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

Whitney Phillips

The alt-right's rise wasn't borne out of its own efforts; it was conjured by the endless attention it has provoked.

Image: Pepe Frog/Flickr

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.

Clinton's speech calling some Trump supporters "deplorable" gave both the Trump camp and the alt-right one of the strongest rallying cries of the end of the campaign, as evidenced by this Instagram post from Donald Trump Jr.

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.

Piled-on amplification, in which toxic content is uncritically shared and reshared, won't hamper the growth of the alt-right.

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.

The aptness of the monster metaphor hinges, to some extent, on both groups' destructive tendencies. But more than that, the monster metaphor helps complicate the assumption that either group is truly aberrant. As anthropologist David Gilmore argues, monster figures are, instead, creatures of remix: frightening amalgamations of existing animals, forms, and characteristics. Nothing new; rather, "reshuffled familiarity."

Similarly, the monstrous forms taken by Anonymous and the alt-right don't stand outside existing cultural logics. They are instead built from these logics. In addition to exploiting every possible point of cultural tension, from racism to sexism to xenophobia, Anonymous successfully harnessed and weaponized sensationalism, engendered by an emergent click-based web economy where the shrillest coverage generated the greatest advertising revenue.

As Anonymous evidenced, shocking mainstream media into producing myth-building coverage takes little more than an ethos that feeds off any attention you can get.

Similarly, and also in addition to exploiting every possible point of cultural tension, the alt-right has successfully harnessed and weaponized amplification, engendered by the incessant push for more: higher metrics, increased followers, and greater social influence. Both monsters a funhouse refraction of the norms and values that spawned them.

And therefore both unkillable by the tools of their creation. Piled-on sensationalism couldn't quell Anonymous' growth; it only made them stronger. And piled-on amplification, in which toxic content is uncritically shared and reshared, won't hamper the growth of the alt-right. It will only spread their message broader and louder.

This picture is certainly grim, but it isn't hopeless. The monster can still be denied its happy ending.

The first and most important step is to avoid making folk heroes out of alt-right boosters. Even when the stories include some elements of pearl clutching ("I admit he's a pretty nasty guy, but he's so charming…"), the act of configuring mean-spirited rat king harassers into figures worthy of awe, fear, and endless hot takes only makes those figures more prominent. (Figures I have no interest in discussing here, thank you). And worse, this half-scolding, half-fawning approach makes them all the more likely to engage in increasingly outrageous behavior—because there is incentive for them to do so. Yes these individuals are culturally important. So was Voldemort. But breathless speculation over what may or may not exist in their heart of hearts is irrelevant. What matters is the impact of their actions. Focus there.

This is not some variation of the victim-blaming imperative "don't feed the trolls." Rather, the rule of thumb should be "don't amplify hatefulness." Don't, in other words, do the assholes' work for them, or help make their days any easier.

However vigorously one might wave the free speech banner, toxic antagonism imposes its own kind of censorship.

And don't frame the world in their terms. Those who spend their time viciously attacking others shouldn't be treated as the protagonists of the story. They should instead be treated as what they are: the antagonists, with their targets in the subject position. This also means refusing to defer to the terminology they prefer, and instead using the terminology that accurately reflects the impact of their behavior. So they say they're just trolling? Who cares, they're not in charge. If they're spewing bigotry, that's bigotry, a point emphasized by Idea Channel's Mike Rugnetta.

The ethics of amplification is a trickier nut to crack, since regardless of what someone might hope to accomplish by engaging with the alt-right's bigoted content, merely speaking the monster's name gives it further life. "Even if it's done in the service of critical assessment," Ryan Milner writes of reprinting similar identity antagonisms in his study of memetic logics, "reproducing these discourses continues their circulation, and therefore may continue to normalize their antagonisms and marginalizations." This was undoubtedly part of the harassers' game in the Jones hack, a point I discussed with Motherboard's Jason Koebler.

Simultaneously, not speaking out can be just as damaging; injustice cannot be addressed until it is named.

One workaround to this paradox—not just in relation to the alt-right, but in any instance of targeted identity antagonism—is to avoid telling the story the way the monster wants it repeated. Whether it's the alt-right insisting that their violent bigotry should be reframed as "just trolling" or Donald Trump insisting that his boastful admission of sexual assault should be dismissed as "just locker room banter," abusers shouldn't be allowed to set the terms of the debate. Nor should they have their version of events amplified, which only serves to further normalize bigoted, or in Trump's case, sexually violent messages.

Observers should, instead, tether hateful expressions to broader social issues, thus redirecting harassing messages towards something productive. A fuck-you counter-meme, if you will. The Jones case, for example, illustrates the implications of the collapse of online and offline identity; the uselessness of parsing motivations when considering hateful online behavior; the role platforms can, do, and should play in combating on-site abuse; and as mentioned above, the overlap between bigoted trolling and straight-up bigotry.

More pressingly, this case illustrates the need to rethink the "free speech" defense, one howled to the heavens—by the antagonists, anyway—in the aftermath of Jones' harassment. This reaction speaks to the frequency with which "free speech" is used to defend the worst kinds of speech, and most harmful kinds of speakers, on the grounds that censorship is a threat to democracy. And that's true, censorship is a threat to democracy—but not in the direction it's typically pointed. Because however vigorously one might wave the free speech banner, toxic antagonism imposes its own kind of censorship. It belittles. It marginalizes. It silences. Resulting, ironically, in less speech. All in the name of defending free speech.

A more robust framing of free speech would privilege the voices of those targeted, not those who choose to target, and would seek to cultivate the greatest amount of speech from the most diverse groups possible. That can't happen while white supremacists are tearing around, throwing rocks and screaming about shitposting because, to return to the Jones case, a black woman has the audacity to be more successful and much more talented than they will ever be.

It doesn't have to be the alt-right's story, in other words. They were conjured, and now they're here. Nothing to be done about that. But the fate of their monster is in our hands. Let's take a breath, look around, and start a new narrative.

Many thanks to Kate Miltner, Mike Rugnetta, Ryan Milner, and Jason Koebler for their feedback and support.

Whitney Phillips is a digital media folklorist and Assistant Professor at Mercer University. She is the author of This Is Why We Can't Have Nice Things and the co-author of The Ambivalent Internet.