Prior to Donald Trump’s presidential victory, if you asked the average person to explain the “alt-right,” their response — assuming they’d heard of the alt-right — was likely to involve internet trolls.
Before the alt-right movement became more widely known for neo-Nazism and white supremacism, its members were frequently described as internet trolls. But in the wake of Trump’s ascent to the White House and many subsequent public displays of neo-Nazi behavior in celebration of it, many people are asking whether “trolling” was ever the correct term to describe the alt-right’s behavior.
By the same token, many are questioning whether “alt-right” is itself the most accurate term for a group whose members have, in the wake of Trump’s victory, become even more blatant about championing their white supremacist, Neo-Nazi ideology:
The tweet above, for instance, is a reaction to news about the alt-right that recently rocketed around the internet. On November 19, a day-long alt-right convention in Washington was punctuated with actual Nazi salutes and shouts of “Heil!” from attendees. Within a couple days, the word “Nazi” had become a worldwide trend on Twitter as many people reacted in horror.
But despite growing resistance to the movement, it’s difficult to reach a consensus on re-labeling the alt-right as supporting Nazism or Fascism, because many people still view the alt-right as “just trolling.”
For decades, the common wisdom online has been that the best way to interact with a troll is not to interact at all. But “don’t feed the trolls” failed spectacularly as a tactic during the 2016 election cycle, stunning many people who assumed the alt-right’s tactics were juvenile and easily seen-through.
Prior to Trump’s appointment of Steve Bannon, former head of the alt-right “news” website Breitbart, as his campaign chief (and later White House chief strategist), many people and members of the media wrote off the site and its reporters as trolling the general populace — even though it claimed around 8 million readers at the beginning of the year, a number that would jump to over 18 million thanks to the election. As polls and pundits dismissed Trump’s chances of winning in the lead-up to the election, many people dismissed alt-right trolling, too:
It’s not a failure of human intelligence that many people failed to take “trolling” more seriously. Much in the same way that fake news on Facebook was easy to dismiss until people realized its potential to massively influence many voters’ viewpoints, trolling obfuscates truth and reality, often through satirical means, in order to mask sincere propaganda.
Trolling used to be online performance art. Increasingly, the performance is real.
For decades, the word “troll” was web-speak for that one rude commenter on a forum who just wouldn’t shut up or go away; the one who kept trying to goad the average reasonable person into a fight — and often an absurd one based on absurd logic, or a twisting of your assumptions regarding the basic principles you were arguing about. For instance, a troll might argue about the color of the sky by insisting it’s red, and remaining intentionally tone-deaf in response to any attempts at correction.
Trolling can take many different forms. A famous internet troll like Ken M (a.k.a. comedy writer Kenneth McCarthy) might comment “are capital letters case-sensitive” on a news story about internet password protection in order to satirize many internet users’ lack of awareness about how to secure their passwords. Others, like Reddit user PhD_in_everything, satirize internet archetypes like the mansplaining know-it-all by overtly condescending to whomever they’re speaking with.
Trolls working as a unit on sites like 4chan can stage highly visible pranks, like the time they “vote-brigaded” the Time 100 vote to promote 4chan’s founder and spell out 4chan in-jokes.
Sometimes, trolls will fake outrage online in order to drum up real outrage, like the time 4chan attempted to manufacture a dangerous fitness trend among teen girls called the “bikini bridge” (similar to the “thigh gap”), then fabricated fake outrage in response to the fake trend, in order to generate real outrage among feminists. Occasionally, trolling “events” can also spill over into real life, some of which, like swatting (using the internet to create fake threats and summon a real-life SWAT team to a target’s house), are extremely dangerous.
The rare danger from a troll brigade notwithstanding, most people who’ve been on the internet for a while are quick to write off trolling itself, to view it as a harmless prank. After all, trolls gonna troll. This dictum has held true even as members of the alt-right have used trolling to propagate sexist, anti-Semitic, racist, and white nationalist memes.
Increasingly, however, many people have pushed back against labeling the alt-right as a bunch of trolls. After all, is it really “just” trolling when the message involves making threats that refer to the Holocaust?
Well, no — but also, yes.
Trolling distorts reality in order to trick you into dismissing its message
One of the most significant and pernicious ways that members of the alt-right use trolling is to create a sincerity-proof chamber of distortion surrounding what their actual message is. They do this by pretending that what they’re really doing is satirically spoofing how progressives and members of the media view conservatives.
Things get really confusing, really fast.
For example: Say I Photoshop a picture of Hillary Clinton so that she’s being chased by rabid wolves. You come along and claim that my image is alarming and sexist. I might then claim that the joke’s on you, because my image was really just a way to bait and skewer liberal hysteria and “the media’s” hyperbolic, distorted image of how the alt-right treats women and Clinton in particular. And by reacting to it and getting upset, you fell for it, proving that liberals are overly sensitive crybabies who habitually whine about trivial or nonexistent issues.
Consequently, you might feel like a fool for having taken the “joke” seriously. You might also be more likely to eyeroll and dismiss the next obviously sexist meme you see being shared online. You might even encourage other people to ignore it too, assuming it was crafted by someone attempting to mock liberals for taking trolls too seriously.
And all the while, my picture of Clinton and the wolves, and many more like it, continue to promote violence against women and a hatred of Clinton — which was, of course, my real goal all along.
All of which is to say that 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.
But if you try to play along with the alt-right’s hyperbole by intellectualizing it (for example, by painting it primarily as cultural commentary), dismissing it as trolling, or simply ignoring it altogether, you risk glossing over actual dangerous messages: racist, misogynistic, bigoted, and violent symbolism and language.
Members of the alt-right use a litany of methods — from fear-mongering to name-calling — to distract and intimidate their opponents while spreading false or misleading information. But trolling is especially effective, because once you’ve identified something as trolling, you’ve developed a built-in readiness to dismiss the behavior. And that readiness is something the alt-right counts on.
Many in the alt-right are upfront about their tactics
One of the alt-right’s most prominent members is the neo-Nazi Andrew Anglin, who blogs about his white supremacist, anti-Semitic cause. On his website, Anglin has an alt-right explainer for “normies” that doubles, minus the overt racism and bigotry, as a fairly straightforward and illuminating chronicle of how the many disparate branches of the alt-right came together.
Anglin lays out the unifying themes of the alt-right movement — misogyny, anti-Semitism, racism, and white nationalism — and explains how meme culture, trolling, and conspiracy theories have linked them under one umbrella term. Further garnishing that hate-filled combination with a large dollop of irony is what allows the alt-right’s troll culture, according to Anglin, to spread its white supremacist message.
Anglin acknowledges in his blog post that the alt-right’s use of ironic hyperbole “can be confusing to the mainstream, given the level of irony involved. The amount of humor and vulgarity confuses people.”
But he’s also very clear that the point of using irony is to mask something utterly straightforward: “The true nature of the movement, however, is serious and idealistic.” In a postmodern, post-ironic culture, he argues, “absolute idealism must be couched in irony in order to be taken seriously.”
In other words, anyone who has argued during a heated election year that “trolling” is a misleading word for the alt-right has heard what Anglin is saying about his own movement. What Anglin calls “idealism,” many people consider dangerous white nationalism — which is why it’s all the more important to be aware that hate speech dressed up as ironic hyperbole can divert attention away from something that is, beneath all the meta, absolutely real.
Because “trolling” is such an easy-to-dismiss behavior, members of the alt-right have successfully used it to obscure the movement’s sincere objective: to support and promote hateful ideology. Countless Americans dismissed “trolls” as a serious political factor in the leadup to the election. Now, with a former Breitbart editor headed to the White House to serve as Trump’s chief strategist, many are asking a different question:
Where does the trolling stop and the new administration begin?