How do you know when someone’s just trolling?
Maybe they dress the matter up in hushed tones, play-acting as though the subject is overly serious:
Maybe they post videos of themselves beaming alongside their target, who is clearly not in on the joke:
Or maybe they giggle publicly about it later, showing off the fruits of their plucky meddling:
Spencer Pratt wants us to think that his dalliance with Alex Jones this week — the result, in his telling, of discovering that the Infowars founder was vacationing at the same Hawaiian resort as Pratt and his wife, Heidi Montag — was all a hilarious joke. It started late Sunday, when Pratt tweeted that Jones was snorkeling near him. He then proceed to post a series of jocular videos with Jones, discussing Bill Clinton, Megyn Kelly, and the impending Speidi progeny, culminating in a shot of him standing side by side with Jones on the beach, the two apparently having just filmed a still-unaired Infowars segment together.
As word of the curious vacation pairing spread, Pratt’s name started to trend on Twitter, a development he gleefully screencapped and tweeted. New York magazine gathered up Pratt’s videos with Jones for a post, concluding that “their vacation together is quickly evolving into the most bizarre of buddy comedies.” Pratt retweeted it. “Content is king tho,” he wrote Tuesday in defense of his videos.
If you’re familiar with Pratt, his buzzy appearance in the salacious tabloid story du jour is not that surprising. He and Montag rose to prominence on The Hills, whose six-season run concluded in 2010 and in which Pratt was unambiguously the villain.
First showing up as Montag’s new love interest, he served as a dramatic wedge between her and series lead Lauren Conrad. He brawled with other cast members (though only after removing his leather jacket) and yelled in the street, semi-disguised, about how he had been wronged. Neck veins bulged. Midway through the series’ run, Pratt and Montag signed a deal with paparazzi agency PCN and unleashed a plague of painfully staged photos, earning them their eponymous moniker and a representative best-of slideshow in the New York Daily News: “America’s most hated couple just won’t go away. Here’s the best of the worst of Speidi’s not-so-candid candids.”
There was, as there so often is with reality TV, a method to the madness. The point of Pratt’s tumultuous public appearances has often explicitly been to keep other people — costars, gossip writers, the general public — guessing. “We went into this whole show with the plan of making everybody just have no idea what to think about us,” Pratt said after a blowup during 2009’s I’m a Celebrity, Get Me Out of Here! “Whether [we] are somebody they wanna make an alliance with, or if we’re worthless.” If it’s hard to tell what Spencer Pratt actually believes, that’s by design. The pair has spoken at length about the degree to which drama was manufactured during their time in the spotlight: Drama meant better ratings and better ratings mean more money.
“Everything’s fake before you know it,” Montag said in 2014.
Pratt’s interactions with Alex Jones might seem like more of the same. After all, Pratt has been needling the host for months, tweeting about the Jones stand-in in last season’s Homeland and declaring, after February’s Academy Awards took a distinctly anti-Trump turn, that “Alex jones is gonna flip.” Call it one provocateur’s admiration of another: In one of the Hawaii videos, Pratt says, pleasantly, that Jones has gotten more famous than Speidi. When Jones demures, Pratt bounces back. “Oh, you are,” he says, smiling and nodding. “You took our game.”
On Tuesday night, The Daily Beast published an interview with Pratt, in which he declared that his videos with Jones were a subversive act of journalism. “I asked him all the hard-hitters,” Pratt said. “I asked him if he does his rants on purpose or if it’s an act. I thought that was some good journalism.” When that story was published, he tweeted out the link repeatedly.
But the thing is that Pratt actually has a long history with Jones and some of the elements of the far-right ideology that Jones espouses. In mid-2009 — a point at which Pratt described himself and Montag to The Daily Beast as being “scary famous” — he began to tweet about Infowars, then a relatively fringe operation, sharing Infowars conspiracies.
That June, he and Montag went on Infowars, spending about an hour with Jones on air. The segment is worth a listen: Within minutes, Pratt begins to describe how climate change is a hoax (“We’ve all seen footage of polar bears swimming to new pieces of ice”) and fluoride is a government conspiracy. At one point, Jones lets Pratt rant for nearly two minutes uninterrupted before cutting in with a solemn appraisal of his newfound acolyte’s enthusiasm: “Incredible.” “You have to be presented with the facts, and nobody ever is,” Pratt says. “And that’s why I feel so privileged that God did give us this opportunity to have so many people be aware of us, whether they like us or not. They’re forced to hear our voice. And my voice is now going to be aware of the Infowars that are attacking your mind.”
Pratt apparently enjoyed the opportunity. “Thanks for having us on the show!” he tweeted at current Infowars editor-at-large Paul Joseph Watson (who is perhaps best known for anti-Muslim rhetoric and his insistence throughout the 2016 presidential campaign that Hillary Clinton was suffering from vague medical ailments) after the 2009 segment. “Alex Jones is an American Hero!”
It shouldn’t really matter, of course. Who cares if Pratt watches Infowars? Who cares what he thinks about fluoride or Jones’s perennial warnings about “the New World Order”? What does it matter if his Hawaii videos are an outgrowth of actual credence in the things Jones is preaching?
It matters because Jones is not a benign entity, someone just to roll your eyes at in the checkout aisle. He, who has made a sport of denying massacres like those at Sandy Hook and pushing hoaxes about everything from 9/11 to the death of Antonin Scalia, has done much to sow doubt about legitimate news sources and convince some Americans that their way of life is under attack and must be defended at all costs. Infowars has long attracted young listeners who might fairly be considered trolls; Jones’s hysteria — his manic conspiracy-mongering, his trust-no-one-but-me tactics, his perpetual rhetorical brinkmanship — is a selling point. He traffics in followers who tend to write the show off as an entertaining twist on open-minded politicking, which is an exercise in just asking questions until suddenly it isn’t. It matters, yes, because Donald Trump won the election, and because Jones now has the ear of the president. He is not funny.
Jones also views Speidi less as a pop culture curiosity than as a conduit to a new audience. “So this is kind of an inrun to the backdoor of the cultural mind control system to have somebody like Spencer Pratt and Heidi Montag Pratt on with us,” he said back in 2009, “because the system is using these type of young icons to keep people in the Matrix. To have them breaking out of the Matrix is a big deal.”
For once, I agree.