Know Your Memes: 4Chan and the Alt-Right

Looking behind the laughs and the “Lulz”, NEON investigates the dark and twisted secrets behind the internet’s most notorious Far-Right group, the Alt-Right.

By Richard Hunt | Twitter @HuntJournalism | Illustration: Wikimedia Commons

What draws us to social media? The companies behind the platforms that so many of us engage with daily, perhaps even hourly, have always emphasised the power of social media to bring people together and form a community. But how much do we actually talk to each other online? As the internet has evolved to support the instant sharing of images and videos, words have become increasingly secondary in the way that we communicate. Perhaps the most powerful and ubiquitous example of this is the meme.

But what if some of these memes are actually designed to popularise toxic messages and spread hate? Can the ambiguity behind a sharer’s intentions be exploited to spread right-wing ideas? One group in particular has privately acknowledged that this is a part of their strategy: the Alt-Right.

You may have heard of the ‘Alt-Right’, but not many people would find it easy to define. It can be seen as a loose American far-right, and sometimes white nationalist movement that possesses hostility to both multicultural liberalism and general conservatism. Apart from this the term is ill-defined.

For a clearer understanding, NEON spoke to BBC Trending Editor, and author of ‘Alt-Right: From 4Chan to the White House’, Mike Wendling. “It’s a very loose collection of people who are connected by what they are against, not for”, he stated. Since its peak as a broad church of people supporting Donald Trump in 2016, the group has narrowed due to negativity around the movement. “Nowadays the Alt-Right are controlled by white nationalists”, he says.

The Alt-Right differs from traditional political movements by being primarily an online community. However, rather than coming together on the major platforms like Facebook or Twitter, the movement is commonly associated with forum-based communities, and nowhere more so than 4Chan’s  “politically incorrect” (/pol/) forum.

At the age of 15, Christopher Poole (moot) created the imageboard, 4Chan, as an alternative to popular Japanese image boards such as Futaba Channel, with the site primarily being used to post images and discuss manga. As the website grew in popularity, 4Chan split into various different boards, each of which possessing its own theme ranging from history to video games, to politics, and pornography. It is renowned as a place that allows people to anonymously make posts and share images freely, allowing people to post anything they wish whilst avoiding any direct association with it. The Alt-Right quickly developed a presence on the site, taking advantage of having an anonymity to what they say and share.

Can the ambiguity behind a sharer’s intentions be exploited to spread right-wing ideas?

When asked why he thought the Alt-Right used 4Chan, Wendling stated it was simply “because they could.”“There has been a lot of debate and I’m not qualified to answer if there has always been Nazis on there” he continued, “but clearly there was this thing that had a sway on internet culture and control which they use to their advantage”

The amount of internet influence 4Chan has developed over the past 15 years is quite astounding, with Wendling giving the example of the online hacktivist group ‘Anonymous’ “It was clear from Anonymous that [4Chan] could be used as a way to manipulate people”, he explains. Anonymous, reportedly formed on 4Chan back in 2003, and are commonly known for Distributed Denial of Service (DDoS) attacks on The Church of Scientology and the governments of Australia and Egypt.

4Chan also exerts an enormous influence over the meme community, being the main hub for the creation of many popular memes including the almost universally known and totally inoffensive “Rick-Roll” and “LOLCats” But there are some memes on the site, such as Pepe the Frog, that have become a symbol for the Alt-Right and for White Nationalism. Olivia Nuzzi at Daily Beast puts it, “turning Pepe into a white nationalist icon” became a goal for the Alt-Right.

One of the most popular boards on the site is the “Politically Incorrect” forum, commonly named /pol/. The thread itself was created in 2011 as an attempt to replace other current affairs threads which had become dominated by racists. However, despite intentions, /pol/ quickly developed its own significant far right presence. Analysts suggest that it was on this page that the “Alt-Right” was born.

Memes featured on the thread can range from anti-semitic stereotypes to hate filled prejudice, with one frequent example being the ‘Happy Merchant’. This anti-semitic caricature of a Jewish male, typically posted as a reaction image, is used to mock Judaism or, by playing on stereotypical anti-semitic tropes, accuse other posters of being greedy or untrustworthy.

The fact that a fair amount of Alt-Right followers do create memes for nefarious purposes is rather worrying, especially as they inevitably spill over on to various mainstream social media platforms. As Wendling puts it, “Memes and internet culture are an influence on young people”.

The Alt-Right has often been seen as a primarily online movement, physical manifestations of the movement have slowly been growing over the past few years.

Perhaps the clearest statement of the Alt-Right’s online strategy can be found in a style guide made by Andrew Anglin, the editor of notorious far-right messaging board, The Daily Stormer. This 17 page document teaches fascists how to create content for the site in a way that could manipulate people to become desensitised to the extreme politics of the Alt-Right. The explicit aim is to ensure that the “unindoctrinated” cannot identify if the product made by the individual is a joke or not. The document instructs the person there should be a “conscious awareness” toward the stereotypes associated with hateful racists, with the document referring to it as a form of “self-deprecating humour”. Horrifyingly, Anglin ends this section of his guide by stating that the use of irony was “a ploy”, assuring to his audience that he did actually wanted “to gas the kikes”.

Although the Alt-Right has often been seen as a primarily online movement, physical manifestations of the movement have slowly been growing over the the past few years. An account by Alt-Right infiltrator Jay Firestone asserts that many individuals from 4Chan had  “made their IRL trolling debut at HWNDU”. “He Will Not Divide Us” was an anti-Trump artistic performance, created by Shia Labeouf, Luke Turner and Nastja Rönkkö. The campaign was intended to be streamed everyday for the entirety of Trump’s 4 year presidency, and began on January 20th 2017. It was designed to express an example of resistance, and opposition, with the mantra aiming to guide “the spirit of each individual participant and the community.” Intended to be broadcast outside the museum of the Moving Image in Queens, New York. It was moved several times due to constant disruptions by trolls from 4Chan, and other Alt-Right communities, and according to Firestone’s infiltration, this particular incident has lead people from 4Chan to network with “IRL” fascists, such as ‘The Proud Boys’ and ‘Identity Evropa’.

When asking Wendling on what he thought of these connections and whether he thought the Alt-Right issue had spread to mainstream society, he referred to the recent terror attack in New Zealand, answering “Of course, someone shot a mosque in Christchurch, and there is no getting around it” He was at pains to stress that not all people on 4Chan were terrorists, but did put forward the point that social media in the past has had a way to radicalize people.

Of course, not all memes are bad – many are harmless and very funny.  But perhaps we need to be more careful about the memes we share. As much as you want to trust your favourite meme pages, at times there could be circumstances where they do share extremely racist and anti-semitic imagery. The fact that these kind of memes exist, and are popular on various mainstream social media platforms, is alarming, and the cynical and ironic forms of comedy many memes promote can be exploited by fascists.

Comedy has always played an important role in challenging society, and even Wendling notes that “There’s always a transgressive way to look at comedy”. It’s hard to disagree with him, and that’s what makes this such a tricky issue. Although comedy is supposed to be subjective, is it really okay to make fun the holocaust and joke about the rights of women, especially when we consider the Alt-Right’s agenda? It’s saddening to say that due to the vastness of the internet and the challenges involved in censoring content, these issues may never be resolved. But if there is anything we can do, maybe we can try to limit the amount of hate that is present on our favourite sites, and hopefully, rather than us sharing this negativity, maybe we can present unity, and most importantly, love.


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