In late 2015, Denver activist Theo Wilson went undercover online as a black man among the alt-right. By creating a fake white supremacist Facebook profile as well as a YouTube account under the moniker “Lucius25,” Wilson set out to trick the social-media platforms’ algorithms into feeding him the same types of news stories, videos and information that people associated with the alt-right see. He wanted to better understand the alt-right, and what he found both shocked and didn’t shock him. (Watch the video below for more.)
On July 7, Wilson gave a seventeen-minute presentation about the experience at TEDxMileHigh at the Ellie Caulkins Opera House. Wilson had been looking forward to the video of the talk being published afterward so he could share it online. He thought he knew what to expect: In previous years, when he’d done presentations at TEDx events in Colorado, which are part of the TED network but are independently organized, videos of the presenters were published by TEDx organizers on their own websites within a few weeks. But more than a month had passed and the video still hadn't been posted on the TEDxMileHigh site.
Then Charlottesville happened.
Within days of the tragedy in Virginia, Wilson received a message from a friend on August 17: “Hey, the video is posted. And it’s the real TED, the big TED!”
Much to Wilson’s surprise, the video of his talk had been published by the main TED Facebook page, which is considered an honor and is less common for talks from the smaller and independent TEDx events.
The video has now been viewed over four million times.
Since the video went viral, Wilson has also received hundred of personal messages, including invitations to speak at other events and an interview request from the Washington Post.
“With Charlottesville, the alt-right is back at the top of the news, and so when TED dropped the video, I thought, there could not have been better timing,” says Wilson.
The slam poet and activist, whom Westword profiled in our March 1 cover story, "A Cut Above," had made previous videos about politics — especially issues affecting the black community — that went viral. For instance, his take on reparations garnered hundreds of thousands of views on Facebook.
But nothing has approached the response that his TED talk is receiving. He credits TEDxMileHigh’s organizers for bringing it to the attention of TED’s international organization.
“The feedback has been bonkers," says Wilson. “It’s been overwhelmingly positive, with very few negative comments…like there was one person upset with me because he thought I was furthering the narrative of the demonic white male — even though I clearly dismissed and dismantled that in my talk."
As for whether he was surprised by what happened in Charlottesville, given what he learned while infiltrating the social-media pages of the alt-right, Wilson says: “No. It was predictable as gravity.
“You have no reason to believe that these people are going to peacefully protest," he continues. “And the only bright spot I can see is that the alt-right is destroying any moral high it could have had.... That ended when they killed Heather Heyer."
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Wilson says it will take him hours to go through the messages flooding his inbox to respond to questions, as well as see if there are more interview requests or invitations to speak at future events.
The next chance to catch Wilson is next weekend, on August 27, at the Unity Festival he’s co-organizing with Montbello Barbers, Quality Care Hair Clinic, Dream Culture and Shop Talk Live, the regular discussion group that he moderates in Aurora.
The Unity Festival, which promotes community unity, will feature food, music, vendors and live entertainment. More info can be found on the event’s Facebook page.