WHO’S WHO IN THE DISSIDENT RIGHT: BRITTANY PETTIBONE

Colin Liddell writes:

As an e-THOT, it can safely be assumed that she has no ideas, originality, or authenticity of her own worth commenting on. So, why even mention her in a serious compendium like this?

The main and perhaps only reason to keep tabs on Brittany is as an “historical artefact” demonstrating how the combination of social media and thottery became conduits for the degenerative sub-intellectual and sub-ideological content that undermined the once potent force known as the Alt-Right. From a high-IQ, “Apollonian” movement, forging a future spiritual and philosophic elite, it instead transmuted into an impotent, infantalised, emotionalised, and over-feminised hot mess, which is where it kind of remains today.

Characters like Brittany played their part in this tragic downward spiral.

Luckily, I don’t have to do all the tedious research to demonstrate this, as a hard-working academic at a Dutch university has spent years trawling through Pettibone’s Twitter and other social media to build up a convincing picture of how she was turned from an apolitical airhead with a petty interest in sci-fi writing into part of the mooing herd of Alt-Righters stumbling off the conspiritard and meme cliffs.

The academic, Professor Ico Maly details how Pettibone was a nobody on Twitter with low engagement until she started to pick up on the noise generated by the Alt-Right and Trump’s presidential run, and started to tentatively chime in, about one month before the election in November 2016.

Professor Ico Maly (in the Culture Studies Department, Tilburg University in the Netherlands) writes in this 2020 paper:

Far-right movements, activists, and political parties are on the rise worldwide. Several scholars connect this rise of the far-right at least partially to the affordances of digital media and to a new digital metapolitical battle. A lot has been written about the far-right’s adoption of trolling, harassment, and meme-culture in their metapolitical strategy, but researchers have focused less on how far-right vloggers are using the practices of influencer culture for metapolitical goals. This paper tries to fill this gap and bring new theoretical insights based on a digital ethnographic case study. By analyzing political YouTuber and #pizzagate propagator Brittany Pettibone, this paper contributes to our understanding of radicalization processes in relation to the use of digital media.

…Mainstream digital media like YouTube, Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram are used by radical right and far-right actors in connection to niched websites, boards, crowd funding platforms, click farms, bot-networks, and alt-tech to engage in a metapolitical battle: a cultural or ideological war for hegemony.

The Alt Right works in niches because the mainstream means of cultural production (New Yorker, New York Times, Harvard, etc) are shut to them.

Ico Maly writes: “The appropriation of digital culture and digital technologies has changed the metapolitics of the far-right. Not only the intellectual, but also the activist, the politician and the prosumer are now imagined as part of the new right metapolitical battle.”

Colin Liddell points out that prior to 2014, the Alt Right was primarily a written medium, but after 2014, it became primarily a lower IQ podcasting and livestreaming and s***-posting medium.

Maly:

* People do not radicalize in relation to abstract phenomena, but in relation to (a network of) very specific individuals, websites, channels, and discourses. The Trump campaign under Steve Bannon succeeded in connecting several of these niches together (the so-called alt-right, incels, #maga-activists, 4channers, anti-feminists, pizzagaters) in one movement…

* At its core, every new right metapolitical project is about the
production and hegemonization of an ideology that rejects liberal democracy, the left and the (radical) Enlightenment tradition in general.

* micro-celebrity should be understood as ‘a self-presentation technique in which people view themselves as a public persona to be consumed by others, use strategic intimacy to appeal to followers, and regard their audience as fans’…

* This “edited self,” as García-Rapp and Roca-Cuberes (2017) call it, is at the same time a product of the internal norms of each community (shaping its discourses, styles, looks, and ideologies) and the technical affordances and the media-ideologies connected to the platform (visible in its community standards and norms), and the intrinsic features of online content. Influencer culture is thus a socio-technical assemblage: the voice and performance of the social media influencer is not entirely
“free,” but a product of socio-technologic interaction between the vlogger, the platform(s), his or her followers, and the larger niche in which the influencer acts.

* Influencers are an integral part of the so-called attention-economy or what Venturini calls the ‘economy of virality’ (Venturini 2019, p. 133). They capture the attention of the users and activate them (García-Rapp and Roca-Cuberes 2017). Audience labour (Fisher 2015), or more specifically, the interaction between people, interfaces, and algorithms, is the fundament of the contemporary digital economy. This audience labour and attention is measured, quantified, and standardized in the form of “reach,” “views,” “interactions,” “likes,” and “shares.”

* Such claims give readers the impression that those recommendation algorithms work independently and overrule human agency. New research shows that YouTube’s recommendation mechanism does not promote inflammatory or radicalized content (Ledwich and Zaitsev 2020). Both claims do rely on a technological determinism, as they seem to understand the algorithms as completely independent actors. By adopting an ethnographic interactionist approach, the focus is not on the algorithms and the platforms alone, but on what people do with interfaces and algorithms.

* …Pettibone links to a thread from the infamous pro-Trump-reddit
/r/The_Donald as “proof” that the Democratic party organized pedophilia rings. The whole thread is based on one email from performance artist Marina Abramovic to John Podesta in which she says that she is ‘looking forward to the Spirit Cooking dinner at my place’ (Wikileaks 2016). In those tweets, Abromovic’s arty “dinner party” concepts called Spirit Cooking were de-contextualized. They were now read literally as an invitation for “occult/magic gatherings” where children were molested and
murdered. Art—fiction—was turned into “reality.” This re-entextualization has had profound and powerful effects, as it was the start of a new conspiracy theory—Pizzagate…

* In less than one month, Pettibone developed a feel for hashtags and tapped into very successful ones like #DNCleak2, #spiritcooking, #ClintonCult, and #SavetheChildren. The success of these hashtags was not only a matter of organic uptake. Twitter found that 5% of the activity related to the #podestaemail hashtag came from bots (O’Sullivan 2018). The #spiritcooking hashtag was supported by the Russian internet agency (DiResta et al. 2019) and the #pizzagate hashtag was also pushed by
extensive bot-activity, primarily focused on internationalizing the affaire (Guenon des Mesnards and Zaman 2018). This made pizzagate into a global phenomenon getting global traction. Pettibone’s hashtag tactics helped turn Brittany Pettibone, the aspiring teenage writer, into an influential political tweep playing a major role in spreading the #pizzagate conspiracy theory…

* Pettibone, together with the Canadian far right YouTuber and activist Lauren Southern, started travelling to Europe and published vlogs on
their travels and especially on the identitarian movements and their actions in Europe.

7. From Activist Tweep to Metapolitical Influencer

In less than one year after her first political tweet, Pettibone had acquired large visibility—a key value within the attention economy (García-Rapp and Roca-Cuberes 2019)—within the global far right
niche. The name Brittany Pettibone had become a brand with a substantial audience of alt-right and identitarian activists. In the next months and years, she would capitalize on this position. Since May 2017, Pettibone started to craft her channel around her own personality. The banner ‘Virtue of the West’ was replaced by a professionally crafted intro positioning her name and her own logo.

In less than one year after her first political tweet, Pettibone had acquired large visibility—a key value within the attention economy (García-Rapp and Roca-Cuberes 2017)—within the global far-right
niche. The name Brittany Pettibone had become a brand with a substantial audience of alt-right and identitarian activists. In the next months and years, she would capitalize on this position. Since May 2017, Pettibone started to craft her channel around her own personality. The banner ‘Virtue of the West’ was replaced by a professionally crafted intro positioning her name and her own logo.

Since April 2017, we also see that Pettibone more regularly starts to use her Instagram account, giving her followers more insight in “the back office” of her political activism and seemingly giving unfiltered access to her private life. This influencer practice is commonly understood as “networked intimacy.” The concept was initially introduced to try to understand how people use digital media to make friends or to display intimacy in the context of social media (Miguel 2018). In relation to influencers, it has gotten a slightly different meaning. Networked intimacy has become an instrument to bind audiences to the influencer and create a perception of authenticity.
Whereas in 2016 pictures on Pettibone’s Instagram mostly showed typical family pictures, we see a clear break in 2017. From her invite to Trump’s inauguration, over selfies with Lauren Southern to her performance at the Free Speech Rally in Berkeley in April 2017: Instagram was now regularly
used to give her fans a look behind the scenes of her activist life. With the exception of some old #TBT pictures—showing her travelling with friends, celebrating her dog’s birthday and pictures with her family—most pictures were now carefully staged and stylized to contribute to her brand as an “important activist.” The intimacy of these “old family” #TBT photos were re-entextualized in a political context and blended with more glamorous pictures reminiscent of fashion shoots with behind the scenes pictures and stories on her political activism. Influencers, Hou (2019) argues, try to create an aura of authenticity through the (interactive) representation of the intimate and private self.
A practice Hou calls staged authenticity. A good example of how Pettibone uses staged authenticity for metapolitical goals is her wedding. In the weeks and months before her wedding with Martin Sellner (see Figure 8)—a key figure within the pan-European identitarian movement Generation
Identity—followers on her Instagram could see her getting her wedding ring sized, kissing Martin Sellner on a carriage under the caption ‘Du bist die liebe meines lebens,’ and pictures of both giving their wedding vows in a church on the Austrian countryside.

* Uptake refers to (1) the fact that within the digital ecology users are not only consumers but also (re)producers of discourse, so-called prosumers (Miller 2011) and (2) that algorithms and the interfaces of digital media play an important role in the dissemination and reproduction of ideas (see Maly 2019a, 2020c). Uptake through human and non-human actors (from bots to the algorithms organizing the communication on a platform) has become a crucial part of any political and metapolitical battle. Metapolitical messaging in the digital age is thus not a linear process between sender (the intellectual) and receiver (the people), but involves a multitude of human and non-human actors that
are all potential senders and receivers. This “uptake” is as crucial as the input.

About Luke Ford

I've written five books (see Amazon.com). My work has been noted in the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and 60 Minutes. I teach Alexander Technique in Beverly Hills (Alexander90210.com).
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