How Return of Kings used outrage to sell extreme ideas

By Shaun Davies & Milly Stilinovich
BBC News

image captionDaryush Valizadeh is a self-described "neo-masculinist" who believes that men are under siege from feminism

A "neo-masculinist" group with extreme views on women's rights has been forced to shut down a series of proposed global meet-ups, but not before a wave of outrage fuelled by petitions, media and governments swept its message around the world.

But was the episode concocted to generate maximum publicity for the group's controversial views? Did a master troll take the media and politicians for a ride?

Daryush "Roosh V" Valizadeh, the founder of Return of Kings (ROK), openly and unashamedly courts outrage.

"There is nothing the media can do anymore to hurt me, and even if they paint me as a baby murderer, I will still gain readers because of it," he wrote after a BBC documentary was critical of his ideas.

"As long as my name exits the mouth of my enemies, I win, and I will continue to win."

By that criterion, Roosh V was well and truly a winner this week.

Opposition to ROK's proposal to hold a men's "social happy hour" in cities around the world on Saturday started with a petition in Australia that quickly gathered thousands of signatures.

Valizadeh's reaction was to announce on Twitter that he had booked a trip to Australia.

A storm of media outrage followed, prompting Australia's Immigration Minister Peter Dutton to request an urgent briefing and foreshadow denying the 36-year-old American blogger a visa.

image copyrightAP
image captionValizadeh responded to threats to deny him an Australian visa with a series of absurd tweets that were reported as credible in some media outlets

"I will sneak into your country, hold my meetings, laugh, and then slip out. Your gay authorities won't stop me," Valizadeh wrote in response. He baited female journalists with sexual requests and claimed he would enter Australia by boat.

But he had never applied for a visa and the "ticket" he posted to Twitter of his planned trip was an itinerary screen grab that could be generated without booking a trip.

'Fertility and beauty'

In fact, Return of Kings' anti-feminist position is so extreme that some commentators believe it is a "troll" group that exists solely for the purpose of upsetting people.

The site feature such headlines as "The myth of date rape drink spiking", "How to turn a feminist into your sex slave" and "How to convince a girl to get an abortion".

The group's community beliefs state that "a woman's value significantly depends on her fertility and beauty", whereas "a man's value significantly depends on his resources, intellect and character".

Return of Kings' leaders say their campaign is sincere, but they don't deny setting out to provoke strong reactions from the feminists, gay rights campaigners and their other perceived enemies.

image copyrightEPA
image captionAustralian Immigration Minister Peter Dutton indicated he would block a visa bid by Valizadeh

"We write our ideas in a way that draws attention to our work and entertains our audience, because we believe our perspective has value and is worth spreading. Do not confuse provocative art with trolling," writes one contributor to the site.

'Misuse of technology'

Australian cybercrime expert and former police officer Susan McLean agreed that the group's actions did not constitute trolling in the "classic" sense.

"Trolling usually involves groups or individuals that would concentrate on one person and hammer them online, as opposed to threatening to stick it to them at the local pub," Ms McLean said.

"But it certainly is a misuse of technology, [using] threats and harassment to cause upset among us here in Australia."

Ms McLean said she believed Valizadeh's targeting of Australia was considered, given the climate of increased awareness towards abuse against women and the debate on free speech.

Domestic violence and women's issues have been hot-button topics in Australia, driven by 2015 Australian of the Year Rosie Batty's advocacy on the issue.

"His views grate against those that are held by Australian civilised society and he's using that as a springboard, knowing full well he'll create a media frenzy, angst and anger," she said.

Australia has in recent years refused to issue visas to a number of people whose views were considered out of step with community standards.

image copyrightReturn of Kings
image captionThe writers on Return of Kings insist they are sincere about their neo-masculinist philosophy

Rapper Tyler the Creator and pick-up artist Julien Blanc were both refused entry to the country after campaigns accused them of promoting misogyny.

Simon Breheny, director of the Legal Rights Project at the Institute of Public Affairs, said this had prompted strong debate about the limits of free speech and whether Australia's laws went too far in restricting that right.

"These cases have given the individuals concerned a very high degree of prominence in the media and so it's seen as a bit of a tactic they can use to get a lot of free exposure," Mr Breheny said.

Political condemnation

As outrage spread from Australia to the UK, US, Canada and elsewhere, Roosh and ROK remained defiant, attempting to move their meet-ups to private forums.

"Since this meetup was never intended as a confrontation with unattractive women and their enablers, I'm moving to save as many of these meetups as I can before Saturday," he wrote on the ROK website on Wednesday.

image copyrightTwitter
image captionValizadeh tweeted numerous times about the additional attention he was getting due to the controversy

In the UK, a Scottish National Party MP urged the home secretary to block Roosh from attending events in Scotland or England, although there was no indication that he was planning to do so.

Ottawa Mayor Jim Watson also weighed in, tweeting that "your pro-rape, misogynistic, homophobic garbage is not welcome".

Texas Governor Greg Abbott, Melbourne Lord Mayor Robert Doyle, Calgary Mayor Naheed Nenshi and a host of other politicians voiced similar sentiments.

On Thursday Valizadeh announced he was cancelling the meet-ups because he could not "guarantee the safety or privacy of men who want to attend".

It was a victory of sorts for ROK's opponents. But the name Roosh V is far better known than it was at the start of the week. The ROK website doubled its usual traffic to 82,000 unique users on 1 February.

On Thursday, Valizadeh tweeted: "I'm currently more popular than Jeb Bush … lol." It seems likely that Valizadeh got exactly what he was looking for.

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