In August 2017, a white supremacist rally marketed as “Unite the Right” was held in Charlottesville, Virginia. In participation were members of the alt-right, including neo-nazis, white nationalists, neo-confederates, and other hate groups (Atkinson). The rally swiftly erupted in violence between white supremacists and counter protestors, culminating in the death of a counter-protester named Heather Heyer, who was struck by a car driven by white supremacist James Alex Fields, and leaving dozens injured. Terry McQuliffe, the Governor of Virginia, declared a state of emergency on August 12, and the world watched while white supremacists boldly marched in clothing emblazoned with symbols ranging from swastikas to a cartoon frog (Pepe), with flags featuring the nation of “Kekistan”, and carrying tiki torches chanting, “You Will Not Replace Us... Jews Will Not Replace Us”.
The purpose of this essay is not, however, to examine the Internet symbols that circulated during the Unite the Right rally but rather to hone in on a specific moment that illustrates a key part of Internet culture that was often overlooked during analysis of the events that occurred during the riots: a documentary filmmaker, C. J. Hunt, was at the rally to record footage for a project on the removal of Confederate monuments. While there, he saw a rally-goer dressed in the white polo t-shirt and khaki pants uniform of the white nationalist group Vanguard America. The rally-goer, a young white man, was being chased by a counter-protester. He began to scream and beg for mercy, and even went as far as stripping off his clothing and denying that he really believed in any of the group’s ideology. In the recording by Hunt, who asks why he was there and why he was undressing, the young white man responded that shouting white power is “fun”, and that he was participating in the event because he, quote, “likes to be offensive” (Hunt).
As Hunt notes in a piece for GQ reflecting on his experience at the rally, as soon as the man was cut off from his group and confronted, the runaway racist’s demeanor immediately changed when he had to face the consequences of his actions. Trolls often rely on the safety and anonymity of online forums and digital spaces where they are often free from having to face the consequences of their actions, and for the runaway racist, things became real very quickly when he was forced to own up to his hateful actions. In a way, many members of these movements seem to want politics without consequence for themselves, but with significant repercussions for others. Milo Yiannopoulos, a self-professed “master troll”, built an entire empire worth millions of dollars off of what the far-right defends as ironic hate speech and a form of politics without consequences reserved only for the privileged white men that gleefully engage in it. The runaway racist and Yiannopoulos are borne out of an Internet culture that is built on being offensive, on trolling, and “troll” itself being an aspirational label and identity, but also more importantly, a political aesthetic.
In this essay, I argue that trolling itself has become a kind of political aesthetic and identity, and provide evidence via examples like hoaxes, harassment campaigns, and the use of memes to signal to certain online populations and extremist groups in violent attacks. First coined by Walter Benjamin in order to explain a fundamental component of using art to foster consent and compliance in fascist regimes, the term since then has evolved to encompass far more than just works of art. Benjamin’s original conception of the term is in regard to a creation of a spectacle that prevents the masses from recognizing their rights – in short, the aestheticization of politics is not just about the strategies of the fascist regimes themselves but says more about the subjects within them. In the time of Benjamin’s writing, the specific medium was mass propaganda through the newly emerging film industry and other forms of art (W. Benjamin). To Benjamin, these aesthetics served as tools of distracting to make fascism more palatable to the masses. Aesthetic tools of distraction serve an affective purpose, revealing the unhappy consciousness of neoreactionaries (Hui), and provide an outlet for their resentment.
Since political aesthetics are concerned with how cultural products like art, film, and even clothing reflect political ideologies and beliefs (Sartwell; McManus; Miller-Idriss), the objects of analysis in this essay are part of the larger visual culture of the alt-right (Bogerts and Fielitz; Stanovsky). Indeed, aesthetic aspects of political systems shift their meaning over time, or are changed and redeployed with transformed effect (Sartwell). In this essay, I am applying the concept of the aestheticization of politics by analyzing how alt-right visual cultures deploy distraction and dissimulation to advance their political agenda through things like trolling campaigns and hoaxes. By analyzing these events, their use of memes, trolling techniques, and their influence on mainstream culture, what is revealed is the influence of trolling on political culture for the alt-right and how the alt-right then distracts the rest of the public (McManus).
Who’s Afraid of the Big Bad Troll?
Large scale analyses of disinformation and extremist content online tends to examine how certain actors are connected, what topics emerge and how these are connected across platforms, and the ways that disinformation campaigns operate in digital environments (Marwick and Lewis; Starbird; Benkler et al.). Masculine and white-coded technology gave rise to male-dominated digital spaces (R. Benjamin), with trolling often being an issue faced by non-normative users of the Internet and their communities (Benjamin; Lumsden and Morgan; Nakamura; Phillips, Oxygen). Creating a kind of unreality where it is difficult to parse out truth from lies, fiction from non-fiction, the troll creates cultural products, and by hiding behind irony and humor confuses onlookers and is removed from any kind of reasonable blame for their actions. Irony has long been a rhetorical strategy used in politics, and the alt right has been no exception (Weatherby), but for our current sociopolitical landscape, trolling is a political strategy that infuses irony into politics and identity.
In the digital era, political memes and internet culture are pervasive components of the spread of hate speech and extremist ideology on digital platforms. Trolling is not an issue that exists in a vacuum – rather, trolls are a product of greater mainstream culture that encourages and allows their behaviors (Phillips, This Is Why; Fichman and Sanfilippo; Marwick and Lewis). Trolls, and meme culture in general, have often been pointed to as being part of the reason for the rise of Trump and fascist politics across the world in recent years (Greene; Lamerichs et al.; Hodge and Hallgrimsdottir; Glitsos and Hall). Although criticism has been expressed about how impactful memes were in the election of Donald Trump, political memes have had an impact on the ways that trolling went from anonymous jerks on forums to figures like Yiannapoulos who built entire careers off of trolling, creating empires of hate (Lang). These memes that are often absurd and incomprehensible to those who are not a part of the community that they come from aim to cheapen, trivialize, and mock social justice movements like Black Lives Matter, feminism, LGBTQ+ rights, and others.
But the history of trolling online goes as far back as the Internet itself. “Trolling” is just a catch all term to describe online behaviors meant to antagonize, to disrupt online conversations, and to silence other users (Cole; Fichman and Sanfilippo). As more and more people started moving online and engaging in participatory culture, trolling continued to evolve from seemingly harmless jokes like the “Rick Roll” to targeted campaigns meant to harass women off of social media platforms (Lumsden and Morgan; Graham). Trolling behaviors are more than just an ugly part of the online experience, but are also a way for users to maintain the borders of their online community - it’s meant to drive away those who are perceived to be outsiders not just from the specific forum, but the Internet itself (Graham). With the rise of modern social media platforms, trolling itself is also a part of the political landscape, creating a “toxic counterpublic” that combines irony with a kind of earnestness to spread and inject their beliefs into mainstream political discourse (Greene). As a mode of information warfare, these subversive rhetorical strategies meant to contradict or reverse existing political and value systems have been used throughout history as a political tactic (Blackstock).
The goal of trolling is not just to disrupt conversations, but to lead to chaos via confusion about the sincerity and meaning of messages and visuals, and rather than functioning as a politics of outrage (on the part of the adherents), it is a politics of being as outrageous as possible. As a part of larger meme culture, the aesthetics of trolls and their outrageous content manage to operate under the radar by being able to excuse their behaviors and rhetoric as just “trolling” or “joking”. This ambiguity points to trolling on the far right as a political strategy and identity to absolve them of blame or accusations of what their real intentions are. Calling them “trolls” hides the level of sophistication and vast levels of influence that they had on public opinion and discourse in the United States (Geltzer; Starks et al.; Marwick and Lewis). We no longer live in a world apart from the troll’s influence and immune from their toxic discourse – rather, we have long been under the bridge with them.
One of the most well-known examples of trolling as a political aesthetic and tactic may be the OK hand sign used by the Christchurch shooter. The idea that the OK hand sign was a secretly white supremacist symbol started as a hoax on 4chan. The initial 2017 hoax purported that the hand sign was meant to stand for “White Power”, with the three fingers representing the W and the circle made with the index finger and thumb as the P (Anti-Defamation League, “Okay Hand Gesture”). The purpose of perpetuating the hoax was to demonstrate that (a) they were being watched and (b) that the mainstream media is stupid and gullible enough to believe this hoax. Meant to incite confusion and to act as a subversive strategy, the OK hand sign was then actually adopted by the alt-right as a sort of meme to not just perpetuate the hoax, but to signal belonging to the larger group (Allyn). Even though the Anti-Defamation League initially listed it as not being a hate symbol and pointed out the origins of the hoax (Anti-Defamation League, “No, the ‘OK’ Gesture Is Not a Hate Symbol”), they then switched their opinion when the OK hand sign was being flashed by white supremacists, showing up in photographs at political events, and other social media content. In fact, the OK hand sign is also a common element in pictures of Pepe the Frog, who is a sort of “alt right mascot” (Tait; Glitsos and Hall), but like the OK hand sign, Pepe the Frog did not start as an alt-right mascot and was co-opted by the alt-right as a mode of representation.
The confusion around the actual meaning behind the hand symbol points to how the alt-right uses these modes of representation in ways that are simultaneously an inside joke and a real expression of their beliefs. For instance, the Christchurch shooter referenced a number of memes and other rhetoric typical of 4chan and 8chan communities in his video and manifesto (Quek). In the shooter’s manifesto and video, the vast amounts of content that point to the trolling and visual culture of the alt-right are striking – demonstrating how alt-right memes not only make this violent ideology accessible, but are cultural products meant to be disseminated and ultimately, result in some kind of action (DeCook).
The creation and co-optation of symbols by the alt-right like the OK hand sign are not just memes, but a form of language created by extremists for extremists (Greene; Hodge and Hallgrimsdottir). The shooter’s choice of including this type of content in his manifesto as well as certain phrases in his live-streamed video indicate his level of knowledge of what needed to be done for his attack to get as much attention as possible – the 4chan troll is the modern-day bogeyman, and parts of the manifesto have been identified as intentional traps for the mainstream media (Lorenz).
Thus, the Christchurch shooter and trolling culture are linked, but referring to the symbols in the manifesto as being a part of “trolling” culture misses the deeper purpose – chaos, through the outrage spectacle, is the intended goal, particularly by creating arguments about the nature and utility of online trolling behavior. The shooter encouraged other 8chan users to disseminate his posted manifesto as well as to share the video of the attack – and users responded by immortalizing the event in meme format. The memes created celebrated the shooter as a hero, and although Facebook did remove the initial livestream video, it was reuploaded to the platform 1.2 million times in the first 24 hours, attempting to saturate the online platform with so many uploads that it would cause confusion and be difficult to remove (Gramenz). Some users even created gifs or set the video to music from the Doom video game soundtrack – a video game where the player is a demon slayer in an apocalyptic world, further adding another layer of symbolism to the attack.
These political aesthetics – spread through memes, gifs, and “fan videos” – are the perfect vehicles for disseminating extremist ideology because of what they allow the alt-right to do with them: hide behind them, covering up their intentions, all the while adopting them as signifiers for their movement. With the number of memes, symbols, and phrases posted in his manifesto and spoken aloud in his mainstream, perhaps the Christchurch shooter wanted the onus of the blame to fall on these message board communities and the video games and celebrities referenced – in effect, it was “designed to troll” (Lorenz). But, there is a kernel of truth in every meme, post, image, and comment – their memes are a part of their political aesthetic, thus implicit and explicit allusions to the inner workings of their ideology are present. Hiding behind hoaxes, irony, edginess, and trolling, members of the alt-right and other extremist Internet cultures then engage in a kind of subversion that allows them to avoid taking any responsibility for real and violent attacks that occur as a result of their discourse. Antagonizing the left, being offensive, and participating in this outrage spectacle to garner a response from news outlets, activists, and outsiders are all a part of the same package.
Trolls and the Outrage Spectacle
The confusion and the chaos left behind by these kinds of trolling campaigns and hoaxes leave many to ask: How disingenuous is it? Is it meant for mere shock value or is it really reflective of the person’s beliefs? In terms of the theme of dissimulation for this special issue, what is the real intent, and under what pretenses should these kinds of trolling behaviors be understood? Returning to the protestor who claimed “I just like to be offensive”, the skepticism from onlookers still exists: why go so far as to join an alt-right rally, wearing the uniform of Identity Evropa (now the American Identity Movement), as a “joke”?
Extremists hide behind humor and irony to cloud judgments from others, begging the question of can we have practice without belief? But, ultimately, practice and belief are intertwined – the regret of the Runaway Racist is not because he suddenly realized he did not “believe”, but rather was forced to face the consequences of his belief, something that he as a white man perhaps never really had to confront. The cultural reach of dissimulation, in particular hiding true intent behind the claim of “irony”, is vast - YouTuber Pewdiepie claimed his use of racial and anti-Semitic slurs and putting on an entire Ku Klux Klan uniform in the middle of a video were “accidental” only after considerable backlash (Picheta). It has to be noted, however, that Pewdiepie is referenced in the manifesto of the Christchurch shooter – specifically, the shooter yelled during his livestream “subscribe to Pewdiepie”, (Lorenz). Pewdiepie and many other trolls, once called out for their behavior, and regardless of their actual intent, double down on their claims of irony to distract from the reality of their behaviors and actions.
The normalization of this kind of content in mainstream platforms like Twitter, YouTube, Facebook, and even Instagram show how 4chan and alt-right Internet culture has seeped out of its borders and exists everywhere online. This “coded irony” is not only enabled rhetorically due to irony’s slippery definition, but also digitally via these online media (Weatherby). The aesthetics of the troll are present in every single platform and are disseminated everywhere – memes are small cultural units meant to be passed on (Shifman), and although one can argue it was not memes alone that resulted in the rise of the alt-right and the election of Donald Trump, memes are a part of the larger puzzle of the political radicalization process. The role of the Internet in radicalization is so powerful and insidious because of the presentation of content – it is funny, edgy, ironic, offensive, and outrageous. But these behaviors and attitudes are not just appealing to some kind of adolescent-like desire to push boundaries of what is and is not socially acceptable and/or politically incorrect (Marwick and Lewis), and calling it such clouds people’s perceptions of their level of sophistication in shaping political discourse.
Memes and the alt-right are a noted phenomenon, and these visual cultures created by trolls on message boards have aided in the rise of the current political situation worldwide (Hodge and Hallgrimsdottir). We are well in the midst of a type of warfare based on not weapons and bodies, but information and data - in which memes and other elements of the far right’s political aesthetic play an important role (Molander et al.; Prier; Bogerts and Fielitz). The rise of the online troll as a political player and the alt-right are merely the logical outcomes of these systems.
The alt-right’s spread was possible because of the trolling cultures and aesthetics of dissimulation created in message boards that predate 4chan (Kitada). The memes and inflammatory statements made by them serve multiple purposes, ranging from an intention to incite outrage among non-members of the group to signal group belonging and identity. In some odd way, if people do not understand the content, the content actually speaks louder and, in more volumes, that it would if its intent was more straightforward – in their confusion, people give these trolling techniques more attention and amplification in their attempt to make sense of them. Through creating confusion, distraction, and uncertainty around the legitimacy of messages, hand signs, and even memes, the alt-right has elevated the aestheticization of politics to a degree that Walter Benjamin could perhaps not have predicted in his initial lament about the distracted masses of fascist regimes (McManus). The political dimensions of trolling and the cognitive uncertainty that it creates is a part of its goal. Dismissing trolls is no longer an option, but also regarding them as sinister political operatives may be overblowing their significance. In the end, “ironic hate speech” is still hate speech, and by couching their extremist ideology in meme format they make their extremist beliefs more palatable -- and nobody is completely immune to their strategies.
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