The Alt Right Are Not Alright
Academic explorations complicating both the Internet and whiteness have often focussed on the rise of the “alt-right” to examine the co-option of digital technologies to extend white supremacy (Daniels, “Cyber Racism”; Daniels, “Algorithmic Rise”; Nagle). The term “alt-right” refers to media organisations, personalities, and sarcastic Internet users who promote the “alternative right”, understood as extremely conservative, political views online. The alt-right, in all of their online variations and inter-grouping, are infamous for supporting white supremacy online, “characterized by heavy use of social media and online memes. Alt-righters eschew ‘establishment’ conservatism, skew young, and embrace white ethnonationalism as a fundamental value” (Southern Poverty Law Center). Theoretical studies of the alt-right have largely focussed on its growing presence across social media and websites such as Twitter, Reddit, and notoriously “chan” sites 4chan and 8chan, through the political discussions referred to as “threads” on the site (Nagle; Daniels, “Algorithmic Rise”; Hawley). As well, the ability of online users to surpass national boundaries and spread global white supremacy through the Internet has also been studied (Back et al.). The alt-right have found a home on the Internet, using its features to cunningly recruit members and to establish a growing community that mainstream politically extreme views (Daniels, “Cyber Racism”; Daniels, “Algorithmic Rise; Munn).
This body of knowledge shows that academics have been able to produce critically relevant literature regarding the alt-right despite the online anonymity of the majority of its members. For example, Conway et al., in their analysis of the history and social media patterns of the alt-right, follow the unique nature of the Christchurch Massacre, encompassing the use and development of message boards, fringe websites, and social media sites to champion white supremacy online. Positioning my research in this literature, I am interested in contributing further knowledge regarding the alt-right, white supremacy, and the Internet by exploring the sinister conducting of Zoom-bombing anti-racist events. Here, I will investigate how white supremacy through the Internet can lead to violence, abuse, and fear that “transcends the virtual world to damage real, live humans beings” via Zoom-bombing, an act that is situated in a larger co-option of the Internet by the alt-right and white supremacists, but has been under theorised as a hate crime (Daniels; “Cyber Racism” 7).
I want to preface this chapter by acknowledging that while I understand the Internet, through my own external investigations of race, power and the Internet, as a series of entities that produce racial violence both online and offline, I am aware of the use of the Internet to frame, discuss, and share anti-racist activism. Here we can turn to the work of philosopher Michel de Certeau who conceived the idea of a “tactic” as a way to construct a space of agency in opposition to institutional power. This becomes a way that marginalised groups, such as racialised peoples, can utilise the Internet as a tactical material to assert themselves and their non-compliance with the state. Particularly, shitposting, a tactic often associated with the alt-right, has also been co-opted by those who fight for social justice and rally against oppression both online and offline. As Roderick Graham explores, the Internet, and for this exploration, shitposting, can be used to proliferate deviant and racist material but also as a “deviant” byway of oppositional and anti-racist material.
Despite this, a lot can be said about the invisible yet present claims and support of whiteness through Internet and digital technologies, as well as the activity of users channelled through these screens, such as the alt-right and their digital tactics. As Vikki Fraser remarks, “the internet assumes whiteness as the norm – whiteness is made visible through what is left unsaid, through the assumption that white need not be said” (120). It is through the lens of white privilege and claims to white supremacy that online irony, by way of shitposting, is co-opted and understood as an inherently alt-right tool, through the deviance it entails. Their sinister co-option of shitposting bolsters audacious claims as to who has the right to exist, in their support of white identity, but also hides behind a veil of mischief that can hide their more insidious intention and political ideologies.
The alt-right have used “shitposting”, an online style of posting and interacting with other users, to create a form of online communication for a translocal identity of white nationalist members. Sean McEwan defines shitposting as “a form of Internet interaction predicated upon thwarting established norms of discourse in favour of seemingly anarchic, poor quality contributions” (19). Far from being random, however, I argue that shitposting functions as a discourse that is employed by online communities to discuss, proliferate, and introduce white supremacist ideals among their communities as well as into the mainstream. In the course of this article, I will introduce racist Zoom-bombing as a tactic situated in shitposting which can be used as a means of white supremacist discourse and an attempt to block anti-racist efforts. By this line, the function of discourse as one “to preserve or to reproduce discourse (within) a closed community” is calculatingly met through shitposting, Zoom-bombing, and more overt forms of white supremacy online (Foucault 225-226).
Using memes, dehumanisation, and sarcasm, online white supremacists have created a means of both organising and mainstreaming white supremacy through humour that allows insidious themes to be mocked and then spread online. Foucault writes that “in every society the production of discourse is at once controlled, selected, organised and redistributed according to a certain number of procedures, whose role is to avert its powers and danger, to cope with chance events, to evade ponderous, awesome materiality” (216). As Philippe-Joseph Salazar recontextualises to online white supremacists, “the first procedure of control is to define what is prohibited, in essence, to set aside that which cannot be spoken about, and thus to produce strategies to counter it” (137). By this line, the alt-right reorganises these procedures and allocates a checked speech that will allow their ideas to proliferate in like-minded and growing communities.
As a result, online white supremacists becoming a “community of discourse” advantages them in two ways: first, ironic language permits the mainstreaming of hate that allows sinister content to enter the public as the severity of their intentions is doubted due to the sarcastic language employed. Second, shitposting is employed as an entry gate to more serious and dangerous participation with white supremacist action, engagement, and ideologies. It is important to note that white privilege is embodied in these discursive practices as despite this exploitation of emerging technologies to further white supremacy, there are approaches that theorise the alt-right as “crazed product(s) of an isolated, extremist milieu with no links to the mainstream” (Moses 201). In this way, it is useful to consider shitposting as an informal approach that mirrors legitimised white sovereignties and authorised white supremacy. The result is that white supremacist online users succeed in “not only in assembling a community of actors and a collective of authors, on the dual territory of digital communication and grass-roots activism”, but also shape an effective fellowship of discourse that audiences react well to online, encouraging its reception and mainstreaming (Salazar 142).
Continuing, as McBain writes, “someone who would not dream of donning a white cap and attending a Ku Klux Klan meeting might find themselves laughing along to a video by the alt-right satirist RamZPaul”. This idea is echoed in a leaked stylistic guide by white supremacist website and message board the Daily Stormer that highlights irony as a cultivated mechanism used to draw new audiences to the far right, step by step (Wilson). As showcased in the screen capture below of the stylistic guide, “the reader is at first drawn in by curiosity or the naughty humor and is slowly awakened to reality by repeatedly reading the same points” (Feinburg). The result of this style of writing is used “to immerse recruits in an online movement culture built on memes, racial panic and the worst of Internet culture” (Wilson).
Figure 1: A screenshot of the Daily Stormer’s playbook, expanding on the stylistic decisions of alt-right writers.
In the timely text “Racist Zoombombing”, Lisa Nakamura et al. write the following:
Zoombombing is more than just trolling; though it belongs to a broad category of online behavior meant to produce a negative reaction, it has an intimate connection with online conspiracy theorists and white supremacy … . Zoombombing should not be lumped into the larger category of trolling, both because the word “trolling” has become so broad it is nearly meaningless at times, and because zoombombing is designed to cause intimate harm and terrorize its target in distinct ways. (30)
Notwithstanding the seriousness of Zoom-bombing, and to not minimise its insidiousness by understanding it as a form of shitposting, my article seeks to reiterate the seriousness of shitposting, which, in the age of COVID-19, Zoom-bombing has become an example of. I seek to purport the insidiousness of the tactical strategies of the alt-right online in a larger context of white violence online. Therefore, I am proposing a more critical look at the tactical use of the Internet by the alt-right, in theorising shitposting and Zoom-bombing as means of hate crimes wherein they impose upon anti-racist activism and organising.
Newlands et al., receiving only limited exposure pre-pandemic, write that “Zoom has become a household name and an essential component for parties (Matyszczyk, 2020), weddings (Pajer, 2020), school and work” (1). However, through this came the strategic use of co-opting the application by the alt-right to digitise terror and ensure a “growing framework of memetic warfare” (Nakamura et al. 31). Kruglanski et al. label this co-opting of online tools to champion white supremacy operations via Zoom-bombing an example of shitposting:
Not yet protesting the lockdown orders in front of statehouses, far-right extremists infiltrated Zoom calls and shared their screens, projecting violent and graphic imagery such as swastikas and pornography into the homes of unsuspecting attendees and making it impossible for schools to rely on Zoom for home-based lessons. Such actions, known as “Zoombombing,” were eventually curtailed by Zoom features requiring hosts to admit people into Zoom meetings as a default setting with an option to opt-out. (128)
By this, we can draw on existing literature that has theorised white supremacists as innovation opportunists regarding their co-option of the Internet, as supported through Jessie Daniels’s work, “during the shift of the white supremacist movement from print to digital online users exploited emerging technologies to further their ideological goals” (“Algorithmic Rise” 63). Selfe and Selfe write in their description of the computer interface as a “political and ideological boundary land” that may serve larger cultural systems of domination in much the same way that geopolitical borders do (418). Considering these theorisations of white supremacists utilising tools that appear neutral for racialised aims and the political possibilities of whiteness online, we can consider racist Zoom-bombing as an assertion of a battle that seeks to disrupt racial justice online but also assert white supremacy as its own legitimate cause.
My first encounter of local Zoom-bombing was during the Institute for Culture and Society (ICS) Seminar titled “Intersecting Crises” by Western Sydney University. The event sought to explore the concatenation of deeply inextricable ecological, political, economic, racial, and social crises. An academic involved in the facilitation of the event, Alana Lentin, live tweeted during the Zoom-bombing of the event:
Figure 2: Academic Alana Lentin on Twitter live tweeting the Zoom-bombing of the Intersecting Crises event.
Upon reflecting on this instance, I wondered, could efforts have been organised to prevent white supremacy? In considering who may or may not be responsible for halting racist shit-posting, we can problematise the work of R David Lankes, who writes that “Zoom-bombing is when inadequate security on the part of the person organizing a video conference allows uninvited users to join and disrupt a meeting. It can be anything from a prankster logging on, yelling, and logging off to uninvited users” (217). However, this beckons two areas to consider in theorising racist Zoom-bombing as a means of isolated trolling. First, this approach to Zoom-bombing minimises the sinister intentions of Zoom-bombing when referring to people as pranksters. Albeit withholding the “mimic trickery and mischief that were already present in spaces such as real-life classrooms and town halls” it may be more useful to consider theorising Zoom-bombing as often racialised harassment and a counter aggression to anti-racist initiatives (Nakamura et al. 30).
Due to the live nature of most Zoom meetings, it is increasingly difficult to halt the threat of the alt-right from Zoom-bombing meetings. In “A First Look at Zoom-bombings” a range of preventative strategies are encouraged for Zoom organisers including “unique meeting links for each participant, although we acknowledge that this has usability implications and might not always be feasible” (Ling et al. 1). The alt-right exploit gaps, akin to co-opting the mainstreaming of trolling and shitposting, to put forward their agenda on white supremacy and assert their presence when not welcome. Therefore, utilising the pandemic to instil new forms of terror, it can be said that Zoom-bombing becomes a new means to shitpost, where the alt-right “exploits Zoom’s uniquely liminal space, a space of intimacy generated by users via the relationship between the digital screen and what it can depict, the device’s audio tools and how they can transmit and receive sound, the software that we can see, and the software that we can’t” (Nakamura et al. 29).
Second, this definition of Zoom-bombing begs the question, is this a fair assessment to write that reiterates the blame of organisers? Rather, we can consider other gaps that have resulted in the misuse of Zoom co-opted by the alt-right: “two conditions have paved the way for Zoom-bombing: a resurgent fascist movement that has found its legs and best megaphone on the Internet and an often-unwitting public who have been suddenly required to spend many hours a day on this platform” (Nakamura et al. 29). In this way, it is interesting to note that recommendations to halt Zoom-bombing revolve around the energy, resources, and attention of the organisers to practically address possible threats, rather than the onus being placed on those who maintain these systems and those who Zoom-bomb. As Jessie Daniels states, “we should hold the platform accountable for this type of damage that it's facilitated. It's the platform's fault and it shouldn't be left to individual users who are making Zoom millions, if not billions, of dollars right now” (Ruf 8). Brian Friedberg, Gabrielle Lim, and Joan Donovan explore the organised efforts by the alt-right to impose on Zoom events and disturb schedules: “coordinated raids of Zoom meetings have become a social activity traversing the networked terrain of multiple platforms and web spaces. Raiders coordinate by sharing links to Zoom meetings targets and other operational and logistical details regarding the execution of an attack” (14). By encouraging a mass coordination of racist Zoom-bombing, in turn, social justice organisers are made to feel overwhelmed and that their efforts will be counteracted inevitably by a large and organised group, albeit appearing prankster-like.
Aligning with the idea that “Zoombombing conceals and contains the terror and psychological harm that targets of active harassment face because it doesn’t leave a trace unless an alert user records the meeting”, it is useful to consider to what extent racist Zoom-bombing becomes a new weapon of the alt-right to entertain and affirm current members, and engage and influence new members (Nakamura et al. 34). I propose that we consider Zoom-bombing through shitposting, which is within “the location of matrix of domination (white supremacy, heteropatriarchy, ableism, capitalism, and settler colonialism)” to challenge the role of interface design and Internet infrastructure in enabling racial violence online (Costanza-Chock).
As Nakamura et al. have argued, Zoom-bombing is indeed “part of the lineage or ecosystem of trollish behavior”, yet these new forms of alt-right shitposting “[need] to be critiqued and understood as more than simply trolling because this term emerged during an earlier, less media-rich and interpersonally live Internet” (32).
I recommend theorising the alt-right in a way that highlights the larger structures of white power, privilege, and supremacy that maintain their online and offline legacies beyond Zoom, “to view white supremacy not as a static ideology or condition, but to instead focus on its geographic and temporal contingency” that allows acts of hate crime by individuals on politicised bodies (Inwood and Bonds 722). This corresponds with Claire Renzetti’s argument that “criminologists theorise that committing a hate crime is a means of accomplishing a particular type of power, hegemonic masculinity, which is described as white, Christian, able-bodied and heterosexual” – an approach that can be applied to theorisations of the alt-right and online violence (136). This violent white masculinity occupies a hegemonic hold in the formation, reproduction, and extension of white supremacy that is then shared, affirmed, and idolised through a racialised Internet (Donaldson et al.). Therefore, I recommend that we situate Zoom-bombing as a means of shitposting, by reiterating the severity of shitposting with the same intentions and sinister goals of hate crimes and racial violence.
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