Wednesday, October 12, 2016

The Alt-Right Was Conjured Out of Pearl Clutching and Media Attention

They say that its power comes from its name. That it can only exist so long as it’s spoken. And that, voice by voice, it will continue to grow, until it is too large to keep in a box, and then too large to keep in the house, and then too large to keep. A runaway monster, feeding on its own designation.

So begins the horror story that isn’t a story at all—but instead summarizes the rise of the alt-right, a nebulous political movement that simultaneously stands for xenophobic white nationalism and also for antagonizing those who take offense to xenophobic white nationalism.

The emergence of the alt-right isn’t confined to the alt-right itself, however. With each article condemning or attempting to explain the alt-right, with each Twitter exchange and Facebook conversation blasting or laughing at or lauding its behavior, the alt-right monster has grown, its success more a reflection of the reaction it has been able to elicit than the strength of its own participants’ voices. Specifically assessing journalists’ role in perpetuating the alt-right story, Chava Gourarie notes that, the more the movement was reported on, the more reporting journalists were required to do; to speak of the alt-right is to make it so they can’t not be discussed.

It’s not difficult to see why people would be concerned. The alt-right embodies everything that goes bump on the internet in 2016. Not only do its members condemn—even actively antagonize—progressive calls for social justice, they do so with a knowing smirk, arguing that that they don’t actually mean the bigoted things they say, they’re just trying to freak out the normies.

Of course, whether extremism is sincere or—as in the case of Pepe, a frog meme conscripted into the alt-right’s cause—presented as some kind of joke, it is still extremism; as my co-author Ryan Milner and I argue of Pepe’s emergent bigotry, that is the message being communicated, and so that is the message, period.

And Pepe is just a drop in the bucket. Regardless of motivations, regardless of sincerity, the alt-right’s white supremacist cheerleading has emerged as a key factor in the presidential election. Two events in particular have ensured this ascendency.

The first was the alt-right’s racist harassment and subsequent hacking of Leslie Jones, a story Aja Romano describes as a “flashpoint of the alt-right’s escalating culture war.” One that also served as a flashpoint of the coverage the group would enjoy all summer, which journalists often, and not incorrectly, connected back to the election.

The second catalyst followed Hillary Clinton’s highly-publicized “alt-right speech” linking the group’s “God Emperor Trump” to white supremacy. Clinton’s speech was savvy in that it called Trump out for fanning the flames of bigotry, if not being an outright bigot himself. But it also provided the alt-right, and white nationalism more broadly, the largest platform it had ever enjoyed. The alt-right was, of course, “thrilled” with this attention, as their monster grew ever larger and more unwieldy.

The alt-right isn’t alone in this narrative. The loose hacking and trolling collective Anonymous emerged in a similar fashion. Given the amount of time that has passed since Anonymous first bubbled out of 4chan’s cauldron, I must specify: here I am referring specifically to Anonymous circa 2007-2010, a self-styled (and highly winking) “internet hate machine” interchangeable with 4chan’s /b/ board and synonymous with subcultural trolling. This is the Anonymous I explore in my first book, which I describe as existing in a “cybernetic feedback loop” with sensationalist corporate media. Anonymous would not have risen to such prominence, I argue, without sensationalist media—and Fox News in particular, as this infamous 2007 news clip attests—to simultaneously toot and condemn Anonymous’ horn. Their condemnation, of course, ultimately functioning as both advertisement and recruitment tool.

The connection between Anonymous and the alt-right doesn’t end there. As early as 2015, Jacob Siegal was noting the similarities between Anonymous and what would soon become known as the alt-right (at that point, the alt-right had yet to coalesce, though wisps of its eventual form permeate Siegal’s article).

It is impossible to know how many (if any) original Anons were swept into the alt-right fold. What is clear is that the alt-right pulls many of its in-jokes from 4chan’s persistently strong gravitational pull, for example the aforementioned Pepe. And many of the behaviors heralded by the alt-right—for example gaming post-debate polls or “shitposting” forums with racist pro-Trump memes—echo longstanding subcultural trolling tactics, like when trolling participants gamed the Time 100 list to favor 4chan founder Christopher “moot” Poole and cluttered more forums with more bigoted expression than can possibly be quantified.

The rhetorical and behavioral overlaps between early Anonymous and the alt-right help place both groups in context. But these nebulous collectives are most significantly linked through the conjuring process. In each case, previously insular communities were transformed into forces to be reckoned with. Into monsters, all through the repeated chanting of their name.

by Whitney Phillips, Motherboard |  Read more:
Image: uncredited