When I first started on this article, I thought it would be easy and fun. It’s just memes and fascism, what could be so hard? However as I would soon find out, the alt-right cannot be written in isolation.
Writing about the alt-right means writing about 4chan, the 2008 Global Recession, the Church of Scientology, Wikileaks, the Occupy Wall St protests, Gamergate, The Fappening, the 2016 American elections and inevitably, Capitol Hill. Then there’s everything in between as well, the radicalisation of ‘normies,’ fake news, red pilling, satire and irony. The alt-right is purposely confusing and hard to pin down, making it tempting to dismiss and ignore them. However, if the last five years have indicated anything — it’s that the alt-right has spilled over from the internet and into the real world.
For over a decade, the alt-right has grown quietly in unregulated areas of the internet. Originally created as an anime imageboard, 4chan continues to be the centre of youth counterculture and is the home ground of the alt-right community. Prior to 2006, it had no content regulation and even when restrictions were introduced, it was a sitewide ban on child pornography due to a fear of legal liability. Besides that, you are free to post whatever you want. Homophobic, racist, misogynistic and anti-Semitic content proliferated on the site, further exacerbated by the fact that 4chan allowed its users to participate anonymously, leading to many within the community referring to themselves as ‘Anons.’
On 4chan, threads with interactions and replies were bumped to the top while old threads were automatically deleted as new ones were posted. Today, we often think of the Internet as an archive or a way to hold people responsible for their actions. 4chan is the antithesis of this, providing anonymity and impermanence — as Hari Kunzru sums up in his article for The New York Review "no archive, no memory," and as I would add, no accountability.
Dale Beran observes in his book, It Came from Something Awful, that both the far-left and far-right have origins on 4chan. The site has always been a place for disenfranchised young men to congregate. In the early advent of the internet — even without social media algorithms, echo chambers were already beginning to form. So when the 2008 global recession hit, 4chan saw a proliferation of political memes and the emergence of the leftist hacker collective, Anonymous.
In a post-modern, nihilistic world where trust in traditional institutions has crumbled and corruption appears to be rife, Anonymous fought back by advocating for freedom of information. Using software to flood the Church of Scientology's servers and crashing them, this same technology would later be used by WikiLeaks to gain access to highly classified information regarding public matters. Having reached peak notoriety by leaking the Iraq War Documents, Anonymous faced the wrath of the American government and in turn began targeting Wall Street.
Addressing social and economic inequality, the Occupy Wall Street protest's slogan was "We are the 99%" referring to the vast wealth inequality in the US between the wealthiest 1% and the rest of the population. The protest's goals were admirable, from reducing the influence of corporations on politics, bank reform and a call to forgive student loan debts — it carried a lot of ideology that is traditionally associated with the left.
However, politics is never as clear cut as we imagine and hope for it to be. The Occupy Wall Street protests were criticised for being overwhelmingly White, failing to address the concerns of lower classes and ethnic minorities. Additionally, notes of anti-Semitism that underpinned the protests were prevalent with many protestors referring to Wall Street as being controlled by Jews. The Washington Post reported a protestor stating "almost all of the hedge fund managers and bankers are on Wall St. They are all Jewish… They have pulled their money together in order to take control of America." More explicitly, a protestor held a sign reading "Hitler's Bankers - Wall St," echoing Hitler’s anti-Semitic propaganda used to justify the persecution of Jews during WWII.
History is bound to repeat.
Thus, it is not hard at all to see how 4chan cultivated two extremist groups that the public would view as having competing ideologies. However, if the Cold War's McCarthyism and the Red Scare are anything to go by, you'll find that Communism and Capitalism are different means to the same ends — both produce a divided class where the powerful get more powerful and the poor get poorer. While it may seem that Anonymous (the far-left movement group) and anons (the far-right using a lower case to distinguish themselves) have competing ideologies, fundamentally both are built on the same fears and anxieties that plague our contemporary zeitgeist.
In a postmodernist, nihilistic world where the populace has lost faith and trust in traditional institutions and state powers, the alt-right capitalised on collective anxieties to drive the idea that there is no reality in our world anymore. It is important to remember that politics — wherever we are located — often boils down to choosing between the lesser of two evils.
Several events happened in quick succession following Occupy Wall Street, leading to the rise and prevalence of the alt-right. In August 2014, Gamergate saw incels harassing female game developers with death and rape threats. Driven by their victim mentality, the incels blamed women for their perceived grievances with the world. This led to the Fappening at the end of August, where almost 500 private nude pictures of celebrities (mostly women) were posted to 4chan — undoubtedly, a move that was perceived to be justified by the overt misogyny present in Gamergate.
Almost immediately, lawsuits were leveraged against 4chan's founder Christopher Poole. In response, discussions of Gamergate and The Fappening were deleted site-wide. Once revered by his users, Poole quickly found himself criticised by his users for being a Social Justice Warrior concerned with political correctness. Evidently, the attempt at regulation and control was far too little and had arrived far too late.
Events like Gamergate and The Fappening don't occur out of nowhere. For years, 4chan had cultivated an echo chamber that was misogynistic, bitter and violent. In May of 2014, three months before Gamergate, Elliot Rodger drove around UC Santa Barbara shooting at women who resembled those who rejected him, killing six people and injuring 14 others. A ‘manifesto’ was uploaded online where Rodger stated that the purpose behind his act of terrorism was to “punish” women for rejecting him. Undoubtedly, 4chan’s environment gave Rodger, and others like him, the perception that their extremely misogynistic and violent views towards women are justfied, giving the alt-right the confidence to commit extreme acts of terrorism in the real world.
Shitposting by the alt-right makes it incredibly difficult for authorities to distinguish between real threats and ironic jokes made in bad taste. The Christchurch shooter, Brenton Tarrant, posted a full ‘manifesto’ online before shooting down two mosques during Friday prayers. This means that countless anons on 8chan were aware of Tarrant’s intentions and many had posted comments supporting his plans. When the shootings occurred and live-streamed on Facebook, any concerns expressed by the anons were only in regards to the possibility that 8chan's /pol/ board may be taken down.
Incels are perfect for radicalisation — our contemporary equivalent of cult indoctrination. As a group already insecure and furious at the world, 4chan enabled a faceless mass to congregate and fuel each other's insecurities. It created echo chambers that enable misogynistic, anti-Semitic, Islamophobic, racist and violent speech to proliferate. Yet, despite its cult-like characteristics, the alt-right's ideology and vision is notoriously hard to summarise — but one thing is clear — white supremacist and fascist ideology underpins much of it.
So how do the alt-right share their ideology and convince people of their legitimacy when their views are so extreme? Red pilling, memes and trolling.
Red pilling is a reference to the famous line in The Matrix — you know the one I'm talking about — "take the blue pill: the story ends, you wake in bed and believe whatever you want to believe. You take the red pill: you stay in Wonderland and I show you how deep the rabbit-hole goes. Remember - all I'm offering is the truth, nothing more." Conveniently, matching the colours of the Democratic and Republican parties, the symbolism of the red pill was incredibly easy for the alt-right to appropriate.
The term red pill was first circulated among men's rights activists to refer to an epiphany of the supposed gender inequality against men or that contemporary values benefit women more than men. Thus, red pilling was first used to describe turning people against feminism before gradually escalating into conspiracies like one that posits that the Sandy Hook shooting never occurred and Holocaust denial.
Many alt-right believers are self-proclaimed losers and loners, they often feel socially isolated and the alt-right preys upon these insecurities while welcoming them into the community. It does two things simultaneously, they prey on the vulnerabilities and their insecurities which make them susceptible to influence and then provide them with a sense of superiority over ‘normies.’ "Come," they say, "we will show you the truth that everyone else is blind to. Only you can see it because you have been chosen. You are special.”
The alt-right is funny. They are inappropriate, toeing boundaries and then transgressing them — the alt-right is often dismissed as being comprised of losers and rednecks, but people forget that they are made up of digital natives. They know the workings of the internet and how to gain traction on it. Make enough borderline inappropriate and harmful jokes and soon people will fail to realise when they have been taken over the line and standing in a cesspool of fascism and white supremacy.
The alt-right uses memes to disseminate meaning and communicate ideas, taking the form of textual, visual or auditory items that hold cultural meaning for an audience. It dresses extremist ideologies in fun pop-cultural references with a distinct visual aesthetic. The alt-right doesn't hit you with Swastikas or KKK symbols immediately. They show you Pepe the Frog or NPC Wojak first while disseminating slang with origins in the alt-right community like ‘normies,’ ‘snowflake,’ or ‘social justice warrior’ so that they pervade mainstream discourse.
Savvas Zannetou et al conducted a scientific study of memes to examine their influence in manipulating and swaying public opinion. Through a dataset of over 160 million images gathered from Twitter, Reddit, 4chan's /pol/ and Gab, they grouped the images posted on fringe web communities and mapped them against images in mainstream communities. In their study, they found an increasing range of politics-related memes from the alt-right communities making their way into mainstream communities, even finding their way into traditional media reports.
Rather than simply perpetuating racist memes like Jewish caricatures or Nazi symbols, Zannetou and the team found that fringe communities had an amazing ability to twist the meaning of specific memes by changing their context and making them go viral. She uses the NPC Wojak meme, which 4chan and Reddit users used to mock liberals as NPCs, implying they lacked critical thinking and would accept messages provided by mainstream media, who are in turn controlled by the government.
By encoding white supremacist messages in memes, only those who are part of the alt-right community are able to decipher their true meanings. It enables them to communicate with each other secretly, providing a sense of superiority and community while hiding in plain view of ‘normies.’ This niche humour reinforces the in-group identity of the alt-right.
The emergence and strength of any community is based on how easily identifiable they are by appearance or aesthetics, and fascism is no different. The alt-right has created a culture that combines white supremacist ideology with memes, game culture and hacker culture, creating an easily recognisable image in a digital environment that can then be disseminated. The Peace Research Institute Frankfurt describes the alt-right's visual culture as "eclectic and playful, stands out strongly from traditional far-right visual language: it combines pop culture, infantile humour, neo-Nazi allusions and blatant contempt for humanity."
Furthermore, its roots in pop culture mean it is more readily adopted by 'normies' who may not be aware of the alt-right roots of an image or the implicit meanings it contains. The alt-right made the aesthetics and ideological content accessible and appealing to a younger generation.
We are unknowingly micro-dosing on red pills.
Through irony and satire, the alt-right escaped serious scrutiny and analysis for years. It enables them to dismiss progressives who pull them up on their hate speech by claiming a meme was a joke to prove how sensitive the left is and the “ridicule” of political correctness. By reacting to the joke, you proved that liberals only care about trivial issues making you more likely to dismiss the next offensive meme. Yet, the underlying purpose of the meme was to spread and normalise ideologies rooted in fascism. By constantly dancing on the line between irony and sincerity, the alt-right is able to disperse their propaganda through memes while escaping accountability — after all, how embarrassing to fall for a joke created by a troll!
As Vox’s article points out "it can be extremely difficult for the average person to parse alt-right trolling from 'sincere' alt-right messaging. If you fall for it, you're catering to the movement's ostensible perception of left-leaning citizens (or even moderate citizens) as being histrionic." Yet to "dismiss it as trolling or simply ignoring it altogether, you risk glossing over actual dangerous messages: racist, misogynistic, bigoted and violent symbolism and language." The alt-right capitalises on this idea, for decades the wisdom on the internet is to ignore trolls, however, can we really afford to ignore trolls when they are so effective at disseminating alt-right ideology?
Trolling effectively enables the alt-right to avoid analysis while ensuring 'normies' either get sidetracked or choose to ignore their trolling (doesn't matter, they don't have to recruit you, there are others who will do). All while other literate alt-right members are able to contextualise and make sense of the meaning behind the memes. From fear-mongering, trolling and doxxing — the alt-right has a litany of methods to intimidate those who challenge them whilst spreading their ideology and false information.
Through memes, the alt-right has successfully pushed misogynistic, anti-Semitic and racist ideologies. Their use of ironic hyperbole is intentionally confusing, while the injection of humour and vulgarity aids them in appealing to the younger generation. Where satire has traditionally been used to criticise conservatives, the alt-right have utilised it to radicalise and indoctrinate individuals to further their agenda of white supremacy.
Pepe the Frog was adopted by the alt-right in 2010, featuring Nazi symbols or transformed into Trump, to challenge and criticise 'political correctness.’ In 2015, Trump posted an image on Twitter of himself represented as Pepe, legitimising the politically visual language of the alt-right and validating their beliefs. It was a move that the general public at the time failed to understand the true meaning and significance of, but sent a clear message to the alt-right. Whether as a means of legitimising their ideology or incentivising them to vote for Trump at the elections as a joke — it would set the groundwork for what would eventually cumulate into the events of Capitol Hill.
To the cynics and self-identified losers of 4chan, Trump embodied how the world works as a series of lies. Hari Kunzru describes Trump's relationship to anons as “he was a loser's bitter caricature of a winner, a boorish, brash serial liar, a holder of grudges, proof that you could run for the most powerful political office in the world and still be a small man.” It's impossible to look at the recent events of Capitol Hill and not recognise the culture that has been festering on the internet for years.
Incidents like this don’t happen overnight, they are an accumulation of history and festering wounds, they are systematic and institutional problems.
Trump's victory in the 2016 election was shocking, with many confident that surely there was no way a man like that could be elected into office and hold one of the most, if not the most, powerful positions in the world. For the alt-right, it was an equally shocking victory, like maybe finally, their world had stepped off the digital arena and into reality. Furthermore, it was proof that they were right all along and the world was finally opening their eyes to the true reality and more people would take the red pill.
In early 2018, we saw the Cambridge Analytica scandal break, where the company used the data of millions of Facebook users to target voters with misinformation. Trump's 2016 campaign utilised harvested data to target Trump supporters and possible swing voters. This, coupled with Wikileaks releasing emails which suggested that the Clinton Campaign may have tilted the primary in her favour (despite no evidence) would have aided Trump in gaining more voters.
Despite Trump’s sexual assault allegations alongside the release of the Access Hollywood tape where he was recorded saying “grab ‘em by the pussy” and the Republican party’s opposition to him, Trump gained wide media coverage and public interest through his controversial remarks and lack of political correctness. Trump gained the presidential seat by appealing to racism and sexism, gaining the favour of both the far-right and alt-right.
As the 2020 elections rolled around, the world watched with bated breath. Despite two impeachment trials, it did not seem unlikely that Trump would stay in power. Whether he retained the presidency through democratic means or a coup, America seemed to be on the brink of fascism. When Trump told the Proud Boys, a far-right organisation to "stand back and stand by," a strong message was sent to both far and alt-right — they had a leader in a position of power and massive amounts of wealth who was willing to support them and shared their ideologies.
Even now, I think about how much language and slang of the internet originated from alt-right spaces. By obscuring the truth and questioning reality and using satire to mask propaganda, the alt-right has created a highly effective way to radicalise individuals. The effectiveness of their ideological dissemination is reflected in its supporters who come from a cross-section of American life. Members of the alt-right come from different classes, demographics and localities who view the White race as being threatened by the Other, resulting in violence and neo-Nazism.
When trolling leads to very real consequences like the results of the 2016 elections, mass shootings around the world and the undeniable rise of fascism and far-right ideology, we can no longer live in blissful unawareness.
Mayhaps it is time to start reclaiming certain phrases that have been decontextualized by the alt-right, starting with red pilling. The Matrix's directors, the Wachowski sisters, have spoken against the alt-right's appropriation of the film to support their beliefs. The events of the past decade have indicated that willful ignorance does not stop the alt-right from growing — instead, they were allowed to fester and wreak havoc.
It is easy to dismiss the alt-right as delusional conspiracy theorists, buying into alternate versions of truths and lacking critical thinking skills. However, to do that dismisses the real danger of the alt-right; it's not that they do not know the truth, it is that they do not care.