One of the most shocking images from the “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, on Aug. 11 was the spectacle of several hundred young people taking up torches and marching in support of white nationalism.
The avalanche of media coverage that followed the murder of antiracist activist Heather Heyer by far-right member James Alex Fields Jr., the 20-year-old who drove his car into a crowd of counterprotesters, has touched on many reasons for the recent explosion in white supremacist organizing. The dehumanization of marginalized groups, from immigrants to racial minorities to Muslims, has played an increasingly overt role in mainstream conservative media and Republican election campaigns, culminating in the open bigotry of Donald Trump’s presidential bid. Many experts point to backlash against shifting racial demographics, newly won rights for gays and lesbians, and the rising economic power of women as other reasons to explain the growth of racist, far-right organizations.
All of that is true as far as it goes. But the path for radicalization for many young men also has particular roots in the online communities in which they have forged their identities, only recently making the leap to the real-world violence that has lasted all year. The Intercept has investigated the recent phenomenon, exploring the dynamics of race, violence, and online culture in a short documentary that can be viewed above.
In recent years, neo-Nazi groups, once confined to spreading their message through marginal radio programs and small publishing houses, have turned to video gaming forums; websites associated with ironic “alt-right” pranksters, who espouse far-right ideologies grounded in white supremacy; and have blended with the so-called “Men’s Rights Movement” to find new foot soldiers, many of whom are the kind of disaffected young men who are ripe for recruitment into extremist movements around the world. The dark humor that has flourished in these forums, with their blurred and overlapping lines, sanitizes ideas of a race war and genocide, featuring pitched battles between racial identities. This online cauldron has been an important factor in fueling the growth of the “alt-right” and adjacent white nationalist organizations.
Without understanding these cyber terrains, efforts to stymie white nationalism’s growth are badly hindered.
Fields, for example, was photographed carrying a shield from Vanguard America, one of half a dozen newly formed far-right groups organized to bring more young people into the white supremacist movement, with a special focus on recruiting on college campuses. Fields’s Facebook page was reportedly adorned with jokey images about “weaponized autism”; Pepe the Frog, a once kid-friendly meme appropriated by online trolls into a neo-Nazi symbol; and Feels Man, a crudely drawn image originating from the web forum, 4chan, that depicts a sad, bald man as a representation of social isolation and existential dread. The fliers advertising the rally also featured the same playful images from online memes.
4chan, a site that delights in offending modern sensibilities about race, violence, and sexuality, has become a hotbed for this type of white nationalist recruitment. But the site was not always particularly friendly to white nationalism. For much of its history, 4chan simply served as a platform for various online subcultures interested in esoteric Japanese cartoons and dark humor, along with pranks centered on “trolling,” coordinated harassment, often carried out just for the hell of it. Dale Beran, a writer who has studied 4chan, notes that 4chan users would often raid Habbo Hotel, an online children’s game, “for no other reason than that it was an amusing way to pass their near limitless idle time.”
In recent years, however, 4chan’s trolling campaigns have merged with larger political debates about multiculturalism and diversity. The Gamergate controversy, which tapped into the rich vein of misogyny running through 4chan and included aggressive harassment of women online, provided near unlimited fodder for conspiracy-tinged outrage directed at feminists and advocates of progressive identity politics.
4chan users have relished any opportunity to troll what author Angela Nagle has termed “Tumblr-liberalism,” an emerging online discourse on the left that Nagle notes has reached an “absurd apotheosis with a politics based on the minutiae and gradations of rapidly proliferating identities.” This emerging discourse, which Nagle documents in her new book on the online culture wars, “Kill All Normies,” centers on a culture of mass online callouts, public humiliation, and other efforts to penalize anyone deemed in violation of constantly shifting norms of sensitivity around identity.
In one salient example of the absurdities of this style of liberal discourse, Nagle points to an “antiracist” writer who reacted to the death of a child killed by an alligator to ridicule the “white male entitlement” of his parents.
Some on the political right have seized on such attempts to reflexively mock white people by embracing a newly assertive and aggrieved white identity. For sites such as 4chan, which exists to blow past boundaries, the opportunity to present white identity politics was quickly taken to its logical extreme.
This mass prankster mob descended, for instance, on actor Shia LaBeouf’s “He Will Not Divide Us” art project, which consisted initially of a 24-hour livestreamed webcam in New York, set up with the idea that anti-Trump demonstrators could use it as a platform to express opposition to the president. As soon as it launched, 4chan mobilized to constantly troll the stream, with mobs of young men appearing before the camera to flash white supremacist symbols.
The nonstop white power pranks eventually led to the stream being shut down and moved to a discreet location in rural Tennessee, where instead the camera remained fixed upon a flag with the “He Will Not Divide Us” message across it. Again, 4chan delighted in the opportunity to use its hive mind to belittle LaBeouf’s project. Using a mixture of digital sleuthing, the flight route of a plane that briefly crossed over the sky in sight of the stream, and a volunteer who drove around rural Tennessee honking his horn, the horde of 4chan volunteers quickly identified the location and stole the flag.
The exuberant pranks increasingly converged with overt displays of white nationalism. Many arrived at the site to casually post intentionally offensive memes about racial identity. But for some, the jokey memes became a bridge to a formal association with white nationalism. In other words, when users post so many genocide and rape jokes, they become so detached from reality that they become susceptible to the messages of bonafide hate groups, a transformation referred to in forums as “irony poisoning.”
In a recent posting, one 4chan user made the connection between irony-laden jokes and white nationalism fairly explicit. “The Alt-Right is an attempt to rebrand WN,” the user wrote. “Using ironic memes and terms that don’t mean anything to our enemies but normies find funny and actually lead people to develop a race-based political consciousness is what it is all about.”
An archive of 4chan posts show a constant barrage of messages encouraging users to join a range of white nationalist organizations, including the Traditionalist Worker Party, Vanguard America, and Identity Evropa. “If you’re looking for the least autistic organisation, look into Identity Evropa,” wrote one 4chan post, claiming that the group is “actually trying to accomplish radiative realistic goals.” Others, like Andrew Anglin, the founder of the Daily Stormer, a white supremacist propaganda site modeled after the Nazi-era tabloid, Der Stürmer, cited 4chan’s evolution into a hate site as a pivotal moment in their own personal path to radicalization.
Conservative activists began to take note of the emerging online culture wars, and leapt at the opportunity to cast themselves as countercultural figures, willing to challenge gender and racial norms, with the hope that leftists would embarrass themselves by overreacting.
Christopher Cantwell, a widely photographed white supremacist at the Charlottesville melee, was previously a leading “Men’s Rights” activist, as was Mike Cernovich, a prominent “alt-right” leader and early Trump backer. Misogyny, which is more widely accepted in American society than overt white supremacy, particularly among young men struggling to find their way in the dating world, becomes what The Cut referred to as a “gateway drug for the alt-right.” Come for the sexism, stay for the racism.
Steve Bannon, Trump’s recently deposed chief strategist, consciously attempted to forge a bond to the underbelly of 4chan and similar sites. “These guys, these rootless white males, had monster powers,” Bannon discovered, while working at a failed startup designed to monetize virtual currency mining in the online game, World of Warcraft, according to the book, “Devil’s Bargain,” by journalist Joshua Green. When Bannon took the reins at Breitbart News, he moved quickly to harness the online troll army by overtly tapping into the outrage machine sites like 4chan generated. “The reality is, Fox News’s audience was geriatric and no one was connecting with this younger group,” Bannon said. The decision to hire a technology editor named Milo Yiannopoulos, whose specialty at Breitbart was intentionally offensive content, was a deliberate attempt to harness the high-traffic horde of 4chan readers for political gain.
In a piece for National Review, writer Elliot Kaufman notes that conservatives quickly embraced the chance to bait leftists into doing “something silly and destructive,” thus turning conservatives into the victims of leftist overreach and champions of free speech. In other words, trolling liberals became an effective recruiting strategy for young conservatives, especially in college towns where the audience for vulgar humor extends beyond ideological lines. It became such an alluring option that many mainstream GOP groups began inviting “alt-right” personalities, even those with a history of explicit anti-Semitism, racism, and sexism, to college campuses around the country.
In the backdrop of these controversies, there were near-limitless social media incentives for baiting the left. YouTube channels focused on ridiculing the excesses of liberal identity politics — from efforts to ban white people from participating in yoga sessions to endless debates about whether white people were stealing the “intellectual property” of Mexicans by opening a burrito shop — garnered audiences of millions of viewers.
There were also deep-pocketed right-wing foundations that quickly embraced the campus trolling strategy as a convenient way to connect with younger generations. The Koch foundation-backed Young America’s Foundation, Turning Point USA, and Robert Mercer, a far-right billionaire donor, were more than eager to nudge the emerging dynamic along by sponsoring incendiary speakers to visit college campuses. Mercer, the hedge fund titan who, along with his daughter, has financed Breitbart, Media Research Center, and other pro-Trump groups, quietly financed a campus tour by Yiannopoulos, whose bigoted insults and cruel jokes at campus events were clearly meant to humiliate minorities and provoke liberal outrage.
The effort finally led to the first major spectacle of violence inspired by the online culture wars. Yiannopoulos was prevented from speaking at a February event in Berkeley when left-wing activists responded with riots on campus and throughout the city. For many on the left, a shooting at a previous Yiannopoulos campus visit was evidence enough that any such events must be preemptively shut down. An unverified rumor also buzzed that Yiannopoulos would somehow identify Berkeley undocumented students for deportation, though it was unclear whether Yiannopoulos truly had any list of names, or how shutting down the event would prevent Yiannopoulos from unmasking their identities online.
Videos of the Berkeley riot quickly went viral, showing young people perceived as Yiannopoulos fans beaten and pepper-sprayed, along with the story of one bystander allegedly beaten by antifascists because his suit made him “look like a Nazi.”
Far-right personalities, most of whom had gained a broad online following from the Trump campaign, quickly latched onto the news to present themselves as victims of persecution. After years of fairly trivial accusations of left-wing oppression, here was a tangible example that could mobilize those ostensibly aggrieved by political correctness. A call went out to return to Berkeley to fight back, supposedly to defend the principle of “free speech.”
While it’s unclear how many genuine neo-Nazis attended the initial Yiannopoulos event in February, white nationalist organizations made the city a rallying cry, forging an alliance of convenience with other conservative figures also hoping to exploit the opportunity. A mix of militia, libertarian, white nationalist, and thrill-seekers converged over the ensuing months in Berkeley to do battle with the left at a number of so-called “free speech” rallies, all the while wielding weapons and GoPro cameras to record and broadcast their street skirmishes.
But the far-right movement has also exploited and celebrated images of its members violently attacking its leftist adversaries in order to increase its profile — in an ominous harbinger of Fields’s murderous rampage in Virginia.
The street violence, which became fodder for the network of far-right YouTube channels that specialize in promoting “alt-right” content, became a useful lightning rod for white nationalist groups hoping to expand their presence. In particular, Berkeley was a turning point for Identity Evropa, one of the newly formed white supremacist group that recruits primarily on college campuses and online forums.
At the April 15 free speech rally in Berkeley, Nathan Damigo, the founder of Identity Evropa, punched a young left-wing woman in the face, an incident caught on camera and quickly turned into a popular meme on 4chan and conservative YouTube channels.
“We started with about 12 members in March of 2016 and we now have about 625 nationwide,” says Damigo, who attributes his organization’s sudden success to the online attention he received in Berkeley. “It’s really a numbers game,” he adds, noting that the more videotaped confrontations with antifascists, the more attention he receives.
Other stars were born in a similar fashion.
Kyle Chapman, a former club bouncer with a lengthy rap sheet of convictions, similarly became an instant celebrity from videos of him using his a stick to beat leftist activists during multiple confrontations in Berkeley.
Known as a “Based Stick Man” and depicted in dozens of memes and remixed videos glorifying his brawls with the left, Chapman has embraced his new identity, and has encouraged supporters to make common cause with white nationalism. Throughout the year, Chapman and others in this far-right movement have appeared at events across the country designed to stoke similarly livestreamed and meme-able street battles with antifascist groups.
It wasn’t just traditional voices of white nationalism, such as former KKK leader David Duke, who were responsible for the “Unite the Right” protest in Charlottesville. Damigo, Johnny “Monoxide” Ramondetta, Tim “Baked Alaska” Gionet, and other online “alt-right” celebrities who gained a following through their participation at Berkeley rallies earlier this year helped organize and promote the Virginia event. Many clearly hoped to capitalize on the media firestorm, as well as the potential for violence, as they paraded around the streets of Charlottesville with livestreaming equipment.
But does the killing of Heyer, and the media firestorm that followed, represent a turning point? Or has the irony fully curdled to poison?
“The standard online shtick for politically serious members of the alt-right has been to flirt with Nazism but then to laugh at anyone who took these gestures at face value,” notes Nagle, in a post-Charlottesville essay in the Baffler. “But in the wake of James Alex Fields’ alleged terrorist assault in Charlottesville, which claimed the life of antifa protestor Heather Heyer, ironic dodges are foreclosed to the alt-right.”
Shortly after her killing, the Daily Stormer, a leading white nationalist site, posted a perfect distillation of the cocktail of poison, irony, viciousness, misogyny and racism that has come to define the movement online. The headline — “Heather Heyer: Woman Killed in Road Rage Incident was a fat, Childless 32-Year-Old Slut” — was the impetus for GoDaddy.com to finally yank the site off the web.
Leaked chatroom messages from the organizers of the Charlottesville rally appear to show white nationalists celebrating Heyer’s killing, suggesting that more violence is to come.
Heyer’s shocking murder, and the flippant response — the Daily Stormer chalked up the anger to “player hatred” — may drain the enthusiasm from those drawn to the “alt-right” solely to be culturally transgressive. Or maybe not.