6 Surprising Things You Learn In The Alt-Right Media Bubble
Right now, some kid not far from where you're sitting is reading his or her first article about the evils of blacks/Muslims/feminists/etc. and getting a little tingle in their brain. It's the same rush of forbidden pleasure some of you got from your first porn, or trying cigarettes in your cousin's garage. Six months from now, that kid may or may not be spray-painting a swastika on a wall, or at least tweeting about white nationalism an awful lot.
Depending on who you ask, the "alt-right" is either the rumbling inferno that's about to consume civilization or a bunch of 15-year-olds on the internet mad about girl Ghostbusters. The truth is somewhere in between. Some of you are already saying that it's not complicated, that these people are just Nazis ...
... because everybody knows what a Nazi is, and that makes it all nice and simple. That, however, won't help you understand the terrifyingly effective process that converts the aforementioned normal, everyday kid into a seething zealot sharing articles about "white genocide." The first step toward solving any problem is understanding it, so I spent a month digging into the alt-right bubble, and think it's time to get a few things straight.
White Nationalists Know How To Tailor The Message For Newcomers
If you want to build a movement, here's the first thing you should know: The best way to convert someone to a point of view is not to get in their face and scream inflammatory slogans. It's to simply filter the facts so that they arrive at the conclusion you want on their own. Modern white nationalism has mastered this.
Think about it. Most humans have a knee-jerk reaction to a hyper-aggressive person lecturing us on our faults. If an anti-smoking campaign is particularly grating, we'll give ourselves lung cancer to spite them. We need to think that our conversion was our own choice. This is why the most dangerous figures among the new white nationalist movement aren't the overt hatemongers who get all the media attention -- it's the ones who've figured out how to be subtle.
The media always gets this wrong. When they want to talk to a famous racist, they usually shove a microphone in the face of Richard Spencer -- you might have heard his name when he famously got punched on camera a few weeks ago.
But when you dive into the alt-right, the first thing you find out is that guys like Spencer -- the overt "We need ethnic cleansing" white nationalists -- are not that big of a deal. Mainly because, as we'll see in a moment, white nationalists know newcomers need a gateway drug. If someone you know is falling down the alt-right rabbit hole, there's a good chance you won't see them start with the swastikas and anti-Jew slurs.
For example, while Spencer is the doucheturtle who coined the term "alternative right," the online "journal" he runs is not widely read. He dedicates a whole sidebar to a "Red Pill" -- a bundle of his reading material intended to wake up white people from the liberal Matrix that has convinced them that other races are human. It features three articles which have accumulated slightly over 100 "likes."
With numbers like that, Spencer will soon have a big enough following to fill an entire school bus.
In other words, Spencer's "Radix" is burning up the internet about as hard as your average middle-schooler's Instagram. And then there's "The Right Stuff," home of the popular-with-assholes podcast The Daily Shoah (the Shoah is another word for the Holocaust, if you think they're being subtle). Their work makes more of a splash than Spencer's, but nothing earth-shattering.
Well, the level of pure jackassery is pretty amazing, but not the circulation.
There's also The Daily Stormer. It's the most explicitly Nazi publication of note on the alt-right (named after Der Sturmer, Nazi Germany's equivalent of Time), and hosts articles like this one, which calls Dylann Roof's murder of nine black church members "perfectly understandable if you put it in context":
It also describes his killing spree as "Silly." Wocka-wocka.
That piece has generated a bit over 400 Facebook likes as of this article's publication. That's 400 too many, to be sure, but you can get more by taking a picture of your dog wearing an adorable little hat.
No, that stuff is for the hardcore, a group that seems terrifying when they're clumped together, but which is still an extreme, fringe minority. They know that if they want to influence the mainstream, they have to massage the message. This poster on Stormfront (probably the most influential white nationalist site on the internet, boasting more than 300,000 racists who've committed almost 100 hate-crime murders that we know about) complains that sites like The Daily Stormer are too obviously racist to convert any new members:
Go show a friend, neighbor, work colleague the Daily Stormer and see what the average person thinks. They will be put off [White Nationalism] after 2 mins on that site, that's why it was set up to begin with.
This is where sites like Breitbart come in.
Breitbart is the alt-right news site that used to be run by Steve Bannon, before he joined the Trump presidential campaign, and after that became maybe the most important figure in the administration (including Trump himself). They're able to push a lot of the same points without turning off people who'd never dream of getting an iron cross tattoo on their neck. For contrast, here's some of The Daily Stormer's coverage of President Trump's immigration ban:
The original title was an image of the writer biting their keyboard in a blind rage.
Call me crazy, but that's probably not going to convince anyone who's on the fence. Breitbart's editors are much smarter, providing religious justifications ...
... arguing the constitutionality of the executive order ...
... and generally doing everything they can to make hundreds of thousands of scared, traumatized refugees look like a Trojan horse full of murder.
The title conveniently leaves out that this was entirely about Dutch immigration and had nothing to do with our rigorous process.
They're happy to let the reader draw their own conclusions, but carefully skew, edit, and omit facts and context until it is impossible to draw any conclusion other than "Multiculturalism will kill us all. Unless we do something about it." The italics should be read with an evil, coy smirk.
They Create Safe Spaces To Block Out Opposing Voices
This is where it starts to get complicated.
Breitbart's collective editorial staff doesn't consider their site an alt-right publication at all. When one of their editors, Milo Yianoppolous, was called a "champion" of the alt-right, they considered it a smear.
Somehow, for a guy whose entire career is based on courting controversy, this was the insult that was deemed newsworthy.
It's right around here where you realize that each faction of what we're calling the "alt-right" A) rejects whatever label the rest of us know them by, and B) finds at least one other faction loathsome. As such, you'll run into a lot of hate for Milo on Stormfront and /pol/ (the far-right section of 4chan and 8chan), since he's gay and Jewish (although a practicing Catholic) and those are two of the things Nazis most like to murder.
The best thing most folks on those sites will say for him is that he might open up new minds to white nationalism eventually. Likewise, Breitbart is the best friend the fringe right ever had specifically because it wraps its extremism in a warm blanket of clickbait.
I spent an entire week getting virtually all my news from Breitbart, checking it every morning and comparing its coverage of breaking news with mainstream sources. I was surprised to find that the much of their content is little more than rewritten versions of stories already covered by half the internet. Like this,
Latecomers. Everybody knows that hipsters hated hipsters way before it was trendy.
There's a clear ideological bent to the title, but the article itself is extremely tame. That vanilla content creates the appearance that it's simply another news outlet. Then you notice that sprinkled here and there are lots of articles about the "knockout game." It's billed as a scary new trend wherein young black men punch random white people in the head ...
... but credible investigations into these attacks show they're exactly as bullshit as they sound. People get randomly assaulted all the time in the U.S. -- that doesn't mean some sort of insane anti-white punch game is spreading through American cities. Again, they're carefully selecting and omitting facts to paint a specific picture, like the way they publish article after article on "black-on-black" crime under the guise of heartfelt concern:
They don't need to come out and run a commentary calling black people inhuman savages. They just need to carefully apply a filter to only feed the reader news that portrays them as such. So while they take every opportunity to run articles about violent Muslim migrants or protesters, when a protester outside a Milo Yiannopolis event was shot by one of Milo's fans, their coverage was incredibly vague ...
Meanwhile, here's how specific Breitbart articles get when the culprit is a black dude:
"Journalists shot by former co-worker" might be more accurate, but that's not what brings in the clicks.
So you will likely never find an article on Breitbart telling white people to kill black people. What you will find is a site that is carefully tilling the soil for a certain ideology to grow, one that says "Being afraid of nonwhites is as reasonable as being afraid of a rabid dog ... and we both know what they do to rabid dogs." Dylan Roof claimed in his manifesto that the genesis of his violent racism was typing "black on white crime" into Google.
Now, after being shown a list of headlines to force the conclusion that white males are under siege, users then need to be surrounded by others who will reassure them that this conclusion is the correct one. On alt-right message boards, you'll find extremely tight moderation policies banning any dissenting opinion. For instance, the heart of Donald Trump's online movement was the subreddit r/The_Donald, with more than 360,000 users. It's a place for discussion of the same carefully filtered headlines as Breitbart ....
Though theirs have yet to use the phrase "God Emperor."
... and its stated rules make it clear that it is for Trump supporters only -- any hint of dissent gets you banned. It is carefully crafted as a safe space where someone dipping their toe into the alt-right will find only agreement and reassurance. No challenge, no debate, no discussion beyond fist-pumping reaffirmation. Stormfront banishes opposing opinions to one section, and you'll be hard-pressed to find any opposing opinions even there.
This is crucial because it's not only opposing opinions they're banning -- it's opposing facts. They will post a news article about, let's say, an immigrant committing a crime. If you reply with statistics demonstrating that immigrants are less likely to be criminals, they'll delete it and ban you. If you try to add context to posted articles or point out inaccuracies in headlines, again, you're gone. These bubbles are sealed off better than a goddamned bioweapons lab.
"Meme Magic" Can Change The World
None of the stuff mentioned above is new. A teenager getting indoctrinated into a Neo-Nazi gang 40 years ago would have gotten the same lecture on black violence and would have been told to ignore all outlets that aren't explicitly approved by white nationalists. So why is this all coming to a head now?
First, the internet era sped up social change in a way that can be downright terrifying for anybody who was particularly attached to the way things were before. I'll let this neat graph from xkcd demonstrate it. Compare the "adoption" curve of gay marriage to the fight for interracial marriage decades earlier:
Approval for gay marriage went from 27 percent to 61 percent in a mere 20 years (the first 20 years the internet was widely available, by the way), and the speed of change is only accelerating. In 2014, only 26 percent of those polled approved of letting transgender people use the bathroom of their choice. Today it's up to 50 percent (depending on how the poll is worded).
Change now sweeps across the landscape like wildfire. But so does the backlash.
That brings us to the young meme-makers who are helping drive the alt-right online. Teenagers gravitate toward whatever shocks the grownups most (in the '80s, it was heavy metal and "devil worship," in the '90s it was gangsta rap), and in the Obama era, flirting with white nationalism or anti-feminism became cool. Did you ever have those friends in high school or college who really liked ironic racism? Folks who didn't identify as racist, but never missed the chance to make a Holocaust joke? That seems to be how a lot of the alt-right's most active trolls got their start.
Don't take my word for it. Here's how The Daily Stormer describes it in their "Normie's Guide to the Alt-Right":
Because what trends that escaped from 4chan haven't been great?!
They may be Nazis and generally filled with more shit than the septic tank at an Olive Garden, but this seemed to ring true in my own exploration of these communities. 8chan (a more extremist offshoot of 4chan) in particular loves to post all kinds of weird race-based conspiracy theories, like saying the Jews are the secret puppet masters of the global left:
... And yet for all that power, they allow jackasses to stand around smearing them with crude Photoshops all day. Makes sense.
Was the person who posted that doing it ironically (that is, for humorous shock value), or did they mean it? What I've realized is that it doesn't truly matter. Whether we admit it or not, the things we joke about become the things we're serious about. If you heard a rumor about a massive food poisoning outbreak at Taco Bell, you'd immediately believe it -- not because of any previous incidents, but because of a million hacky "Taco Bell gave me diarrhea" bits. If you hear 10,000 jokes about how black people are all drug dealers and murderers, it will reframe your reality just as well as 10,000 filtered headlines. Better, even, because you don't realize notice it happening.
Which brings us to the memes.
The chans are both image boards (somebody posts a pic, other people comment), and images have become their language. For those out of the loop, "meme" now means an image with some text posted over it -- a sarcastic comment, a statistic, a snide remark, etc. The very format means they'll never come with sources, context, or opportunity for rebuttal, so they're perfect for the worst kind of oversimplified political commentary. And let's be honest, the left has been using them for years:
Pictured: the internet's bumper sticker.
During the 2016 election, extreme right-wing memes exploded. Someone on the chans made an anti-Semitic Hillary Clinton meme that was subtle enough to snare Trump, or whoever ran his Twitter that day:
Note the Star of David over the pile of money.
Meanwhile, 4chan was the point of origin for the "Pizzagate" conspiracy theory. (In brief, they claim there's a child-fucking ring frequented by Clinton and D.C. insiders operated out of a popular pizza shop.) It started as a thread that was clearly intended as a joke/prank ...
... which progressed to a series of memes that got passed around as genuine ...
What, you don't get your news from a clusterfuck of barely legible Photoshop?
... and eventually progressed to a very real nutjob with an AR-15 holding up the pizza restaurant implicated in the "conspiracy." After that, normal-ass news sites had to cover Pizzagate, and for 4chan, that was the ultimate punchline. What started as an ironic joke conspiracy theory became a real conspiracy theory, which triggered a real crime.
Build the "theory" a little piece at a time, and no one will notice that it's goddamn ridiculous. The Lost approach, if you will.
You can go there right now and see them testing and tweaking the next #Pizzagate. Here's someone trying to create a fake left-wing meme intended to sow discord between black and white liberals. Other posters quickly insist that it's not subtle enough ("Nobody's gonna fall for this shit, but I applaud the effort"):
"The effort" being a nationwide rise in political divisiveness and racial tensions.
Whatever these bored teenagers create today, your bitter uncle will be sharing on Facebook two months from now. (A member of Trump's transition team tweeted about Pizzagate, and was promptly fired for it.) And if they can't post images, they'll mindlessly copy and paste bite-sized talking points, sweeping in and spraying factoids like a drive-by:
Suddenly you start to see where the term "echo chamber" came from.
When they see a new story or YouTube clip that threatens their worldview, they'll swarm it with their list of memorized stats and "gotcha" one-liners, turning that space into a bubble and down-voting dissent to oblivion. "See? Everyone agrees with us!" It's easy, efficient, and incredibly effective.
No, They're Not All Nazis
As we mentioned earlier, the moment you say "alt-right" in public, some well-meaning person will reply "Why not call them what they are? Nazis!" Their heart is in the right place. It's true that every awful group hides behind some bland, self-serving name, like the "Democratic People's Republic of Korea." Why buy into the Neo-Nazis' transparent attempt at rebranding themselves as a cool new "alternative" right-wing? Hell, if anything, "alt-right" sounds like a more progressive version than your grandpa's GOP.
Meanwhile, the real Neo-Nazis hide behind names that are bland as a toothpaste sandwich.
The problem is that actual Neo-Nazis -- complete with swastikas and celebrations of Hitler's birthday -- are in fact a subset of the alt-right. But the rest of the movement looks very different (not necessarily better -- simply different). If your goal is to dissuade somebody who's at risk of heading down that path, screamed warnings about Nazis is like your parents yelling that you'll overdose on the joint they found in your room. The first time they see that r/The_Donald isn't adorned in Hitler banners, they'll decide you're another hysterical, lying liberal.
The reality is that the alt-right is a conglomeration of a bunch of different groups all united against one common enemy: modern progressives. For instance, our first encounter with them at Cracked came not during the election, but a few years prior, when we were inundated with hate mail about something called "Gamergate." They had already perfected the art of creating memes to spread conspiracy theories and relentlessly spamming comment sections to make their numbers appear overwhelming. All of the same techniques that would get used by Trump's online supporters a couple of years later.
For lots of these kids, Gamergate was an alt-right gateway drug, the first time they felt the dual dopamine hit of A) vicious cruelty toward the most vulnerable and B) the sense of community that comes from being a part of an unpopular yet (in their minds) elite group.
Because apparently gamers bitching about reviews they disagree with online means something.
But the key is that many of the Gamergaters never went all-in with the racism or antisemitism -- they may only be marching along in order to stick it to the feminists. That means if you have a friend or loved one who identifies as alt-right, they're not necessarily anti-Semitic, racist, or anti-gay. Even in 8chan, where Hitler memes flow like the mighty Mississippi, you'll find people who are frustrated by racism getting in the way of their good, clean extremist politics. (Note that Breitbart founder Andrew Breitbart was proudly Jewish.) As one poster said:
... I'm dying to know what it is you think us Jews agree on to hurt whites or the West? Is there a cabal? Is it the type of thing where regular, every day Russian Jews like me are used as pawns by Jew Elites? ... There are a lot of right wing like minds among us Jews, and the anti-semitic cuckoldry I've seen throughout here and r/The_Donald is fucking weird.
Paul Watson, an editor at Infowars (the gold standard of tinfoil hat conspiracy sites), tweeted out a good summary of the alt-right's divisions:
My disagreement with him would be that there are way more than two alt-rights (and I happen to think the "tiny fringe minority" did impact the election, but I'll get to that in a moment). Even that fringe isn't homogeneous. While Infowars owner Alex Jones took Pizzagate seriously, you can find folks on 8chan who think it's rock-fucking stupid. There are even people who think the Pizzagate conspiracy theory is itself a conspiracy theory.
If the contextless mention of Jews still seems weird to you, that's good. That means you still live in reality.
But when push comes to shove, they all stand under the same umbrella. Their strategy depends on it. I found a blog post on the website for Counter Currents Publishing, a publishing house for books like this ...
It's kind of telling that "... And The American Way!" is what got cut.
In it, the author, a white nationalist who considers "resisting organized, liberal Jewry" one of his goals, argues that Jewish people who agree with the need for a "white ethnostate" are still his allies. He makes the point that the disorganized and squabbling fragments of the alt-right don't have to agree to be on the same page to be effective:
As we've noted before, the one group white supremacists hate more than anyone else are other white supremacists.
And he's right. The word for this is "intersectionality." It was coined to describe why feminists, anti-racists, and all other sorts of anti-discrimination activists should work together, because their respective woes all had common, intersecting causes. Well, it works for the other side too. Whether you think white men are being kept down by the Jews, the feminists, the liberals, video game critics, or All Of The Above, the alt-right's got a home for you.
It's Impossible To Know Exactly How Much Influence They Have
The advantage of a loose collection like the alt-right is that they get to have it both ways. When Richard Spencer starts talking about shipping all black people back to Africa, the rest can say, "He doesn't represent us! Look at his stupid hair!" But when it comes time to boast about how large and powerful a group they are, they'll happily include all factions in the total, Nazis and all.
This might not be the "Big Tent" conservatism Reagan had in mind.
That means that when it comes time to figure out how many members of the "alt-right" there are -- or whether or not your nephew is now one of them -- good luck. They'll happily claim every single Trump voter (and hell, every right-wing nationalist around the world). Sure, on their online hangouts, they'll endlessly bicker about who are the "true" members, but to outsiders, they'll imply total unity with every single human who's ever found Lena Dunham annoying. And like all extremist groups, they'll take credit for every single headline they can.
Remember that terrible fire at a warehouse-turned-DIY-living-space in Oakland? Thirty-six people died, and 4chan's /pol/ board used it as an opportunity to launch an attack on DIY living spaces across the United States in an effort to "Crush the radical left" (since those places are where hippies, artists, and other degenerates hang out).
In case it's not totally obvious, 4chan has some trouble picking their battles.
Sure enough, at least seven spaces the channers targeted were shut down. Some of those shutdowns are probably coincidences, since fire marshals around the country cracked down in the wake of the Oakland fire. But not all of them.
Also, remember the "Hillary Clinton is on the verge of death" rumors that hit near the end of the 2016 election? Those sailed back into the public eye thanks to Reddit posts, right-wing forums, and fringe bloggers. Again, watch the flow of information: From the extreme fringes, to the larger but more moderate Breitbart crowd, all the way to Donald Trump's speeches and therefore the mainstream media.
So did the "alt-right" get Donald Trump elected, as the Infowars guy earlier claimed? On one hand, the vast majority of Trump voters have never heard of these guys -- you should be picturing disgruntled unemployed auto workers in Michigan, not redditors spamming Pepe memes.
Pepe is a cartoon frog. It would take too long to explain.
On the other hand, the former almost certainly saw and was influenced by the propaganda created by the latter.
The Process Is Repeating Itself Around The World
I realize the above headline makes horror movie trailer music play in your head. But let us pause here to remember that if 100,000 votes had gone the other direction (less than a tenth of a percent of what was cast), Hillary Clinton would be president and this would be an article musing about that time a bunch of racist 4chan nerds played a prank where they tried to get the host of The Apprentice elected president (presumably because Rick Astley was ineligible).
But Trump did get elected, and the same currents that swept him into office may be even stronger in Europe. Sure enough, two days after the election, some alt-right shitlord hopped onto the subreddit for France's far-right presidential candidate Marine Le Pen and posted this:
See, it started as a cartoon frog, but they started adding hair to look like the candidate they're supporting and ... ah, forget it.
As this article covers, these memefucks have been extremely active in pushing the campaign of Le Pen, France's equivalent to Trump. Will it work again?
This "Situational Assessment" of the international political landscape by Jordan Greenhall lumps most of the groups I've been talking about under the broad umbrella of the "Trump Insurgency." He describes their aims as "total war" against the media, Hollywood, the political establishment, and liberal democracy in general. His argument is that all these trolls, racists, and outright Nazis meming it up form a sort of "collective intelligence" that's much more adept at exploiting new media than the traditional powers that be.
He thinks those powers will keep right on losing to the Trump Insurgency for the same reason the U.S. military never quite got a handle on that Vietnam thing: "... if you imagine the Trump Insurgency as highly effective desert guerrillas, they are currently in the process of turning everything into a desert. The Establishment, optimized for 'jungle conflict,' is going to have a hard time."
You can agree or disagree, but we can definitely say that this is the kind of talk that the alt-right eats right up:
While at the same time feeling the need to demean whoever said it, because that's how 4 and 8chan roll.
Right next to that post was another comparing their movement to the Mongol hordes: "A fierce force of listless nomads with nowhere to go. Nowhere other than to sack civilization for all its worth. Plunder it and rape its women."
Of course, everything he's saying is silly and over-dramatic, sounding like something a 14-year-old would write before going back to painting his Warhammer army. But somewhere out there is an unemployed coal miner who thinks China stole his job, a middle-aged rural housewife who is scared to death of inner city (i.e. black) crime, and an angry teenage boy who feels harassed by feminists on Tumblr. Those tireless meme creators of the alt-right are brewing the fuel that will feed their rage.
So imagine all of the Western democracies as that hypothetical kid from earlier, the one who's experimenting with white supremacy and liking how it makes him feel. If we can figure out how to save that kid, we can save the world.
It's Spring Break! You know what that means: hot coeds getting loose on the beaches of Cancun and becoming imperiled in all classic beach slasher ways: man-eating shark, school of piranhas, James Franco with dreadlocks. There are so many films about vacations gone wrong, it's a chore to wonder if there's even such a thing as a movie vacation gone right. Amity Island and Camp Crystal Lake are out. So what does that leave? The ship from Wall-E? Hawaii with the Brady Bunch? A road trip with famous curmudgeon Chevy Chase? On this month's live podcast Jack O'Brien and the Cracked staff are joined by some special guest comedians to figure out what would be the best vacation to take in a fictional universe. Tickets are $7 and can be purchased here!
Follow us on Facebook, and let's just hug each other and be nice.