Internet Trolls in the White House

Content warning: Many links lead to watchdog blogs, which track potentially dangerous groups and often post screenshots of their conversations. Strong, often disturbing language and every form of bigotry will be present. All links are safe to click with this in mind, and I do recommend reading them.

The Beginning of the (Current) Alt-Right

This is a bit of a long, convoluted story that I’m going to try to streamline as much as possible. As everyone who knows anything about the internet is aware, there are dark corners of it where the worst parts of humanity gather. For a long time, this was only a problem for people who spent large amounts of time on the internet (hi there!). Although sites like Stormfront were producing a disturbing number of radicalized white supremacists, the crossover of violence from the internet into the real world was still relatively scarce. There are a few recent instances of this, however, that are of particular note in the first stirrings of the movement that propelled Donald Trump and blatant white supremacy into the highest offices of our government.

Roots in Misogyny

In early 2014, a young man living in Isla Vista, California left a lengthy, misogynistic manifesto after murdering 6 people and injuring 13 more. A deeper look into his motives revealed that he frequented an online forum for “incels”–“involuntarily celibate” men who bitterly complain about women’s right to choose their sexual partners and often fantasize about committing violence against women. He was also subscribed to numerous “Men’s Rights” and “Pick-up Artist” YouTube channels and blogs, steeping his perceived injustice in an atmosphere of deep hatred for women and especially feminism for liberating them. Elliot Rodger, in his own words and by evidence of his internet activity, committed the Isla Vista massacre after self-radicalizing against women online.

He also inspired a copycat of sorts. Prior to the 2015 shooting at Umpqua Community college in Oregon, a chilling post urging forum members not to attend school if they lived in “the northwest” appeared in a forum called /r9k on known internet cesspool 4chan. Although due to the anonymity of 4chan’s posters, it is impossible to definitively connect the post to the shooter, multiple sources speculated. More disturbingly, his actions and Elliot Rodger’s were celebrated later in the forum as the beginning of a violent “uprising” against women, other races, “PC culture”, and the left in general. This uprising, however, had already begun around mid-2014 in the form of a Twitter hashtag about video games.

Bear with me.

#Gamergate

Unless you follow video game news, watchdog sites, or both (hi again!), you are unlikely to have heard much about #Gamergate. It began when the ex-boyfriend of independent games developer Zoe Quinn created a blog detailing their failed relationship and posted it to Reddit and 4chan. What he claimed was a warning to others in the games industry about her lack of ethics was really just an effort to punish her for the breakup. Among other things, he accused her of sleeping with games journalists to secure positive reviews for a free online game she made to bring awareness to living with a depressive disorder (It’s called Depression Quest. It’s a text-based adventure, basically an interactive choose-your-own-adventure novel, and it’s an incredible look into living with a mental illness. Please check it out). This enraged a large portion of the male video game fanbase to the point that a group of them started chats on IRC, a sort of deep web sharing service, devoted to destroying Quinn’s life. She was “doxed”, which means people distributed her address and other personal details with the intention of inspiring real-world violence against her, and driven from her home in fear for her life.

With the subject of hostility towards women in the games industry finally being broached, a critic named Anita Sarkeesian came forward again about a years-long harassment campaign against her. She creates YouTube videos providing basic feminist critiques of popular video games, movies, and other geek media, and she was raising funds on Kickstarter in 2012 for a higher-quality series of videos focused specifically on the treatment of women in video games. She screengrabbed the abusive messages the campaign received daily and posted them to the front page as a way to prove the necessity of her work, and sympathizers flocked to the crowdfund and put her over her goal by more than $150,000. She was swiftly accused by her harassers of making up their harassment for money, and the threats against her escalated. She was even forced to cancel a talk at Utah State University due to a threat made in #Gamergate’s name of a shooting in the style of the 1989 École Polytechnique massacre, where an anti-feminist lined up and shot 28 women, killing 14, in a Montreal technological institute for the crime of being women in a technological institute.

As more malcontents and misguided allies were sucked into #Gamergate , it began to adapt to increasing accusations of terrorism. By this point, multiple women in the games industry had quit the jobs they loved and/or been driven from their homes by threats, doxing, and a new, dangerous form of harassment called swatting (video link). Swatting consists of calling in a threat of immediate danger supposedly originating at the target’s house (such as an active shooter situation or a kidnapping), causing law enforcement agencies to respond to the address with extreme force (generally a SWAT team with guns drawn, hence the name). Once journalists started connecting these acts to #Gamergate, the loose movement fired back that any individuals committing harassment or violence were not affiliated. They insisted that the movement was “actually about ethics in games journalism” and not about maintaining a white male status quo in the games industry by terrorizing everyone else out of it. As the movement had no real leaders, was largely anonymous, and was subscribed to by a genuine few who bought into the spin about ethics, little could be done to implicate it.

Several figures tried to associate themselves with leadership roles in #Gamergate for the sake of failing careers, and at least one got a boost from the momentary infamy: Milo Yiannopoulos, who together with Steve Bannon made Breitbart Donald Trump’s personal propaganda machine. #Gamergate also saw a lot of crossover with the “manosphere”–the parts of the internet inhabited by Men’s Rights Activists, Pick-up Artists (PUAs), Incels, and other misogynists–with sort-of lawyer and blogger Mike Cernovich and “professional troll” Matt Forney providing legal assistance, puff pieces, and the general disruption that makes trolling a scarily effective propaganda tool.

The base of the alt-right’s present incarnation was in place. Virulent sexists had teamed up with a large group of angry white men feeling threatened by the presence of demographics that weren’t their own in a space that they considered solely theirs. This is when the neo-Nazis saw their opportunity to recruit #Gamergate and those in its attachment of men’s rights activists who weren’t already leaning that way.

Ironic Nazis

David Futrelle, journalist and author of the We Hunted the Mammoth watchdog blog, began to notice pictures of the Happy Merchant doctored to look like Anita Sarkeesian making the rounds on Twitter under the #Gamergate hashtag. The Happy Merchant is an anti-Semitic cartoon used by the original Nazis, depicting a sinister-looking large-nosed man wearing a yarmulke and rubbing his hands together. The meme appeared to be a reference both to her perceived heritage (she’s actually Armenian) and the accusation that she had fleeced her supporters by fabricating several solid years’ worth of threats and harassment. #Gamergate denied knowledge of the meme’s origins at first, at least publicly, but soon dropped their defensiveness and embraced the new influx of anti-Semitic memes as another way to get under the skins of their politically correct opponents.

What happened here was an example of a classic neo-Nazi recruitment method working as intended on its perfect targets: angry, dubiously employed, mostly young, socially isolated white men. Milo Yiannopoulos claimed that the memes, which got progressively more offensive and evolved to include a range of races and identities, were used ironically–the same argument Richard Spencer used for the “Roman salutes” his crowd threw to cries of “Hail Trump! Hail our people! Hail victory!” at an alt-right conference in November. By turning their rhetoric into just another in-joke, the neo-Nazis were easing their potential new recruits into white nationalism. This is when they fully appropriated Pepe, the infamous cartoon frog that started as a strange but mostly innocuous webcomic, rattled around 4chan picking up different iterations of memes, and ended up as an alt-right dog-whistle.

The Old ‘Old Right’

The alt-right has actually been around in some form since 2008. National Policy Institute president Richard Spencer was the first to dub his white nationalist following “alt-right” in an attempt to sanitize their image. Militants such as Andrew Anglin of Daily Stormer, Matthew Heimbach of the Traditionalist Youth Network, and hacker Andrew ‘weev’ Auernheimer also embraced the term. The academics and the militants are known to squabble over presentation, with the latter embracing the old Nazi imagery and terminology and the former rejecting these as relics that will only turn people away from their cause.

Their cause, by the way, is to create white ethno-states (an extreme form of segregation) and shape United States policy to serve only wealthy white men. They want to close the borders off to non-whites and deport (peacefully, according to the academics, and by any means necessary according to the militants) all other races. They want to end feminism and revoke women’s suffrage, returning them to the role of subservient housewives and using them to breed the next generation of white children. They believe that the integration of races is an attempt to genocide white people by breeding them out. I’m going to repeat that, because it takes a moment for the ridiculousness to sink in: they believe that the other races are committing actual genocide against white people by having children with white people. This is a good example of why they weren’t taken seriously soon enough.

Bitter Frienemies

The alt-right is really a collection of loosely affiliated groups. Some of them come from long lines of white supremacists, white nationalists, and whatever else rancid garbage likes to call itself. Some, like Bannon, were raised by working class Democrats and presumably made some sort of crossroads deal that robbed them of their souls. Many of them are the aforementioned #Gamergate trolls, who have now set their sights on France’s election in the beginning of a campaign to promote far-right takeovers of European countries. All of them agree on the racism, sexism, anti-LGBTQIA+ (including Milo, who is gay), and xenophobia, but they all disagree on how to go about it. Their firm adherence to their ideals is a weakness as well as a strength in that it prevents them from setting aside any difference, however small, to come together as a cohesive unit–an accusation often made of the left.

The strength in this arrangement was demonstrated by #Gamergate. As a movement that isn’t really a movement, they have plausible deniability for the actions of any one person or group. It’s how Richard Spencer can have the exact same views as Andrew Anglin and call himself a pacifist with a straight face–it’s those neo-Nazis who commit violence, he says, not the alt-right! The militants can continue advancing the cause through fear, their numbers bolstered by the more anti-social recruits, and the academics can continue scrubbing their ideology squeaky-clean while indirectly supporting and benefiting from the militants’ terrorism.

Enforcers on the Left

Forming the logical counterpoint to the rise of Nazi ideology is the renaissance of a direct-action group of radical leftists and anarchists called anti-fascists, or Antifa. Their war against fascism and white supremacy spans nearly a century and burst into the public eye during the inaugural protests when a masked individual punched Richard Spencer while he was giving an interview to an international news network. With the recent swell in hate crimes, new anti-fascist groups have been springing up in cities all over the U.S., and old chapters are seeing a revival as people begin to feel cornered by the increasingly authoritarian Trump regime.

A controversial addition to the fight, they are currently being used by the alt-right to paint everyone protesting Trump’s horrific executive orders as violent dissidents radicalized by the press. You might recognize this as a tactic common to authoritarian regimes and one that was already in use during the campaign. Antifa typically eschews political parties for a few uniting principles: stopping far-right violence before it escalates, denying fascist ideologies a platform from which they might recruit, and intersectionality.

One thing we should absolutely be looking to Antifa for is information. The Anarchist blog It’s Going Down provides breakdowns of the alt-right’s tactics and ways that the movement as a whole differs from the original white nationalist groups (they advocate for keeping the term ‘alt-right’ over ‘neo-Nazi’, as their strategic differences are worth noting). While we should be emphasizing that Antifa is its own separate movement, we must also remember that they are not our enemies. That role belongs solely to the alt-right, and we must not allow them to distract us from this fact. States that see a lot of Black Lives Matter protests in response to police brutality are already pushing to legalize vehicular homicide against protesters. Direct-action may be our only fallback in the end.

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