” It turned out like he had kind of done that for himself a little bit. Like he was a smart guy, he went to Harvard, he got a masters. On the internet he was claiming he’d gone to Harvard and got a Ph.D. Just like a little bit of rounding up, not generally what you do if you think the world is a meritocracy.
ALEX BLUMBERG: Uh huh.
PJ: And then, there was this really embarrassing thing where he had a tweet where he screen grabbed himself searching “James Damore is” on Google. And the suggestions, like the autofill suggestions, were like “a hero, right, the smartest.” And he presented, and he was like there is a silent majority of people who agree with me, and you should listen to them. And like even I know, and a lot of people know, that like different people get different Google search results, and like he works at google. Like this is not proof of anything, like people were sending him screen grabs of them putting his name in and getting different stuff. It was just like really silly.
ALEX BLUMBERG: Uh huh
PJ: And then, and then, like most recently like the sort of like final nail, it felt like, was last week, out of nowhere he just sort of is like… (clears throat) And goes on Twitter and he’s like…. He make akes his argument which is basically, “Can’t we all admit that while the KKK is racist, Grand Wizard is like a really cool name for a thing.” And people…
ALEX BLUMBERG: So wait he actually said this.
PJ: He actually said this.
ALEX GOLDMAN: Yeah. This isn’t made up.
PJ: And it was the first thing I think that he said. There’s this concept on Twitter of the ratio, which is when you look at the responses to a tweet and the replies… So they give you three numbers. It’s like the replies, the favorites, and the retweets. And like favorites and retweets are both signs that someone agreed with you. The replies usually are signs someone didn’t agree with you.
ALEX BLUMBERG: Yeah.
ALEX GOLDMAN: So. So if people get a thousand replies and 15 retweets, they just got… It’s used as a verb. They got ratioed. That disparity between replies and retweets generally means that people are really, really annihilating this person.
PJ: And it was just like a series of ratio tweets. Like all replies, very few retweets, very few favorites. And as he goes, like the ratio gets worse.
ALEX BLUMBERG: (laughs) God
PJ: It’s just like watching someone… Watching a group full of people stop supporting somebody as they dig into their argument.
ALEX BLUMBERG: Well he also went there very quickly.
PJ: Very quickly
ALEX BLUMBERG: And like he just went… Like like you just went from like… You can like throw a lot of dust up, and you can just be like, “I’m not sexist. I’m just trying to like get to the truth.” You know or like, “There are biological differences between men and women, right?” And then, you can stay in that dust cloud forever
PJ: Right. And he did it for weeks.
ALEX BLUMBERG: You know what I mean? Like he could just be like, “I’m not like… Why is everybody treating me like I am a bigot. I’m obviously not a bigot.”
PJ: I’m just asking questions.
ALEX BLUMBERG: I’m just asking questions.But then he just went on Twitter and was like, “The KKK has got some cool things.”
ALEX BLUMBERG: And is was like, “Well you just left the dust cloud, buddy. You went way far away from where you were.”
PJ: And I think as somebody who like did disagree with his original argument, and was sort of frustrated at the idea of trying to clear the dust to argue with people.
ALEX BLUMBERG: Yeah.
PJ: There was something, I think what this joke is actually celebrating is like how far out of the dust cloud he got.
ALEX BLUMBERG: It’s amazing.
PJ: Yeah yeah.
ALEX GOLDMAN: Alright, Alex Blumberg. Are you ready to explain this tweet back to us?
ALEX BLUMBERG: I am. Okay so to review, we’ve got this four tweet Twitter thread, and we’ve got a four panel exploding brain meme. And @ManuclearBomb lined up those two things next to each other, and what’s pleasurable about the tweet, and what led everybody on the Internet to retweet it, and like it, is that both the Twitter thread and the exploding brain meme follow the exact same structure. First of all, there are four parts to them. They start with like a stupid idea, but like not exquisitely, grandly stupid. And then they get both more ridiculous, and more pompous, as they as they march forward. Until by the end, the fourth panel, you’ve gotten to a level that is that makes your head explode.
ALEX GOLDMAN: Yeah I think we’re at yes, yes, yes. And where would you say on the on the expanding brain meme am I?
PJ: Where at being at yes, yes, yes?
ALEX GOLDMAN: No, I mean which brain am I.
PJ: You mean like right in your life, throughout your life.
ALEX GOLDMAN: (laughs) Yes.
PJ: I feel like you’re handing me a ball and a t-ball set, and a bat, and feels like weird even hitting the ball.
ALEX GOLDMAN: I know
PJ: You’re like “OK before we get out of here, do you think I’m dumb?”
ALEX GOLDMAN: Before we get out of here, PJ, can you be mean to me? (laughs)
ALEX BLUMBERG: Ahh.
PJ: Coming up after the break, Yes Yes No goes where Yes Yes No has never gone before.
PJ: Welcome back to Yes, Yes, No. Alex, do you have any others?
ALEX BLUMBERG: I have one for you.
PJ: You have one for me?
ALEX BLUMBERG: That’s right, the tables are turning.
PJ: Wait you have a tweet that you understand that we won’t understand.
ALEX BLUMBERG: Yes.
ALEX GOLDMAN: What?
ALEX BLUMBERG: I’m going to try it
PJ: That sounds like all kinds of unfair.
ALEX BLUMBERG: All right so this is, this is the first time I’ve ever done this. This is really exciting. OK. You guys are ready?
ALEX GOLDMAN: Yeah. OK
ALEX BLUMBERG: Who’s going to read it? You’re going to read it, Alex Goldman?
ALEX GOLDMAN: I will read it.
ALEX BLUMBERG: OK.
ALEX GOLDMAN: So this is a tweet from Lake Show Yo™, @LakeShowYo, and they’re quote tweeting someone named Coops, @GMCoops. And it says, “This is the best tweet of all time. That’ll teach @Enes_Kanter to stop talking so much shit.” So that’s what @GMCoops says, and @LakeShowYo says, “KD is that you?”
ALEX BLUMBERG: I’m so excited to be saying these words. Alex Goldman, do you understand this tweet?
ALEX GOLDMAN: Not at all.
ALEX BLUMBERG: PJ Vogt, do you understand this tweet?
PJ: Oh, absolutely. It’s ah… No no no.
ALEX GOLDMAN: You couldn’t even… You bailed on that so quick.
PJ: I’ll tell you what the tweet is. I’ll explain it for you. It’s sports thing. Elementary.
ALEX GOLDMAN: I assume that a lake show is some kind of synchronized swimming
PJ: No KD is Kevin Durant, famous sportsman.
ALEX BLUMBERG: There you go! There you go.
PJ: Of basketball
ALEX GOLDMAN: How are supposed to know that’s not K.D. Lang?
PJ: You know.
ALEX GOLDMAN: All right. Do your thing.
ALEX BLUMBERG: Wait. You have to ask me
ALEX GOLDMAN: Alex Blumberg, do you understand this tweet?
ALEX BLUMBERG: I do. All right. So tell me all the things you don’t know about this.
ALEX GOLDMAN: I don’t know. I don’t know who Enes Kanter is. I don’t know… I know the name Kevin Durant. I don’t know what the @LakeShowYo is. I don’t know who @GMCoops is. I know what a best tweet of all time is. And I what talking shit is.
ALEX BLUMBERG: [laugh] All right. So this isn’t the best tweet of all time.
PJ: It does have 173 retweets, 366 likes, which is a lot of engagement for something that makes no sense to me.
ALEX BLUMBERG: Right. So. So I think I want to tell you a story because I’m curious if it will actually make you interested in sports.
ALEX GOLDMAN: That is a tall order.
ALEX BLUMBERG: What was done to you in your in your, in your youth that makes you…
ALEX GOLDMAN: Well I wasn’t athletic. I know that comes as a shock.
PJ: I literally, I don’t know this happened to you, but I was in a bullying environment where people would actually, they would use that word. They’d be like “You’re not even athletic.” Like constantly.
ALEX GOLDMAN: (laughs)
ALEX BLUMBERG: Oh really? They would literally say that as…
PJ: They wouldn’t say like you’re a nerd or whatever. They’d be like you’re not an athlete. You don’t look athletic.
ALEX GOLDMAN: That’s harsh.
ALEX BLUMBERG: Wow.
PJ: Also wait, can I tell you one more sports trauma story?
ALEX BLUMBERG: Sure.
PJ: So literally like one of the low points in my junior high life was that my dad made me play football for like traditional dad reasons, and they never put me in, which is totally reasonable. And I was also always late to practice because, like, just like I couldn’t figure out the pad situation, like it’s a lot of equipment.
ALEX BLUMBERG: Yeah
PJ: And then they finally, for some reason, put me in a game, and I had so little understanding of football, and so much shyness and fear of football, that I apparently didn’t tell the person I been swapped in for to leave the field. So we got a penalty for too many men on the field. So my whole team was so mad at me, and it wasn’t like “You’re a nerd, you’re whatever. It’s like “You don’t have enough understanding of sports to be on a sports team.” And so I vowed to never learn.
ALEX BLUMBERG: You actually played on the football team.
ALEX BLUMBERG: That’s shocking to me.
ALEX GOLDMAN: I have a I– like exact same story.
ALEX GOLDMAN: I know this sounds ridiculous. I played basketball for the rec department in seventh and eighth grade. And I didn’t realize that there was like a two second rule where you couldn’t be in the paint for more than two seconds. And like I didn’t understand it for an extended period of time, so I would always, whenever we’re on offense, I would get us penalized, and the ball would go away.
ALEX BLUMBERG: And you never knew why
PJ: That’s what they would say, they’d say the ball is going away.
ALEX GOLDMAN: And I didn’t really understand why and the (laughs). And the coach kept trying to explain it to me. But like eventually I got it, but I was still absent minded enough that it happened a lot.
PJ: Okay so what fresh drama is this?
ALEX BLUMBERG: No. OK. So maybe this won’t make you interested. Maybe, maybe maybe it’ll make you happy because it will… The sports people who traumatized you are having drama.
ALEX BLUMBERG: So, back story: Enes Kanter.
ALEX GOLDMAN: OK.
ALEX BLUMBERG: He is the center for the Oklahoma City Thunder. That’s a basketball team.
ALEX GOLDMAN: Thank you.
PJ: Professional level.
ALEX BLUMBERG: Professional basketball team. And they were, they are a tiny team. Oklahoma City is a small market team, but for a long time they had two of the best players in basketball. They had this guy Russell Westbrook, and they had another fellow, who you’ve mentioned by name, they had Kevin Durant.
PJ: Got it.
ALEX BLUMBERG: And Russell Westbrook, is like he literally looks like a human form of Superman. And then there’s Kevin Durant, he is basically the closest to an unstoppable player I’ve seen since Michael Jordan. Like he’s just like, he can shoot from anywhere, and he’s really tall, and he’s really fast. And it’s this really rare combination of things. Nobody in basketball, in the history of basketball, has ever been like him. So Oklahoma City, this tiny team, that no hope of ever being really good, all of the sudden had this incredible… They were just like, they were in a great position.
So for like, you know, four or five years, they were making the finals, or almost the finals, or they were right up there, and like a couple of times they went to the finals, and they lost, and like so they were always right on the verge of like winning a championship
PJ: Which is awesome
ALEX BLUMBERG: Which is awesome. So this was Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook, both played for Oklahoma City.
ALEX BLUMBERG: And Enes Kanter was the center. Then do you know what happened with Kevin Durant?
ALEX BLUMBERG: (gasps) You don’t know what happened with Kevin Durant!
PJ: No. Is this like?
ALEX BLUMBERG: Everybody knows what happened to Kevin Durant
ALEX GOLDMAN: Uh, let me guess.
ALEX BLUMBERG: Name the one basketball team you know of. The one basketball team. No, one basketball player that you know.
ALEX GOLDMAN: Michael Jordan.
ALEX BLUMBERG: No, present current.
ALEX GOLDMAN: Larry Byrd
ALEX BLUMBERG: Current.
PJ: You know Larry Byrd—
ALEX GOLDMAN: LeBron James.
ALEX BLUMBERG: Come on LeBron James. Next one
PJ: Oh. Steph Curry.
ALEX BLUMBERG: There you go, Steph Curry.
PJ: He’s– huge Steph Curry fan, because he does funny things on the internet.
ALEX BLUMBERG: [laughing] So Steph Curry, aside from doing funny things on the internet, Steph Curry plays on the Golden State Warriors. So Oklahoma City. New team. Small market. Middle of the country, like scrappy, underdog. Golden State owned by like some venture capitalists. Full coastal elite.
PJ: It’s like sort of the rich kid’s toy.
ALEX BLUMBERG: And they won. So three seasons ago, they won the championship. Two seasons ago, they went to the finals after beating Oklahoma City in the semifinals in this like super dramatic seven game series, and that earned them the right to play Cleveland in the finals, and then they lost to Cleveland. So they’ve already vanquished Oklahoma City, and then they lose to Cleveland. So they’re just like we just need one more piece to beat Cleveland, and then they start recruiting Kevin Durant
ALEX BLUMBERG: To come to Golden State.
PJ: That’s ugly. That’s really ugly.
ALEX BLUMBERG: Right. So already Golden State is like the most stacked team out there.
PJ: But then they’re going to the underdogs whose butt they kicked. I mean like, “Why don’t we take your best guy too?”
ALEX BLUMBERG: Whose butt they barely, barely, barely kicked. They just eked past them. And they’re saying they’re saying to him, “Hey ,Kevin Durant. Come play with us”
PJ: And you don’t want to live in the world where he says yes.
ALEX BLUMBERG: But he said yes.
PJ: Right, because there’s lots of money and he wants to win
ALEX BLUMBERG: And he wants to win. And he was like, obviously he’s going to say yes, because he’s like a highly paid professional, and they’re the best team, and he can go that team, and then they can be a dynasty forever.
PJ: But it still makes you sad.
ALEX BLUMBERG: So it still makes you sad. Right. So everybody on the Internet turned against him.
ALEX GOLDMAN: Against Kevin Durant.
ALEX BLUMBERG: Against Kevin Durant. This is so fun telling you this story. Everybody on the Internet turned against Kevin Durant.
PJ: Poor guy. I understand what he did, and I understand why everyone’s like “Screw you.”
ALEX BLUMBERG: And they started calling him cupcake.
PJ: Why cupcake?
ALEX BLUMBERG: I don’t know.
PJ: That’s what they called me.
ALEX BLUMBERG: Oh really.
ALEX GOLDMAN: (laughs)
PJ: Me and my friend Mike Bolds, when we were forced to do track and field or javelin throw, were called peaches and cupcake.
ALEX GOLDMAN: That is mean. Why would they do that?
PJ: Because we didn’t like throw throwing the javelin, or pushing the shot put. And we got tired easily. So we were peaches and cupcake.
ALEX BLUMBERG: It is probably also literally the only thing that you have in common with Kevin Durant.
ALEX BLUMBERG: Anyways, so then he goes to Golden State. And they win. They won the national championship this year. They won the national champions .
PJ: When you buy all the good players you get to win.
ALEX BLUMBERG: Yeah. And so there was like a Yankees vibe to them now. Like everybody’s mad at like… Everybody’s mad at Kevin Durant for going there. And one of the people who was most outraged about it was this guy Enes Kanter.
PJ: The old center.
ALEX BLUMBERG: The old center who’s been tweeting all the time about like how Kevin Durant is like a traitor and this team is like a family. Like you shouldn’t have done this thing.
PJ: Okay but so like, if you go back to the original tweet, it’s somebody saying “KD, Kevin Durant, is that you?” In response to somebody saying “This is the best tweet of all time, that’ll teach Enes Kanter to stop talking so much shit.” I still don’t understand that tweet.
ALEX BLUMBERG: Alright, so that goes back to this one thing that happened like a week and a half ago. A week and a half ago, someone goes on Twitter and tweets at Kevin Durant, “Why did you leave Oklahoma City?” Right? And so Kevin Durant goes on Twitter, and responds, but he responds in the third person.
ALEX GOLDMAN: (laughs)
PJ: Like Kevin Durant…
ALEX BLUMBERG: I will read to you what he says. He says “He didn’t like the organization or playing for Billy Donovan, the coach. His roster wasn’t that good. It was just him and Russ. Russell Westbrook.”
PJ: Other basketball player.
ALEX BLUMBERG: Other basketball player.
And then, and then he wrote again. “Imagine taking Ross off that team, see how bad they were. KD can’t win a championship with those cats,” referring to the rest of the team. Right so it’s like… So everybody on Twitter is like “Oh my god, he has a ghost account”
ALEX GOLDMAN: Yeah.
PJ: He wrote from the wrong account.
ALEX BLUMBERG: He thought he was writing from his ghost account, but he really writing from his real account.
ALEX GOLDMAN: Oh man.
PJ: It’s called an alt. Like clearly somewhere out there he has an alt.
ALEX BLUMBERG: Yeah, right.
PJ: So it’s like at that point, everybody knows that somewhere out there, there’s…
ALEX BLUMBERG: Kevin Durant is posing as somebody else on the internet to every once in awhile say things in favor of Kevin Durant. And nobody has proved this, I don’t think. Like nobody has actually uncovered who out there on Twitter is like the secret Kevin Durant
ALEX GOLDMAN: This is such an Internet story. Oh what human foibles.
ALEX BLUMBERG: So he denies that he has a ghost account, but he published this big mea culpa where he was like “That was a really stupid thing I did, I didn’t know what I was doing,” But the explanation never really…
PJ: He has a ghost account
ALEX GOLDMAN: He was lying.
ALEX BLUMBERG: It was not convincing. It didn’t address the specific question of, but wait why did you keep referring to yourself in the third person?
ALEX BLUMBERG: Yeah, and then so Enes Kanter.
PJ: The center.
ALEX BLUMBERG: The center. He’s pissed. And he tweets “We win, we lose, but the most important thing, we stick together because we are one.”
ALEX GOLDMAN: Referring to Oklahoma City?
ALEX BLUMBERG: Referring to Oklahoma City. And being like “You suck and we’re together. Solidarity.”
PJ: Got it.
ALEX BLUMBERG: So guess what happened to Enes Kanter.
ALEX: The Oklahoma City Thunder traded him.
PJ: Aww. So it’s like we’re a family, we’re a family. How dare you leave?
ALEX BLUMBERG: This isn’t a business, this is about family, and then they trade him.
PJ: Oh…. Okay, I think I can now explain this. Can I go back to the original tweet?
ALEX BLUMBERG: This is so exciting.
PJ: So the original tweet that we saw, was this user named @LakeShowYo saying “KD is that you?” And they were quoting somebody saying “This is the best tweet of all time. That’ll teach Enes Kanter to stop talking so much shit” What I didn’t even realize then is like they’re actually both talking about this tweet just says, that is also from @LakeShowYo where he says “Enes Kanter spent all summer bashing KD and preaching nonstop on how OKC is loyal and he considers the team family… They traded his ass.”
ALEX GOLDMAN: Skull emoji.
PJ: Skull emoji. So what I now know happened is that the Oklahoma City Thunder, which is like a small team that normally would never win, lucked into two of the best players in basketball. Everybody rooted for them really hard, but one of those players Kevin Durant left to go play for like the traditional big team.
ALEX GOLDMAN: Also the rival team.
PJ: Yeah. The traditional big rival team. And then when someone asked Kevin Durant on Twitter why he did that, he responded in a weird third person tweet that made people assume he’s other times going online pretending to be someone else who just defends Kevin Durant anonymously. One of his former teammates, Enes Kanter was mad about that, understandably. And after he made a big show about how teams are real and family and etc. He then he got traded.
ALEX BLUMBERG: Right.
PJ: And so in the world of this tweet, someone is making fun of Enes Kanter, and somebody’s making the joke that the person making fun of Enes Kanter could just be Kevin Durant’s secret account. Are we at sports, sports, sports?
ALEX BLUMBERG: (laughs)
ALEX GOLDMAN: Sports! Sports! Sports!
ALEX GOLDMAN: Reply All is hosted by PJ Vogt, and me, Alex Goldman. The show is produced by Sruthi Pinnamaneni, Phia Bennin, Damiano Marchetti, and Austin Mitchell. Our editor is Tim Howard. Our intern is Anna Foley, and we were mixed by Rick Kwan.
Also, Reply All is hiring right now. We’re looking for an editor. If you’re interested in applying, and you have longform audio experience, you can apply at gimletmedia.com/careers.
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