Trigger warning: The content below deals with neo-Nazi and Alt-Right groups, while including some links to websites populated by these groups. Neither VROP or the author of this article support hate speech, nor do they explicitly support any of the groups/ideologies discussed in this editorial.
4Chan, Pepe, Meme Wars, and the Alt-right. For internet denizens who paid attention to the 2016 elections, these phrases conjure searing memories of keyboard vitriol. As for those who followed conventional politics before the rise of channels like /pol/ and r/The_Donald, they probably make little sense. With neo-Nazi moderators, frog-obsessed photo galleries, and copious references to “God Emperors” of chaos, these forums rarely deserve much serious attention. However, their effect on contemporary politics has risen to concerning levels.
Ridiculous appearances and hateful roots aside, the political victories achieved by these online communities have piled too high to ignore. Right-wing memesters have turned internet trends into veritable propaganda, infiltrating settings from college group chats to the U.S. Supreme Court. The violent consequences, though often ignored, are manifesting nationwide. And unless we start paying closer attention to their influence, the results will be catastrophic to the very foundations of this country.
With awesome powers of video editing and a name-calling repertoire that makes “Little Marco” and “Pocahontas” seem like pleasantries, they are bound more by popular humor than ideology. They spawn on 4chan and Gab (among a slew of other niche websites) and develop memes that Goebbels himself would admire as veritable propaganda. They are self-described trolls, memesters, and plain old “anti-semites.” Despite their peculiar names however, the internet trolls in the far-rights online army exhort a simple unifying ethos: “Destroying civilization, one meme at a time.”
Egged on by their progressive counterparts on tumblr.com and college campuses, these keyboard warriors have morphed into a group of “deplorables” that will happily latch onto the most extreme conservative viewpoints to keep the “troll” alive. As the world has seen in recent years, however, such irony has its limits, and the political reach of their work extends by orders of magnitude. Most importantly, the social media savvy of these fringe actors allows them to push their most hateful messages deep into the mainstream.
It is commonly believed that the lion’s share of internet memes originate from 4chan, home to the infamously far-right /pol/ message board. Even the lone scientific report on the subject supports such a claim of 4chan’s meme-building superiority. This would be relatively insignificant if these users were run-of-the-mill meme-forging weirdos. Instead, they are universally known for their neo-Nazi and other far-right views. Even the most racist and aggressive alt-right websites, such as the Daily Stormer, claim that 4chan’s /pol/ message board is a “ground zero” for their movement. Further delving into the research on the background of these groups, ranging from innocuous Gamergate to the most violent voices on Gab.com, betrays a deep alignment of the internet’s top meme-makers and other far-right influences. With so much of the internet’s most popular content coming from these sources, however, the reach of their message is likely to grow unchecked.
The memes from 4chan.com are not remotely limited to one hateful corner of the web, and instead spread far across the blogosphere. Following 4chan in meme creation (and far leading in reposts) is Reddit.com, another page whose political content is mostly right-leaning. Exploding from Reddit into millions of GroupMe and Twitter feeds, the subliminal and even explicit messaging of alt-right memes reach the screens and minds of impressionable youth. This widespread appeal leaves a broad opening for savvy online propagandists. Already entrenched in the internet, the socially-awkward neo-Nazis of today know how to capture their audience, and slowly push their message to the forefront of society.
Their first significant political accomplishment was the popularization of the term “cuckservative” in 2015. Blending extremely crude sexual references with the popular “RINO” label, the phrase gained traction via tweets and on Breitbart. As campaign staffers and pollsters picked up on its appeal to an emasculated base, the term spread like wildfire. Corey Stewart, the GOP’s current Senate candidate here in Virginia, is perhaps its most famous user. He sparked national controversy by employing the phrase during his unsuccessful gubernatorial run against Ed Gillespie in 2017, and the term continues in usage to this day.
The reach of the far-right’s online jokes goes well beyond provocateurs like Stewart, too. America saw this on full effect during the Kavanaugh hearings, which pitted #MeToo against the most aggressive “masculinists” on the web. Fox News and other conservative media successfully echoed talking points from the fringe message boards. In turn, camera-hungry GOP lawmakers responded with similar rhetoric. Compare these explosive movements to the lukewarm effectiveness of mainstream television, the same media whose declining viewership and boilerplate coverage style combined to propel Fox to top of cable news ratings. The same right-wing movements behind these internet phenomena have already created veritable television spectacles. But as the battlefield moves online, they are only growing more effective.
Right-wing conspiracies and their most potent meme-based carriers have flourished under the tenure of Donald Trump. As the first politician to mobilize an independent social media account to such resounding political effect, Trump exemplifies the breathless online technique perfected by the far-right’s 4chan trolls. It further helps that Trump is inclined towards the sort of vitriolic and headline-grabbing content so characteristic of their memes, and the possibilities of such an alliance between his platform and their fringe message are dreadfully potent. Accordingly, the trolls have parlayed their most viral online material through the most powerful social media account in history. All to the tune of hundreds of millions of hits.
Fighting the trolls on their own turf has proven incredibly difficult, particularly in light of a strategy which attempts to emulate their crude popular attacks rather than reject the empty vitriol clearly underlying such a method. This is primarily because Trump and the alt-right’s enemies, despite realizing the potential of this new media, fail to communicate as effectively with the language of the internet. This becomes especially manifest when liberal elites try emulating the “wholesome” memes of Facebook and its ilk. Videos of Hillary Clinton dabbing or encouraging voters to “Pokemon go to the polls” can confirm this much. Reciprocally, opponents trying to emulate the rough-and-tumble style of Trump and his internet base appear crude or plainly inept. See Eric Holder (the former Attorney General of the United States) call on Democrats to “kick” down Republicans. Or Jeb Bush famously threatening to moon audiences if he didn’t get his way.
For every successful internet player like Beto O’Rourke (whose daily livestreams drew thousands of views) or the latest viral anti-Trump post, dozens of conservative memes circulate the web. Arguably as a consequence of these shifts, millenials are moving further right than one might expect and are increasingly supporting the Republican Party. Normally, these would be welcome trends for conservatives (like this author) worried about the future of America’s right. However, in a party increasingly co-opted by more radically right-wing influences, they might signal a more sinister influence. Encouraging as the growing youth presence in conservatism may yet be, the deepest roots of these shifts are as disquieting as they are untouched.
Consider how easily a Georgia lawmaker today can be compelled to scream the n-word on camera. Consider how quickly Dylann Roof or the “incel” Toronto truck driver or last week’s synagogue shooter were radicalized online to kill dozens of innocent people. Consider how fast the discussion of America’s declining white population has morphed into radical immigration policy. And consider how much worse it could all get if we continually ignore its nascence among the alt-right’s internet trolls.
The ideological seeds for this growing violence first sprouted on the deepest corners of the web. Dismissed as the rantings of Russian bots and a few “deplorables,” however, they have evolved unchecked into a flourishing force in modern political events. Contrary to the words of some on the left, it is still imperative to distinguish between real alt-right Nazis, their ironic trolling allies, and their distant cousins across the conservative spectrum. However, it is even more important to acknowledge that these are an exclusively right-wing phenomenon and that these trolls engender lethal violence nationwide.
This hate was re-awakened on the right’s most violent discussion boards, memed into existence on Reddit and 4chan, and spread online across our collective political consciousness. The alt-right cheers these developments, and sees their chaotic visions realized on rapidly growing scales. While the rest of us stand dumbfounded, talking merely about a return to institutions of yore, these expert radicalizers keep winning.
It’s been said the greatest trick the Devil ever pulled was convincing the world he didn’t exist. The same should be said about the latent invisibility of the Internet’s alt-right.