Jason Wilson, The Guardian, May 23, 2017
Earlier this month, hundreds of “alt-right” protesters occupied the rotunda at Boston Common in the name of free speech. The protest included far-right grouplets old and new – from the Oath Keepers to the Proud Boys. But there were no swastikas or shaved heads in sight.
Instead, the protest imagery was dominated by ostensibly comedic images, mostly cribbed from forums and social media. It looked a little like an animated version of a favorite “alt-right” message board, 4chan.
At least one attendee was dressed as the cartoon frog Pepe (a character co-opted by the movement against the wishes of its creator). Others carried the flag of “Kekistan”, the imaginary country created 4chan members. Kyle Chapman, the man who became the “based stick man” meme after attacking anti-fascists armed with a gas mask and a Captain America shield, also addressed the crowd. The same crowd later confronted a counter anti-fascist protest in the street.
Until recently, it would have been hard to imagine the combination of street violence meeting internet memes. But experts say that the “alt-right” have stormed mainstream consciousness by weaponizing irony, and by using humour and ambiguity as tactics to wrong-foot their opponents.
Last week, the Data & Society Institute released a report on the online disinformation and manipulation that is increasingly shaping US politics. The report focused on the way in which far-right actors “spread white supremacist thought, Islamophobia, and misogyny through irony and knowledge of internet culture”.
One the report’s authors, Dr Alice Marwick, says that fascist tropes first merged with irony in the murkier corners of the internet before being adopted by the “alt-right” as a tool. For the new far-right movement, “irony has a strategic function. It allows people to disclaim a real commitment to far-right ideas while still espousing them.”
Marwick says that from the early 2000s, on message boards like 4chan, calculatedly offensive language and imagery have been used to “provoke strong reactions in outsiders”. Calling all users “fags”, or creating memes using gross racial stereotypes, “serves a gate-keeping function, in that it keeps people out of these spaces, many of which are very easy to access”.
Violating the standards of political correctness and the rules of polite interactions “also functions as an act of rebellion” in spaces drenched in adolescent masculinity.
This was played up by Milo Yiannopoulos in an infamous Breitbart explainer last year, in which he insisted that the “alt-right” movement’s circulation of antisemitic imagery was really nothing more than transgressive fun.
“Are they actually bigots?” Yiannopoulos asked rhetorically. “No more than death metal devotees in the 1980s were actually satanists. For them, it’s simply a means to fluster their grandparents.”
What Yiannopoulos left out, according to Marwick, is that these spaces increasingly became attractive to sincere white supremacists. They offered them venues for recruitment, and new methods for popularising their ideas.
In other words, troll culture became a way for fascism to hide in plain sight.
Marwick points to another guide to the “alt-right”, published last on Andrew Anglin’s prominent Nazi site, the Daily Stormer, which credited “troll culture” with bringing about “non-ironic Nazism masquerading as ironic Nazism”:
Irony allows people to strategically distance themselves from the very real commitment to white supremacist values that many of these forums have.
It also allows individuals to push boundaries in public, and to back away when they meet resistance. When Richard Spencer led a fascist salute to Donald Trump at his National Policy Insitute conference in the wake of Trump’s win, he said it was done in “a spirit of irony and exuberance”.
A compounding difficulty for opponents of the “alt-right” is that online, it’s always been difficult to tell the difference between sincerity and satire.
Ryan Milner teaches Communication at the College of Charleston, and is the co-author of a new book called The Ambivalent Internet. The book ponders the implications of Poe’s law, an internet adage that points to the difficulties of online communication and of distinguishing extremist views from parodies.
“Unless you have an obvious marker of another person’s intent, you can’t really gauge their intent. They could be messing around. They could be deadly serious. They could be a mix of both,” Milner says.
But ironic, playful content can have effects in real life. Milner offers the example of Edgar Welch, who turned up at Comet Ping Pong Pizza in Washington DC with a gun after imbibing too deeply of the so-called Pizzagate conspiracy theory. The theory was ginned up by forum trolls and amplified by fringe rightwing media. It asserted, on the basis of some of John Podesta’s leaked emails, that the restaurant was the hub of an elite pedophile ring.
Last December, Welch drove to Washington from North Carolina with three firearms. When he arrived, he texted a friend: “Raiding a pedo ring, possible sacrificing the lives of a few for the lives of many.” He fired shots inside the restaurant, but fortunately was arrested without harming anyone.
“A lot of the people propagating the Pizzagate conspiracy were doing it winkingly. But in the moment that somebody walked into that shop with a gun, then that playful buzzing participation around that conspiracy turned into real consequences,” Milner says.
More generally, every “ironic” repetition of far-right ideals contributes to a climate in which racism, misogyny, or Islamophobia is normalised.
“Every time you see a viral video of somebody shouting down a person of Muslim descent in a supermarket line, what you’re seeing are the effects of an environment where it’s increasingly normal, increasingly accepted and expected to speak in this register, whether or not that started out as a joke,” Milner says.
Author Alexander Reid Ross agrees that irony has been deployed by the far right in chipping away at whatever prohibitions have existed around publicly adopting far-right politics. His book, Against the Fascist Creep, published late last year, explores the long history of fascists attempting to mainstream their ideas, or even sell them to the left.
“Fascism is more or less a social taboo. It’s unacceptable in modern society,” Ross says. “Humour or irony is one of the ways that they can put forward their affective positions without having to fall back on any affirmative ideological positions.”
He adds: “They’re putting forward the anger, the sense of betrayal, the need for revenge, the resentment, the violence. They’re putting forward the male fantasies, the desire for a national community and a sense of unity and a rejection of Muslims. They’re doing all of that, but they’re not stating it.”
The best response is to stubbornly take the “alt-right” at their word. Angela Nagle’s book about the “alt-right”, Kill All Normies, will be released next month. She says that for the “alt-right”, online irony “is a mechanism for undermining the confidence of their critics”.
“The thing that people have to realize is that it isn’t that complicated. We know what they believe in, and if you say that you’re ‘alt-right’, presumably you believe in those things too.”
Rather than getting lost in the weeds of a fast-moving internet culture, we should be bearing down hard on those core beliefs.
“Journalists should be saying, ‘I don’t want to talk about Pepe memes and hand signs. Tell me what are the limits of what you’re prepared to do’. We should force them to talk about what they really stand for,” Nagle says.
In future, the best step may be to meet irony with sincerity.