Experts say the alt-right have stormed mainstream consciousness by using humor and ambiguity as tactics to wrong-foot their opponents
Earlier this month, hundreds of alt-right protesters occupied the rotunda at Boston Common in the name of free speech. The protest included far-right grouplets old and new from the Oath Keepers to the Proud Boys. But there were no swastikas or shaved heads in sight.
Instead, the protest imagery was dominated by ostensibly comedic images, mostly cribbed from forums and social media. It looked a little like an animated version of a favorite alt-right message board, 4chan.
At least one attendee was dressed as the cartoon frog Pepe (a character co-opted by the movement against the wishes of its creator). Others carried the flag of Kekistan, the imaginary country created 4chan members. Kyle Chapman, the man who became the based stick man meme after attacking anti-fascists armed with a gas mask and a Captain America shield, also addressed the crowd. The same crowd later confronted a counter anti-fascist protest in the street.
Until recently, it would have been hard to imagine the combination of street violence meeting internet memes. But experts say that the alt-right have stormed mainstream consciousness by weaponizing irony, and by using humour and ambiguity as tactics to wrong-foot their opponents.
Last week, the Data & Society Institute released a report on the online disinformation and manipulation that is increasingly shaping US politics. The report focused on the way in which far-right actors spread white supremacist thought, Islamophobia, and misogyny through irony and knowledge of internet culture.
One the reports authors, Dr Alice Marwick, says that fascist tropes first merged with irony in the murkier corners of the internet before being adopted by the alt-right as a tool. For the new far-right movement, irony has a strategic function. It allows people to disclaim a real commitment to far-right ideas while still espousing them.
Marwick says that from the early 2000s, on message boards like 4chan, calculatedly offensive language and imagery have been used to provoke strong reactions in outsiders. Calling all users fags, or creating memes using gross racial stereotypes, serves a gate-keeping function, in that it keeps people out of these spaces, many of which are very easy to access.
Violating the standards of political correctness and the rules of polite interactions also functions as an act of rebellion in spaces drenched in adolescent masculinity.
This was played up by Milo Yiannopoulos in an infamous Breitbart explainer last year, in which he insisted that the alt-right movements circulation of antisemitic imagery was really nothing more than transgressive fun.
Are they actually bigots? Yiannopoulos asked rhetorically. No more than death metal devotees in the 1980s were actually satanists. For them, its simply a means to fluster their grandparents.
What Yiannopoulos left out, according to Marwick, is that these spaces increasingly became attractive to sincere white supremacists. They offered them venues for recruitment, and new methods for popularising their ideas.
In other words, troll culture became a way for fascism to hide in plain sight.
Marwick points to another guide to the alt-right, published last on Andrew Anglins prominent Nazi site, the Daily Stormer, which credited troll culture with bringing about non-ironic Nazism masquerading as ironic Nazism:
Irony allows people to strategically distance themselves from the very real commitment to white supremacist values that many of these forums have.
It also allows individuals to push boundaries in public, and to back away when they meet resistance. When Richard Spencer led a fascist salute to Donald Trump at his National Policy Insitute conference in the wake of Trumps win, he said it was done in a spirit of irony and exuberance.
A compounding difficulty for opponents of the alt-right is that online, its always been difficult to tell the difference between sincerity and satire.
Ryan Milner teaches Communication at the College of Charleston, and is the co-author of a new book called The Ambivalent Internet. The book ponders the implications of Poes law, an internet adage that points to the difficulties of online communication and of distinguishing extremist views from parodies.
Unless you have an obvious marker of another persons intent, you cant really gauge their intent. They could be messing around. They could be deadly serious. They could be a mix of both, Milner says.
But ironic, playful content can have effects in real life. Milner offers the example of Edgar Welch, who turned up at Comet Ping Pong Pizza in Washington DC with a gun after imbibing too deeply of the so-called Pizzagate conspiracy theory. The theory was ginned up by forum trolls and amplified by fringe rightwing media. It asserted, on the basis of some of John Podestas leaked emails, that the restaurant was the hub of an elite pedophile ring.
Last December, Welch drove to Washington from North Carolina with three firearms. When he arrived, he texted a friend: Raiding a pedo ring, possible sacrificing the lives of a few for the lives of many. He fired shots inside the restaurant, but fortunately was arrested without harming anyone.
A lot of the people propagating the Pizzagate conspiracy were doing it winkingly. But in the moment that somebody walked into that shop with a gun, then that playful buzzing participation around that conspiracy turned into real consequences, Milner says.
More generally, every ironic repetition of far-right ideals contributes to a climate in which racism, misogyny, or Islamophobia is normalised.
Every time you see a viral video of somebody shouting down a person of Muslim descent in a supermarket line, what youre seeing are the effects of an environment where its increasingly normal, increasingly accepted and expected to speak in this register, whether or not that started out as a joke, Milner says.