Fighting Internet trolls on the Internet turns them into alt-right voters?

Angela Nagle is a fascinating Irish academic and writer who has written a book about how culture wars typical of the 1990s have migrated to the Internet — but they were twisted so much in this migration process that they are barely recognisable any more, even by those who are active in such fights.

Years ago, tiny subcultures all around the Internet, coming mostly from younger people who have been online since their teens, started protesting against the overwhelming weight of the political-correctness liberal left. Because it’s taboo to counter political correctness, they used irony, and were basically seen as merely Internet trolls — and either ignored (which was dangerous) or even [virtually] fought against with contempt (which fueled their anger and hate even more and pushed them to even more extremist positions).

Such ‘battles’ are common on the Internet, and they have been always on the edge of the mainstream — and naturally ignored by it. But something happened. By fighting political correctness, such sub-cultures used arguments that sounded more and more similar to typical far-right propaganda. In other words: these sub-cultures started embracing far-right politics, but coming from a completely different direction; and one that was not apparent, since most of these people were stereotypical young white male geeks, playing online computer games all the time, watching anime obsessively, and pretty much believing that their particular culture was reaching a dead-end — a form of apocalyptic nihilism which is so often associated with extreme right groups (c. f. Hitler posing as Germany’s ‘Saviour’).

Using a mix of sarcasm and irony — which allowed them to quickly retract themselves portraying their radical opinions as merely ‘for the lulz’ — as well as the degree of anonymity present in online media such as 4chan, or (untraceable) pseudonymity such as in Reddit — these groups slowly started to emerge with a somewhat common, even if apparently inconsistent, message: they come mostly from groups of young white male adults, gamers and anime fans, often unemployed or underemployed, who feel that their country — thanks to leftist and liberal policies — is slowly losing what they see as its core values: an idealised, ultra-Puritan, misogynistic, sexist, racist, and broadly intolerant, (vaguely) Judeo-Christian-inspired society, which had its zenith in the 1950s, and which is the mental image of the ‘American Dream’: a white, European ethnostate, free from the influences of what they see as a ‘degeneration of the race’, as identity politics, tolerance, egalitarian politics, and multiculturalism erases this so-called American Dream from the collective minds of mainstream Americans.

At a first glance, this does not seem to be different from what White Supremacists, neonazis and similar far-right groups have been advocated all along. There is, however, a fundamental difference: instead of looking towards violence as the only means to restore this ‘white male utopia’, this group thinks that it’s far easier to throw the system down by silencing their opponents through vicious attacks made through social media of all sorts. Key figures of what they perceive as major threats to their own values are trolled and verbally abused by thousands or even hundreds of thousands of very angry, very impolite people, eventually succeeding to scare some of those people into silence, lest their veiled threats of rape, violence, abuse, and even death, become ‘real’. And, surprisingly, they have succeeded to a degree: some prominent figures in the far left spectrum, among them feminists and social activists, were indeed thrown in disarray and eventually gave up their own online sandbox.

Encouraged by such successes, they invaded the online media of the liberal left — and they are pretty much everywhere, trolling and defacing websites, even using hacking to bring them down, but more frequently resorting to much more effective tactics of the digital era: virally spreading around fake pictures of the people they want to attack, or even fake videos where elements have been added which weren’t there in the first place (such as Trump’s reposting of a GIF file showing him hitting Hillary in the back with a golf ball — in reality, Hillary was caught stumbling while entering an airplane, and someone simply added the fake footage of the golf ball afterwards), or simply totally fake from the start to the end (but potentially funny, in a Schadenfreude kind of ‘fun’) — but with enough appeal to be spread, first by hundreds, thousands, tens of thousands of members in the group… and quickly growing to the millions or hundreds of millions, thanks to unsuspecting, innocent people simply sharing or retweeting things they believe to be true.

Such people do not identify themselves either with the American conservative right — nor with the bona fide far-right groups. They are something new — thus their ‘new’ name, the alternative right or simply alt-right. Interestingly enough, the real far-right did not take long to acknowledge the potential that this new, heterogeneous group represented. They ‘educated’ them surreptitiously by letting them read thought-provoking books and articles from extreme right wing philosophers, ideologists, and even politicians. They subtly — but expertly! — maneuvered a ‘mob’ towards hitting specific online targets: pulling websites down merely by the sheer amount of hateful comments this group could make in a very short period of time. But they also provided them platforms where they could freely discuss ‘their’ ideas without fear of being labeled ‘racist’, ‘sexist’, and so forth — platforms such as Breitbart.

Discredited by most, ignored by the liberal media until it was too late, these people had also another card up their sleeves: they had a vote. And they voted ‘their’ president into office, right underneath the noses of those liberals who simply couldn’t believe what was happening. Trump, thanks to his troll-like stance, his former attitude against both the liberal left and the conservative right, and his lack of fear or of shame to speak out his mind, echoed much of what those young people (and so many of those who were not that young!) wanted to hear: MAGA means ‘back to the 1950s’, erasing the civil rights fights of the 1960s, returning to an utopian America which favours white males again — even at the cost of building walls to keep the ‘unwanted’ ones out of the country, no matter how insane such concepts might sound for an outsider.

Nagle is a very interesting writer, although I must confess I’m a bit lost in the jargon she uses — from ‘brocialism’ to ‘cuckservatism’, or understanding what a ‘listicle‘ website is. Her writing is an education in itself just for the sheer fun of looking up what she is talking about 🙂 But on a far more serious tone, she shows, perhaps with a clarity that had not yet been placed to writing before, how exactly the ‘alt-right’ movement emerged and how it became so powerful in a relatively short time, electing the president of the most powerful country in the world, and placing several of their key figures into the Cabinet — when such an idea sounded preposterous just a year ago!

Ezra Klein from Vox recently interviewed Angela Nagle, after her book was launched, and she adds an intriguing new chapter to her history of the alt-right: Charlottesville, or the moment when the alt-right, as a political movement with the ability to elect presidents and advance a far-right agenda to push the US into a ‘white male utopia’ collapsed and crumbled to dust. What Nagle says is that Charlottesville showed the real far-right in action, and how, true to their principles, and contrary to the alt-right’s own philosophy, they used violence to advance their agenda. Hidden in their caves without sunlight, the stereotypical white male geek surrounded by computer games, anime DVDs, and piles of discarded hentai manga, suddenly saw on TV what was really going on: people were getting hurt. Someone died. Blood and violence erupted — all as a consequence of their actions. Suddenly it was not ‘just for the lulz’ anymore: it became serious. It became criminal activity — to be more precise, it became terrorism. Now of course the bona fide far-right groups have no issue with any of that, but this group of stereotypical young white males are really just cowards — having no problem in yelling abuse and insults, or crashing websites with their comments, but that’s as far as they are willing to go (especially because in most of these cases they do everything anonymously or pseudonymously). Going out armed with real weapons and starting real fights where real blood is spilled… well, that’s too much for them, and totally beyond their aims and goals. As a consequence, they are creeping back into their shells (or so Nagle claims). They are becoming far more careful about where they talk, and what they talk about. They start wondering how much ‘anonymity’ there really was in all those threats they made — and which are suddenly the object of criminal investigation. Cyberbulling is fun, because it doesn’t even need physical prowess to hurt others (and even pushing people to commit suicide!) … unless you’re caught.

Nagle may or may not be an irrealistic optimist about ‘the end of the alt-right’, but it’s worth listening to her long interview by Ezra Klein (where Klein, typical of his show, also adds quite a lot of his own thoughts — as always, it’s much more a dialogue among thinkers than an interview). She points out some interesting observations: namely, that after the Trump election, the populist right in Europe immediately started to lose their support (Brexit, having come before the Trump election, is the exception to the rule). Unlike the US, Europe has a strong centrist tradition, one that allows both right-leaning and left-leaning ideas and concepts to be met in the middle. Aye, there can be polarisation in Europe as well, but it tends to be short-lived. A handful of years ago, we had left-wing populism in Greece going wild, with threats of cutting all ties with Europe, discarding the Euro, ‘Making Greece Great Again’, and whatnot. Then Greece was invaded by hordes of immigrants (as well as Italy) — immigrants that would stay there without any help from the rest of Europe — and drive away all tourism, one of Greece’s main source of income. What happened? Populists changed their speech and toned it down. Maybe remaining in Europe is not that bad after all. Maybe there can be some compromise met half-way. And even in the UK, millions of voters who had been brainwashed by ‘fake news’ from the populist right and who, based on what they had read, truly and firmly believed that leaving the UK was the best thing that could happen to them… are now scratching their heads and wondering if, after all, this hadn’t been a huge mistake. ‘Reality’ is hardly ever what either right-wing or left-wing populism draws, and once people realise that, they come back to the comfortable centre, over and over again, perhaps now and then demanding some added spice either from the right or the left (never forget that Angela Merkel is a German Conservative, even if she sometimes sounds like she’s a progressive liberal!).

In any case, there is a lesson learned, and Angela Nagle starts her book with it: it was a huge mistake to minimise the impact of this group of angry Internet trolls and think they were ‘not important’ in the Great Scheme of Things. Political pundits, if they even cared to be aware to the issue, discarded their ‘online activity’ as irrelevant, merely ‘more of the same’, and, therefore, harmless. Then Trump was elected, catching them all by surprise — and when it became clear which new group suddenly cast their vote for someone who is possibly the least ‘presidencial’ person in the entire universe, they awoke to a new reality which was light-years away from all that they read in their political science books at university. What we call the alt-right is anything but ‘harmless’. Nagle might be right and the movement, as a movement, may have crashed and collapsed, but… we, as a society, must learn to accept that so-called ‘extremist’ views are very, very easy to propagate in the Online Era — and they reach the furthest corners, namely, it reaches those who never had a voice before, and who suddenly realise that, after all, there are so many more that just think exactly like them. These people can be given a ‘friendly hand’ to raise them out of their dark corners where they wallow in self-pity. Some get recruited by ISIS. Some become fans of Alex Jones and start to believe that at least some conspiracy theories must be true (they cannot be all false!). Some relish in the anonymity/pseudonymity of the Internet to engage in hate speech and what would otherwise be considered absolutely impossible forms of expression in our democratic societies — and, through a group mentality that reinforces such behaviour by ‘normalising’ it (after all, we’re just into this ‘for the lulz’, right?), turns such forms of expression as ‘reasonable’, and allows people with a vote to cast it for those who engage in similar conduct — even if they are radically different from the so-called establishment.

Trump couldn’t be further away from the example of a ‘typical American conservative’. Nevertheless, he got elected as a Republican. Similar absolutely improbable characters are infiltrating the populist parties in Europe as well — and in other regions of the globe. It’s important to understand that they are not ‘anomalies’ that pop up from nowhere. They have a background, a personal narrative — and legions of followers in the more radical online media. All those legions have a vote, and we have now learned that they can, indeed, cast it. We also ought to take a look at history, and at the post-Great-Depression countries, at a time where few countries had an established democracy for centuries (except perhaps for the US and the UK back then), and it was very easy for ‘extremist’ ideas (both from the left and the right) to spread like wildfire — not only among the fringes of society, but among the mainstream as well. And this was in a day and an age when a lot of people didn’t even know how to read or write, and of course we didn’t have one-to-one mass media such as the Internet.

It would have been so much easier for the populists of the 1930s to shape the minds of the people today; fortunately for us, the best candidate that the populists of today managed to get was Donald J. Trump.