Jacob Siegel wrote the thoughtful profile of Paul Gottfried a few months ago.
After Charlottesville, the mask of irony that wrong-footed so many commentators was ripped from the U.S. alt-right. And more recently, an email leak reported by Buzzfeed has stripped the irony defense from Breitbart’s former star provocateur Milo Yiannopolous, who, leaked internal records show, was the celebrity nexus connecting Nazi-saluting race warriors, powerful Republican funders, and members of the liberal media and entertainment class who fed him tips and dirt. The transformation of internet platforms into havens for the far right is crucial to understanding our current political crisis and what may lie ahead.
It’s easy to forget—especially when the most famous Twitter troll in the world is the president of the United States—but only a few years ago, social media and unregulated online spaces were heralded by many political progressives as Utopian forces ushering humanity to a new age of equality and democratization. By 2011, Silicon Valley boosters were agreed that the digital revolution had finally arrived. That was the early, hopeful moment when Twitter was supposedly driving the Arab Spring, and the hackers of Anonymous—the main political product of 4chan before the alt-right—became symbols of the Occupy movement.
At the same time, however, uglier emanations from digital society were being hidden by euphemisms like “trolling.” Trolls were often seen as sinister, yes, but also as an exciting new counterculture from the internet’s underground. Just as Silicon Valley rhetoric about an optimized, low-cost future concealed the consolidation of unprecedented levels of money and influence by the tech oligopoly, so, on a cultural level, the idea of “trolling” gave a romantic cover to antisocial exercises of power and resentment. As bombastic parody became the lingua franca of the internet and the line between irony and sincerity blurred, people lost their footing, which made them easier to manipulate. Debate on the internet vacillated between the claim that everything is ironic or that nothing is, and the political corollary: that everyone is Hitler or no one is, possibly not even Hitler.
To understand how we got here and why so many people were bamboozled by the alt-right’s playful insincerity we have to revisit an earlier period when the groundwork was laid in conceptual failures around 4chan, trolling and ‘lulz’. A decade ago, The New York Times ran a prescient story by Mattathias Schwartz called “The Trolls Among Us.” The article follows a group of hackers and internet mischief makers who fill their days defacing memorials for suicide victims, posting flashing images to epilepsy websites and theorizing about their role as an elite, transgressive vanguard. Trolling, Schwartz wrote in 2008, “has evolved from ironic solo skit to vicious group hunt.” The story depicts one Andrew Aurenheimer, better known by his hacker sobriquet Weev, who, even then, “displayed a misanthropy far harsher” than the article’s other subjects:
“Trolling is basically internet eugenics,” he said, his voice pitching up like a jet engine on the runway. “I want everyone off the internet. Bloggers are filth. They need to be destroyed. Blogging gives the illusion of participation to a bunch of retards. … We need to put these people in the oven! I listened for a few more minutes as Weev held forth on the Federal Reserve and about Jews.”
In the aftermath of Charlottesville, Weev popped back into the public eye when an image circulated of his post on Daily Stormer, named after the Nazi publication Der Stürmer. Accompanying a picture of Heather Heyer, the protester tragically killed at the Charlottesville counter-demonstration, Weev had added the caption: “What’s the location of this fat skank’s funeral? …i want to get people on the ground there.”