YoastCon Overshadowed by Twitter Storm: Joost de Valk, SEO Industry Leaders Called Out for Objectifying Women

The third edition of YoastCon kicked off today in Nijmegen, the Netherlands, but for those following remotely the conference has been overshadowed by a discussion that erupted on the #yoastcon hashtag prior to the event. Several parties began circulating tweets and unsavory videos involving Joost de Valk, for which he has since publicly apologized.

The story was complicated and confusing to follow, as many of these decade-old tweets were deleted and the videos made private by the websites that are hosting them. The parties who were publishing screenshots from archive.org alleged that de Valk was sexually harassing women in the SEO industry.

One of the women to whom some of the tweets were directed has publicly stated that she did not perceive them as harassment and that the tweets were taken out of context.

de Valk responded yesterday with a public apology, acknowledging the tweets and videos.

He also provided a statement to the Tavern with more context on the after party videos.

“The videos are of an event I’ve attended over the last decade called SEOktoberfest, which is an SEO conference at Oktoberfest,” de Valk said. “I’m honestly ashamed of those videos when I see them now… It looks bad and I wouldn’t behave like that now, but I don’t think anything I did myself at those events was ever out of line.”

Marieke van de Rakt, who recently took on the role of CEO of Yoast, said she thought the tweets were brought to public attention in retaliation for the company announcing a project to empower women working at Yoast. de Valk left the CEO role to focus on product development at Yoast and his new role of Marketing and Communications Lead at WordPress.org.

I feel like it started after I was announced CEO and later on talked about a project to empower women working at Yoast. I got some really upsetting tweets. After that it started focusing on #yoastcon. It seems like they want to show the hypocrisy in our statements about women. I never spoke at SEO events before, though I have been to SEOktoberfest. It felt totally welcoming back then. That being said, the pictures and movies aren’t something I particularly enjoy watching. I do think they’re bad, but also a bit out of context. The environment at Yoast is nothing like that. And although my husband likes to party (as do I), I feel he’s always been a strong believer in equal rights and opportunities. I think we all make mistakes and learn from them. At Yoast, we’re really trying to improve inequality with both the diversity fund and my empowerment project.

For those watching the #yoastcon hashtag, the way the situation unfolded it almost seemed like a coordinated personal attack on de Valk, especially given how the SEOktoberfest videos were spliced together with the YoastCon promotional videos. David Cohen, a Philadelphia-based Digital Marketing Director who previously worked at a large SEO agency, started the conversation by publishing de Valk’s old tweets that he had found years ago when researching Yoast and its founder.

“As far as the tweets from Joost are concerned, I’ve known about them since 2014,” Cohen said. “I just never knew what to do with them or how to proceed questioning why that behavior was perfectly acceptable for him.

“As far as the harassment and abuse in the SEO industry, particularly at the SEO conferences, I’ve known about this since 2011 after seeing it firsthand while working at a large SEO agency in Philly, Seer Interactive.”

Cohen said that he began publicly criticizing people he calls “SEO celebs” in 2014, for “saying they are against the SEO harassment and abuse, claiming to be ‘male feminists,’ yet knowingly covering up the abuse and enabling the abusers who happen to also be their friends, peers, colleagues, etc.”

While the discussion on the #yoastcon hashtag seems centered around de Valk’s admitted indiscretions, Cohen said his objective in publicizing the old tweets goes beyond de Valk. He’s calling out other leaders in the industry who he alleges have harassed and abused women for years.

“This started a solo mission to take action as a messenger of questions for the group of SEOs most prominent figures who hold the power of influence over the industry about the 10+ year ongoing issue of alleged harassment and abuse of women in the SEO world, particularly at SEO conferences between 2009 and 2012 era.”

Cohen said the timing with YoastCon was “a mission looking for direct and public answers on this topic once and for all while they were all gathered together at the event.” He began tweeting about these issues well before the event and was using the #yoastcon hashtag to call out other SEO industry leaders for the past few months.

When asked about his motive, Cohen said he simply wants answers from de Valk, Rand Fishkin, his wife Geraldine, John Doherty, Martin MacDonald, Marcus Tandler, and others regarding what he perceives to be hypocrisy in the SEO industry.

“Why has it been totally cool for the SEO celebs, rock stars, ninjas, and conference speakers to be misogynists, to objectify and sexualize women, to hire Playmates for their SEO events, and to engage in behavior that would easily be classified as ‘toxic masculinity?'” Cohen said. He claims that industry leaders have been covering up harassment and abuse that they have known about and have refused to help the women who have been abused. Cohen and several others who have been circulating the tweets claim that victims of this abuse have been contacting them to share their stories but have not yet gone public with them.

“I chose to act on this now because I wanted answers to two questions from specific people: 1. Do you know of alleged harassment or abuse because someone went to you directly and told their story? And if so, did you refuse to use your power and influence to help them at the risk of your own professional and personal interests?” Cohen said.

“As for Joost, going with the ‘if I offended anyone’ apology approach is empty and lacks personal accountability for behaviors that are completely misaligned with words. He had to respond publicly. But the question remains open – why?”

35 Comments


  1. Here is the thing — those “damning” tweets were plainly and openly lied about by people pushing them. They very clearly belonged to a friendly and consensual sexual banter.

    Takes literally seconds to determine that when looking at context. Someone who had time to dig up naughty tweets from a decade ago, but not figure out they were consensual is full of shit.

    The videos might be in poor taste, more so for a professional event, but they don’t actually show anything other than people partying hard.

    Does or did SEO industry have a problem with sexual harassment. I don’t know, but how these things go — probably!

    Did these people were concerned with doing something about that?

    Clearly not, this was rather transparent and trollish attack on the event with a lot of mock outrage and “evidence” that didn’t show any, well, sexual harassment, pushed entirely by a group of men.

    Men who proceeded to complain about women (!!!) not agreeing with their lying and trolling.

    For trolls it seems easy and hilarious to take on other’s narratives and insist that if they are using same words about same problems they are worth listening too.

    In lack of actual concern and actual facts — they are not. They are just doing damage to the actual problem.

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  2. The sad reality is, that these attacks started when Marieke became CEO. This seems as much an attack to her as it is to him.

    It’s just sad. To rehash my tweet from two days ago:

    It is okay to be offended by something said 10years ago.

    It is not okay to project that onto the person today without reflecting the present character. It denies everyone the most basic human right: to change.

    Past action is only an indicator for present personality.

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  3. I’ve said some crazy stuff on Twitter too because that’s what the vibe used to be, to say the funniest tweet. Now it’s too serious, young people will find another platform that they can have fun on.

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  4. I dont believe that this was a coordinated attack on him, it’s just someone is really angry with his past behavior and exploiting a perfect time to get back at him. I think it’s an important lesson for anyone – Sorry doesn’t change your actions or deleting your past doesn’t hide your sorry behavior..

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  5. These tweets are unacceptable.

    But also, it appears Cohen intentionally sat on this for 4+ years. Why not address this sooner?

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    1. We have. It’s been raised over and over and over. In the past by women who were bullied, silenced, gaslighted and shut down. The people responsible have hidden too long. Sadly it’s taken making a massive noise about it at an industry event to get it noticed.

      Ball is in their court…

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  6. I can understand calling these actions out to an extent, but Lisa Barone has publicly stated it was not harassment in her opinion as the recipient of the comments.

    The “slutty” elf blog post from 2008 is pretty gross, but I think if there is real abuse and harassment in the SEO community, the women who have been victims of it need to come forward and actually call out the abusers. Otherwise it’s going to continue to be seen as a personal attack, or trolling, of these so-called “SEO leaders”.

    The only thing I’m offended by here is that John Doherty is considered an SEO leader and mentioned in the same breath as Rand and the rest. If he’s an SEO leader then SEO truly is dead.

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  7. Sure, people say and later regret stupid things all the time; everyone deserves a chance to change. But.

    Joost’s pattern is likely more inclined towards the kind of jackass portrayed here than not, well beyond the objectification of women.

    Case in point (seemingly unrelated but points to pattern): When a bug in a Yoast update caused a multitude of websites to drop precipitously from Google rankings, Joost made the usual boilerplate acknowledgment, which is good, especially if kept at that (as it should).

    But no, he had to turn around and blame the loyal users instead, stating it’s their responsibility. They’re already crediting him with the trust of using his plugin, helping propagate it, and when things go wrong unbeknownst to them, you blame the victims instead.

    This is again an old incident, but notwithstanding the likelihood of more like it, it calls to show the pattern of behavior. Something that fits this recent case, and is why it isn’t a surprise.

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    1. The behavior is gross and unacceptable for a CEO (or whatever Joost was at the time) on his company Twitter account, but I feel like most of this controversy is the subtext underneath. A lot of people completely annoyed at self-appointed “SEO Leaders” or “SEO Rockstars” who just are not very good at their job (or don’t do their job at all) and stay in the public eye by pumping out a lot of FUD.

      I mean, it is a totally understandable frustration. It’s gotten to the point where Google spends a lot of time debunking Rand Fishkin without naming him publicly. Only to have him turn and have a hipster tantrum when they come out and tell him, No you are wrong about Dwell Time, CTR, or whatever else he’s on about that day.

      I’m not sure this controversy is the best vehicle for exposing the noxiousness of some of those guys though. Given what Lisa Barone tweeted, it turns into a bit of a trojan Nothing Hamberder.

      That said, everyone knows some pretty horrible stuff happens on the SEO Conference circuit. If there is more here, come forward, name names. A bunch of SEOs (myself included) will have your back.

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  8. This story is missing an incredibly important element. The way these men who are so committed to helping women who have been victims of sexual harassment and assault attacked victims on twitter. I know, I was one of them.

    When this mess first started, I knew the tweets were directed at my friend and colleague. I guessed (and she later confirmed) that they were meant to be fun and were completely consensual.

    I had the audacity to start a thread on twitter where I suggested that perhaps we should ask the women involved if they were being harassed before we leveled accusations at the supposed harasser.

    For my trouble, I got called a woman hater, an enabler, and plenty of other terrible things (now conveniently deleted by the people who said those awful things: Cohen, Rayner, a handle by the name of callis1987, and Forden)

    You can look up the archive of these if you like – the internet never forgets.

    Personally, I’ve been in the industry for 20 years, and I’ve been the victim of sexual harassment in this industry. In my case, it was not by the so-called SEO Elite – it was by attendees at conferences and co-workers. I know it’s a problem in the industry, and I’ve spent years trying to elevate the position of women in this industry.

    This ongoing accusation without evidence – without any of the women harassed speaking up publicly – and worse, based on tweets and videos that have been declared consensual by women involved – is going to serve to do only two things:

    1. Smear the names and reputations of people who may or may not be guilty.
    2. Make it harder for women to come forward if there are credible allegations against those same individuals.

    This doesn’t make me a woman-hater or an enabler. It makes me realistic. And the reality is it’s already really hard for women to come forward in these situations. And false accusations make it harder, like the boy who cried wolf.

    A personal plea to the women involved. These men say you are out there and that you’ve been victimized. I am truly sorry for that. You should speak out, and people should listen. But as long as you’re mixed up with these people who have lost credibility based on their behavior, you’re not going to be heard as clearly as you should. If I can help in any way, please let me know.

    We have issues to solve. I’m not claiming to have all the answers, but people who level false accusations of criminal behavior with the intention of making a point probably aren’t interested in truly solving these issues.

    And articles like this that don’t tell the whole story just enable that behavior.

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  9. You’re quoting David Cohen? Really? The guy is a notorious troll behind lame attacks such as sparktoro.net and several anonymous twitter troll accounts. He should not be given a platform to air his self-righteous grievances – he’s got axes to grind and doesn’t care about equality or harassment. He’s just scoring cheap points.

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  10. People who are 100% innocent don’t suddenly make videos private and start deleting tweets.

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  11. From those who think deleting tweets or videos has to be a nefarious act, how many people out there who have NOT deleted a tweet because they said or acted in a way that they later we’re ashamed of?

    And if you have, did you announce that you were doing so, and the reasons why?

    Because I’ve personally deleted a lot of tweets I wrote in a moment of anger or irritation I later regretted. I still do.

    Here’s the thing: What I’ve mostly seen involving this, which appears all too common, are males dominating a conversation about what defines abusive behavior towards women. And far too many of those same males are not actually asking and listening to women directly involved.

    There’s a fine line between supporting women who’ve been abused or disrespected because of gender or preference and preaching over and around them.

    I’m not interested in whether the male peanut gallery thinks Joost’s response and apology was good enough for them. I want to know, if women believe it was or not, if they decide to convey an opinion.

    As for the men involved in disclosing these tweets and videos, there is very little you’ve done to make me believe your primary motive was not to embarras Joost and take a shot at the new Yoast CEO.

    The timing, your clear conflict of interest, failure to communicate with women involved, and toxic screeds wreak of a means to an end, the end being a premeditated, planned hit job against someone you’ve got an axe to grind against.

    I hate a damn bully, worse than anything. And I react quickly to them in all forms. Some of those tweets I’ve regretted and deleted are my reactions to what I perceive as people being abusive.

    I’ve not always done the right thing, and I’ll always be ashamed by the way I’ve behaved towards others, especially 20 or 30 years ago. But people I’ve offended or wronged are the one’s I want to apologize to and try and make amends. Not a bunch of judgemental knuckleheads on Twitter.

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  12. Thank you for all comments, even the ones that kind of make me look like Satan’s spawn. I’m starting with just one response that covers the recurring questions and criticisms of me and my alleged specific role(s) and actions here. Because I am quoted, alleged, and accused of various evils it’s my responsibility to answer for them all publicly. If you have a specific question, criticism, or claim please ask me directly on Twitter or in Twitter DM if you’d like to keep the conversation private. https://twitter.com/explorionary

    A colleague of mine attended both days of YoastCon and communicated the PR spin narrative: this was a planned and orchestrated attack by a group of accused “trolls” hellbent on hijacking #YoastCon hashtag to personally attack the CEO of Yoast because we allegedly “Hate women, especially women in leadership. That Yoast CEO was our target woman leader. And YoastCon was our target location.” And that I am the accused ringleader of it all.

    The other story going around the various SEO chats, groups, DMs, Slacks is that the accused group of trolls were driven by some bizarre fear, jealousy,

    People can believe what they wish. Or people can know by finding the truth. I’m not here to convince anyone of anything. But I am responsible to publicly or privately answer questions about what’s published by Sarah.

    Why and what is the motive? Both questions deserve a response. The answer is: Believe women first – Know something, say something.

    As for my character and behavior around women, I have no scripted narrative, acronym or label like male feminist. If you want to know you can speak to my girlfriend or my mom. Or my business partner. Or women who worked with me 10 years ago or work with me today.

    For 10 years in professional marketing roles, I’ve hired, promoted, mentored, and supported women in their professional career. Accordingly, I’ve been in every situation imaginable with women where booze and opportunity existed to do something sexually inappropriate or aggressive.

    “The rockstars are going to dig up dirt on your now!”. If that’s the case and there are allegations of sexual harassment of women, which make me look like a fraud, I will address them vs spinning this into an ego-crushing, slanderous, witchhunt cooked up by a syndicate of SEO male feminist trolls conspiring to destroy my career. Trust me, I’ve dealt with far worse in this life.

    But, is it really “trolling” to dare ask people this question … does SEO have a toxic masculinity problem as you’ve all been hearing for years? Or is it really toxic male feminism problem?

    Response to questions…

    Some response to recurring allegations and accusations communicated to me from YoastCon which match those in the comments. And from Twitter (where you can ask me direct questions publicly or privately – https://twitter.com/explorionary)

    “Hates and fears women in leadership!”: Dumb claim with zero proof. My business partner of 2+ years is a female founder and CEO of our company. You can ask her what it’s been like working with a monster like me. Or a woman and leader like Brittany – twitter.com/explorionary/status/1093912879831621632

    “Personal attacks!”: Wrong but relevant question. Nothing I’m quoted saying is about a single person. It’s about a known problem in a multi-billion dollar SEO industry – where you will meet the kindest and most fascinating people imaginable – people you just instantly love forever. But SEO industry has a needlessly dark reputation to people in other realms of the marketing world. Which prevents more growth, jobs (and stability), innovation, and more opportunity to earn – in both wealth and professional reputation.

    But, known how? By already seeing what you saw in the tweet archive and videos … between the time they were filmed until our current day and being turned off, for lack of a better word, by this already mysterious world of SEO. It’s a lie that I used and “leaked” the public tweets from Yoast verified Twitter account and the SEO event videos with the Playmates to launch some global troll war on the gods of SEO while they gathered at YoastCon.

    What I’m attacking is how dumb it is for harassment/reputation issues to still exist in 2019 and continue holding back a vital industry that in my view has knowledge and power of the internet – maybe the wildest invention of our age – in ways that are uncommon but needed now more than ever.

    “Evil motives?”: Valid question. Answers and accountability from leaders who make claims and say words about their male feminism but have the actions and outcomes been there? I’m just a messenger of this questions. That’s it.

    “Self-righteous!”: Sure. Because I can be and don’t care if people call me this thing. Better than being called male feminist or “rapey”. As you’ll hear other people described at SEO events.

    “Orchestrated attack”: Wrong. This began as a solo mission days before YoastCon. If you want to know more on this ask me in Twitter.

    “No proof – can’t be true!”: Ignorance. Ask me how.

    “Saw Yoast tweets in 2014? Why did you wait?”: I didn’t wait then, as in the context in which wait is being used. You just don’t know the whole story. You’re jumping to an uninformed and illogical conclusion but if you wish to know you can ask me this too.

    “Russian troll! Works for Kremlin!”: Perhaps? But prove it.

    I may respond to individual comments over the weekend but for now I will respond to any question in Twitter. Public or private (DM). Thank you.

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    1. Well thank goodness, thank you, I am sure the entire SEO world was waiting for you to explain things and make everyone understand your point of view. Here is a suggestion: I think we’ve all heard enough out of you for at least 2 days. Maybe, just maybe, it would be a good idea to just sit down, not talk for a while and just listen to the women involved.

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  13. Thank you for posting this. I was confused by what was being said, but this makes it clearer.

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  14. Even if it’s “consensual,” it’s highly unprofessional, and makes witnesses uncomfortable. It also creates an atmosphere that makes other women wonder if they have to be sex kittens to work there. Hence, a hostile work environment.

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  15. Seeing the indulgence exuding from most of the comments here, I wonder what their tone would be if the story was about other not-so-welcomed actors in the WP community, such as Themeforest or WPMUDEV. I bet the comments would be quite different.

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    1. There’s no doubt in my mind that if these weren’t prominent, well-known people in the WordPress and SEO community, everyone would be condemning it for being “creepy” and sexist. The SEOktoberFest videos were from 2011, eight years ago, not ten, and the Playmates were advertised as a “perk” up until 2013! That’s roughly five and half years ago.

      It would be one thing if this was about a CEO in a private company, but this is now about a person who has been given a leadership position in the WordPress project. What’s next? Playmates as a perk at WordCamps? The sexual banter tweets, although “consentual” are in extremely poor taste. I have female friends, and the thought is inconceivable that I would tweet how sexy they would look pregnant, or how I would love to steal them from their boyfriend. That is not just “friendly banter”.

      I know the bear for leadership has been lowered over the last two years considerably, but let’s hold the WordPress project to a higher standard. There shouldn’t be one set of standards for the “WordPress celebrities” and another set of standards for everyone else.

      #boysWillBeBoys /s

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      1. Who’da thunk Matt’s sudden and autocratic appointment of Joost to “Head of Marketing” would have been so controversial that everyone would run out and make-up all this heavy stuff about him?

        Well, certainly not Matt, I imagine.

        Could it be anything to do with the fact that WordPress.com lacks proper Governance and has already entered territory where Matts bandwidth and/or skill-set have become part of the problem?

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  16. People should know that the @yoast handle was a personal handle used only by Joost himself. As his business grew, the account became the account of the company Yoast B.V. (2010). As of 2012 Yoast isn’t just the one person it used to be, as Joost employed it’s first employee. So all of these tweets where send in a time when the handle was only used by Joost himself, not by a company.

    Non the less, he should have deleted all his personal tweets, before someone took them out of context like happend in the last few days.

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    1. Yes, it’s very out of context to send your professional colleagues tweets about how they should be naked, or how yummy they would look pregnant.

      Get a grip!

      Quite a transformation. From partying with nudie mag girls like it’s an End of Times baccahnacal, to family man and a leadership role in the WordPress project. All in seven and a half years. That sends the right message about exclusivity, I’m sure people become totally different in no time at all. Hallelujah!

      I guess the moral of the story is work like hell to become a WordPress or SEO celebrity, because once you get there, people who don’t even know you will line up around the block to defend your behavior. Now matter how reprehensible.

      Too bad he’s not running for office in America, he’d fit right in.

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  17. OMG…
    Imagine a world where no men or women have any sex on their mind. One does not need to be a rocket engineer to conclude mankind would die off in about 40 years. And you beggars are programmers.

    If there did not happen anything physical it is OK until anyone involved says it would be too much for her. Even if there happened anything physical is also OK until it was consensual.

    So go and find a real issue please!

    By the way there are women who hardly ever get noticed by men, i am absolutely sure that case hurts way more than being noticed.

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  18. So you the moral of the story is you can be a self promoting salesman selling rubbish and you become a “seo celebrity”. But eventually someone will get jealous and drag up some harmless rubbish from more than 10 years ago.

    WordPress is a tragic comedy.

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  19. People…it’s all about context.

    People get so sensitive now a days.

    The Flinstones theme song (or is it the end song), had a gay ol’ time. Gay ol’ time now a days is a wee bit different.

    Pussy, back then, it meant a cat. I remember growing up in eastern Europe (I am 40 now, came to Canada when I was 13 or so)…my friends called me a pussy for not wanting to jump into the sea (it was too cold). They also called me a chicken. Now a days that is insulting.

    If a woman calls me nice ass, or nice arms…you’ve been working out? If the reverse was done. I’d be crucified by the #METOO movement.

    Apu from the Simpsons is now offensive. The Simpsons was released almost 30 years ago (December 1989).

    I am half eastern european, half latino. The stereotype of eastern europeans are that we are angry drunks. I barely drink, not really angry. Latinos are dancers, wear sombreros, cross over border fences and we are womanizers. I am a horrible dance, I am south american, not mexican. I am too fat and lazy to cross over a fence, I flew in an airplane, which I had a plane ticker for that flight. It was a Boeing 727 by the way. I have no skills to be a womanizer.

    I fail miserably at all my stereotypes.

    However when I see them in the movies and TV, I don’t bitch about that movie/tv being racist, in fact, I laugh.

    Stop being so over-sensitive, and tracking down something said 10 years ago…

    PEOPLE CHANGE.

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  20. I am not a great fan of Yoast, he has been kinda arrogant here and there, but all this stuff is ridicolous…

    All i see are some tweet without context where he tries to hit on a girl.

    as a related note Yoast is Dutch, and Netherlands have a “culture” for minority caring that is among the greatest in the world (along with scandinavia). I don’t really think that someone from Usa should be able to point finger at that. really.

    All this political stuff is disgusting

    I stood for Joost

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