Joseph Saladino — better known as Joey Salads, internet prankster — is half-naked when he opens the door. I’m a little shocked, but I’m more relieved to learn that this is not a prank. If it was, he’d be greeting me with a camera pointed directly in my face, filming a surprise vlog for his YouTube channel.
Joey is an infamous content creator, known for pumping out controversial stunts and “social experiments” that show himself and his friends doing just about anything to garner attention and views. It’s worked well enough that 2.5 million people subscribe to his YouTube channel. Now, he’s hoping that popularity will help him win a congressional seat, promising that his home of Staten Island, New York, will be “Forgotten No More.”
Much of his early content was mostly harmless, piggybacking off of television shows like ABC’s What Would You Do? in order to teach viewers valuable moral lessons. But as Joey’s channel grew, so did the stakes and the shock value. He’s double-parked his car just to see how onlookers would react. He’s pretended to abduct children (with parental permission), terrifying them, in hopes that they’d learn not to trust strangers. In 2016, Joey’s videos grew increasingly more political, conveniently when support for Donald Trump was gaining in the polls. He’s gone on to film himself holding up “Black Lives Matter” and “All Lives Matter” signs in front of grocery stores and attending Trump protests. This content has migrated from YouTube to Twitter where Joey has often criticized the mainstream media and social media platforms of being biased against conservatives like himself.
But when he opens the door, wearing only gym shorts, he apologizes and tells me he had been cleaning his house before I arrived for our sit-down interview. Before we even have a chance to really speak, he darts away to take a quick shower and tells me: by the way, we’ll be going on a tour of the district instead. Along the way, Joey and his girlfriend Gila Goodman will be handing out donation sheets and filming it for YouTube. He’ll be documenting the entire campaign.
Joey’s bid for Congress is atypical, but his reason for campaigning sounds exactly like what you’d expect a self-described political outsider to say. “I’m a very passionate guy. And I feel like I have the ability to actually make changes in the world. So I got very passionate about politics,” Joey says. “And instead of complaining all day on Twitter, I’d actually like to make the jump to actually do something.”
That’s why Joey has been actively campaigning for the Republican primary in New York’s 11th district for the past two months. A content creator with over 10 million followers across social platforms, he’s been quick to combine what he calls “the social media game” and “the ground game” to build a national political profile. Mixing successful playbooks is Joey’s thing, whether that’s on YouTube, running his various marketing businesses, or playing politics. His whole campaign strategy, he tells me, is a carefully crafted mixture of strategies belonging to Donald Trump and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s campaigns.
After hopping out of the shower, Joey slaps on his Make America Great Again hat and prints off his donation sheets. Gila grabs the vlogging camera before we all jump into Joey’s metallic blue Tesla Model S and head out. The Tesla is his second car. It’s a little less conspicuous than his bright yellow Camaro, which car fans easily recognize from his videos.
Joey throws on AC/DC’s “Shoot to Thrill” as we peel out of the driveway and tells me, “I love upbeat, fast-paced music because that’s how I work. I’m very fast-paced.”
And with that, we’re off to tour the district and meet with residents — at least those who Joey has vetted for his vlog. Like the music from the stereo, Joey drives quickly and recklessly. The car stops suddenly, often, my seatbelt cutting into my chest at each stoplight. I’m along for the ride, and it will be like this all day.
Our first stop is only a few short miles away from Joey’s home, a smoothie shop called Baya Bar where one of his best friends, Steve Centineo, works. Aside from Steve, there’s an entire laundry list of Joey’s friends and family who we’ll be meeting: two friends Joey is helping to market a restaurant, his mom’s friend, a fan he met at the gym, and his first boss who runs a popular local pizzeria. Joey isn’t afraid to tell me that he needs to gather donations from just about anyone. His is a grassroots, social media-driven campaign, but he hopes to garner support from New York establishment Republicans as well.
He’s not off to a bad start, either. Just last month, Joey was photographed with Republican political consultant and infamous dirty trickster Roger Stone at a fundraising event in New York to help cover the former Trump campaign adviser’s legal fees. Across platforms like Instagram, where Stone hasn’t been banned for racist or sexist remarks, he’s become a martyr figure for the far-right.
Joey says Stone was made familiar with his campaign after a friend, who just so happens to be a Salads fan, told him all about it. I ask if he thinks Stone would endorse him. “I think he would,” Joey replies. “I don’t know if that’s something he’s currently staying out of because of what he’s dealing with.” (Stone was indicted by special counsel Robert Mueller earlier this year for a variety of crimes, including witness tampering and obstruction.) But an endorsement from Stone, Joey says, would be “huge” for his campaign. Stone did not respond to The Verge’s repeated requests to confirm his familiarity with the Salads campaign.
Joey is running for office at a time when the Republican Party is divided on its future, a war that has been waged ever since the establishment came to terms with Trump. The party has long struggled to attain the youth vote, and after Trump’s election, popular far-right internet figures found a home in the Republican Party, often bringing young followings with them. Some Republicans, like Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX), have begun to entertain the conspiracies and falsehoods peddled by those fringe figures. It’s obvious the party is still shifting, but it’s unclear where it will land. Joey’s hoping to push it in his direction.
As we pull into Baya Bar, Steve greets Joey and Gila with some kind of chocolate / peanut butter protein shake, knowing his buddy will enjoy it. “Joey is my best friend,” Steve tells me, handing the drink off to his friend. “About five years ago, I wasn’t doing so good in life. And if it wasn’t for him, where I am today wouldn’t be possible.” After working as an HVAC technician and never having moved out of his parent’s house, Steve moved to Los Angeles to live with Joey and film prank videos, living the carefree influencer lifestyle for three years.
“I would trust Joseph with my entire life, literally, because I have. For three years, my life was in his hands,” Steve says. “He showed me time management, prioritizing, and just everything I need to know for business that I learned. Everything I’m doing now is all because of him.” Steve says he’ll soon be opening up his own Baya Bar franchise in Miami, and he assures me that, without Joey’s help, he may still be living with his parents and working a dead-end job.
“If I become president,” Joey says, “[Steve is] going to be Secret Service because I need someone who would actually take a bullet for me.”
Joey’s former boss, Frank at Domenico’s Pizza, glows with pride when he sees Joey walk in. Frank tells me how hard Joey worked to sell pizzas at 16, tweaking the restaurant’s operations, forcing them to work more efficiently. “Good kid,” Frank says. “He’s a man, but amazing kid.”
“People would want to stop here a lot, stop for a slice. I would just be in here eating pizza. Kids running by. They’d stop in here and get a picture,” Joey says. He may not know what qualifies a Secret Service agent, but he grasps the fundamentals of grassroots campaigning: “People talk. So if someone sees me, ‘Oh, I saw the YouTube video with Salads driving around. Who’s that?’ And they’d look it up.”
Driving around, I notice how much Joey’s campaign feels like a repeat of Donald Trump’s but on a far smaller scale. Of course, part of this is intentional. Joey knows how and why the Trump playbook worked to get the man elected, and he thinks he can flip NY-11 red once again by implementing it himself.
“Salads” may not be a name that’s synonymous with high-rises and hotels, but just like the president, Joey is, at first glance, the portrait of success — a kind of success anyway. He’s a world-renowned YouTube star making enough money to at least drive two nice cars without breaking the bank. He’s emblematic of millennial “hustle” culture, an entrepreneur with a global profile who’s snagging what he claims to be over $100,000 marketing deals with influential brands. He dates Instagram models and social media stars, and even if he isn’t starring in network reality shows like The Apprentice, he’s a new media icon in his own right on YouTube, which is something that’s far more impressive to young people. He’s living the dream on his own terms. And he wants to help you, too, because, according to Joey, with a little direction, you can be just as successful as him someday.
“I’ll give them advice that’s worth a million dollars,” Joey tells me. “I’ll give them advice that, literally, companies are paying me tens of thousands of dollars to give them.” What is that advice? Unclear. Salads says it’s proprietary.
All of this success has not come without controversy. Joey speaks off the cuff, refuses to be “politically correct,” and lives for “owning the libs.” It’s a large part of his appeal, and the engagement he receives for what are often hurtful, transphobic, and racist tweets, memes, and pranks has only helped him garner an eight-figure following, an audience he hopes he can galvanize into votes.
In one video with close to a million views from March 2017, he’s dressed as a Nazi with a swastika armband wrapped around his upper arm, wandering around a pro-Trump rally, asking attendees whether they support Nazis. The goal was to disprove the “narrative,” Joey says, that the “mainstream media” had been pushing. “CNN told me we are [Nazis],” he says to a family at the rally. “They’re the mainstream media. I thought we were all Nazis.” Screengrabs from that prank follow Joey all across the internet, but they don’t torment him, he says. Popular figures like art critic Jerry Saltz and former 2020 Democratic presidential candidate Rep. Eric Swalwell have all tweeted the photo “out of context,” as Joey likes to say, in order to condemn him as a Nazi.
How do you feel when someone resurfaces that photo?
“I’m just thinking this guy’s an idiot because he’s spreading misinformation,” Joey says. “When you backtrack and you find out the context of that photo, you’ll realize I’m not actually a Nazi.”
So you don’t really hate when people use it?
“No,” Joey says, laughing. “I actually prefer it because it’s part of the meme, and it gets a lot of press. And I think part of the meme is, ‘Haha, look at these idiots promoting a fake photo.’ Obviously, the photo’s not fake, but the context behind it that they’re using is fake. It’s like, ‘Ha. Another celebrity fell for it. What an idiot.’”
As we leave Baya Bar, a group of teenagers tries to flag Joey down, waving at him from the outside of the smoothie shop. “Gila, record,” Joey demands. “This is good optics.”
On Staten Island, Joey is a hometown hero. Online, he’s a prankster who pushes the limits on everything he can say and post. Over the past few days, he’s been pushing for his audience to follow him across all platforms for fear that his Twitter account will be banned as part of a so-far-unproven Republican theory that liberal-leaning Silicon Valley companies are attempting to censor their speech. It’s a great ploy to create the foundations for an incoming (or perhaps ongoing) culture war. It’s also a clever marketing technique to expand his social media reach.
Conservative bias is yet another instance of deep right-wing conspiracies bubbling up into the mainstream political discourse. Shadow banning was once only discussed in far-right internet circles, but it’s quickly traveled up the information pipeline and out of establishment politicians’ mouths.
Twitter “SHADOW BANNING” prominent Republicans. Not good. We will look into this discriminatory and illegal practice at once! Many complaints.
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) July 26, 2018
Now, platform bias has become a major rallying cry and a powerful campaign message for conservatives. Sen. Ted Cruz, a member of the powerful Senate Judiciary Committee, has held hearings on it, and every tech policy discussion in Congress, whether it involves terrorism or data privacy, gets derailed by Republican politicians who are angry about censorship. It’s no longer just calls for action anymore either. Sen. Josh Hawley (R-MO) has introduced legislation that would remove a platform’s largest legal shield, Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, if a platform did not agree to submit audits proving that it is unbiased. In the matter of a year, what was once a fringe idea limited to far-right circles on the internet, has culminated into a significant mainstream policy issue.
Joey sees how this information pipeline works, and he plans to capitalize on it. 4chan users, bored with drab politicians and carefully crafted messaging, were drawn to Trump in 2016. He was unconventional and easy to riff on. If elected, trolls were sure Trump would shake up the entire political game: the “swamp” and the “political correctness” being imposed on them both online and in real life. That sad irony flowed out of channer communities and into the broader social media ecosystem like nuclear waste, tainting every piece of traditional campaign advertising and marketing with “meme magic.”
From racist and transphobic pranks to placing his penis into a hot dog bun and drizzling mustard on it, Joey seems to get lost in the clout all of the views and social media engagement brings.
One of the most egregious “social experiments” Joey pulled was published in October 2016, only a month before Trump officially won the election. In it, Joey leaves a car covered in Trump stickers and flags in what he refers to as a “black neighborhood.” As he opens up the video, Joey says, “You may have seen, on the internet and through that polls, that a lot of black people don’t like Trump, and they don’t even like his supporters in some cases.” A title card appears on the video suggesting 30 minutes has passed, and shortly after it fades away, a group of black men arrive. They vandalize the vehicle and beat the windows in with pipes and rocks.
“As you can see from this video, the black community is very violent towards Trump and his supporters,” Joey says at the end. “Now when I was filming this video, there were people out the window yelling ‘F Trump.’ And after filming, I spoke with some of the spectators who were black and said that they did ‘low key’ support Trump, but they’re afraid of the backlash from their community.”
The video went viral. Of course it did. It confirmed the racist beliefs held by so many Trump supporters. It was linked on the Drudge Report and received over 2 million views in total. But it was all fake. Shortly after the “social experiment” was posted, a video surfaced on Twitter outing Joey as a fraud, showing that the black men in the video were laying in wait while he recorded himself in front of the camera. Influential YouTuber and podcaster, h3h3Productions’ Ethan Klein, interviewed Joey after the event, probing him for an apology. Eventually, he did apologize, but not before making a handful of excuses for his behavior.
“I’m just seeing them as videos going up with numbers coming in,” Joey says, suggesting he didn’t take into consideration the cultural impact a video like that could have on its audience and YouTube as a platform.
Reflecting on that video today, Joey tells me, “I was stuck in that YouTube mindset. When you’re doing that full time, you lose a lot of control.” He continues, “Sometimes you don’t realize what you’re doing because you’re so into the camera. You’re so into your lifestyle and every aspect being recorded, and you lose sight of actual reality because you get stuck in your own world.”
Joey shows some remorse, but not much. “That was definitely a learning experience,” he says. “I mean, the Nazi photo, that’s not something I’m apologizing for.”
Are you hoping the “meme magic” we saw with Trump will help get you elected, too?
“That’s the way of the future,” Joey says. “Memes are the most effective form of advertising.” He’s not wrong. When brands aren’t half-heartedly pushing “woke” ads into our news feeds, their social media accounts are filled with meme-y content. For example, Arby’s social media editors love to draw trending topics and figures onto napkins with the restaurant’s namesake sauce. SunnyD joined in on the existential sadness of millennials, tweeting, “I can’t do this anymore” last February. It was met with support from a cabal of other brands like PornHub and MoonPie that were ready to wipe away the sugary orange beverage’s tears.
But there’s a dissonance in who Joey is in person and the mask he puts on for the internet. In 2017, he was brought into the h3h3Productions platform once again to talk about his past and his career as a YouTube prankster. He appears shy and quiet. The Kleins probe him on why he films the pranks he does, most of them fake and brazen. Specifically, Ethan Klein asks, “What’s your passion with the abduction stuff?”
“It gets views,” Joey replies. “It’s all about the views.”
YouTube’s algorithms encourage this kind of behavior. The more outrageous the content is, the more clicks and views it receives and the more money pranksters and creators like Joey make. Platforms are slowly implementing new rules, but enforcement is spotty. As of time of publishing, Joey is still running the racist Trump car prank video on his YouTube channel and profiting from it. Ads are placed before and after the video.
Joey’s a marketer, and it’s obvious that he understands how important messaging is. And with memes and Twitter clapbacks, he’s able to deposit quick, easily digestible campaign messages with a simple image overlaid with text or a quick quote tweet vilifying his political opponents. Staten Island’s Democratic incumbent, Rep. Max Rose, has even noted Joey’s abilities, telling City & State, “If he wasn’t such a blatant xenophobe, I would think about hiring him. He’s a good marketer!”
He continued, “Unfortunately, we have that whole don’t hire racists policy.”
After nearly three hours of traipsing through the district, Joey drives me back to his home with Gila. As I’m leaving, she comes in for a hug, and Joey walks me to the door. In a few days, he’ll have his first big campaign event, a speech for the New York Young Republicans Club (NYYRC). He tells me this is part of the “ground game,” the handshaking game. He’ll suit up, gel back his hair, and put on his politician mask.
The speech will be one of Joey’s first big campaign events, testing whether his social media prowess and name recognition add up to anything, politically speaking.
Two days later, nearly 130 young Republicans crowd the top floor of Jack Demsey’s in midtown Manhattan ahead of the first round of the Democratic presidential primary debates. Joey will be giving one of his first speeches to the crowd, explaining why social media is so critical to his campaign and why he’s the one who should be representing Staten Island in DC.
Those in attendance are largely young and well-dressed, sporting MAGA hats and Trump-Pence shirts as they circulate around the bar laughing and socializing. The New York Young Republicans are a tight-knit group and one of the most active chapters in the country. They’re here to watch the first round of the Democratic presidential debates, prepared to “boo” NYC mayor Bill de Blasio and yell a racist Native American “war cry” whenever Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) speaks.
Joey’s campaign manager, Vish Burra, is the NYYRC vice president. The position is partly why Burra is so well-known in the establishment Republican scene. Members are pictured frequently with Republican politicians like NYC City Council minority whip Joe Borelli and state party chair Nick Langworthy. But Burra also understands how powerful social media and right-wing internet pundits are. The NYYRC recently had far-right talking head Jack Posobiec address their club, and Burra has helped organize Mike Cernovich’s Night for Freedom event for the past few years as well. (Joey has now personally interviewed Cernovich for his second channel, too.)
“They’re conservative influencers, not traditional influencers. People listen to them, especially people with political interests,” Burra says. “That’s the new frontier that we’re getting into, and I think Joey is going to be the one to show that.”
Shortly before the debates begin, Joey is walked up to the top floor of the bar to speak. He’s wearing a giant smile, shaking hands and slapping backs, chumming it up with members as he makes his way to the microphone. “A lot of these Boomer Republicans are doubting me,” he says. “Too many old-school Republicans are taking control of this party. They don’t understand social media. That’s why you see AOC rise to power. She’s indoctrinating the entire youth into her loony left-wing ways because she’s able to reach eight- and 10-year-olds.”
Joey’s jokes and quips targeting public figures from AOC to David Hogg, a survivor of the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School shooting, are met with roaring applause. And as Joey makes his way across the bar to find space to meet with members, he’s swarmed by attendees of all ages who are prepared to donate to his campaign.
Joey is the first major YouTube figure to run for office, and it’s unclear if his following will translate into voter turnout. What is clear, however, is that he’s got the entire social media ecosystem excited (positively and negatively) about a small, hotly contested district in New York City.
While Joey is schmoozing the group, Burra, is explaining Joey’s appeal to members — the social media game and the ground game. Toward the end of the night, I ask Burra how Joey compares to his primary opponent, Nicole Malliotakis, a well-known Republican and current New York state assemblymember.
“She could be perfect, but you can destroy perfect,” Burra says. “If you’re all lily-white, if I throw a little speck on you, everyone notices the speck. Joey, on the other hand, he’s full of specks. He’s interesting. It’s very, very hard to destroy interesting, and that’s what we’re banking on.”
He’s been tough on Malliotakis on social media, often referring to her as a “total joke” or “the girl” in a disparaging way. It’s another Trumpism, casting powerful women like E. Jean Carroll and Megyn Kelly as opportunists. Malliotakis is running a traditional campaign, sending out newsletters penned by lawmakers endorsing her, like former presidential candidate Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL). Malliotakis has clout in the party, and she’s the clear frontrunner at this point in the election cycle.
If Joey doesn’t win? Well, he has a backup plan. “I have this other political app that we’re doing. We’re going to sell it to other political campaigns. We’re going to try to use my campaign as the example.” He can’t provide me with too many details, but he tells me he wants to be the one to revolutionize the party. Again, he talks about the “ground game” and the “social media game.”
Joey wants the Republican Party to start using the internet differently: post more like Posobiec, tweet more like Ben Shapiro and Charlie Kirk. Win or lose, Joey wants to be the guy showing right-wing politicians how to grow their follower counts.
“Even if I get in one term,” he tells me, “I want to be the guy that comes in and teaches everybody: ‘This is how you do it. This is how it’s supposed to be done.’”