Trolling Scholars Debunk the Idea That the Alt-Right’s Shitposters Have Magic Powers
Asserting that alt-right "trolls" were a deciding factor in Trump’s victory minimizes the broader trends that amplified their influence.
Since Donald Trump won the election, journalists, academics, and various online commentators have speculated wildly about the role that trolling, 4chan, and the alt-right's "meme magic" played in Trump's rise. Across countless news articles, hot takes, and Twitter debates, several recurring assumptions have emerged. First, that members of the alt-right (and even members of the Trump administration) are trolls, and more broadly, that the word "trolling" is the best descriptor for the current political climate. Second (and these are points that tend to be baked into broader stand-alone articles), that this "trolling" is interchangeable with 4chan, with the further assumption that 4chan is interchangeable with Anonymous, itself framed to be the Ur alt-right. Third, that 4chan itself, as a website, radicalized users towards white nationalism. And finally, the coup de grâce: that 4chan—and its alt-right trolls—were a deciding factor in Trump's election.
This all makes for a compelling narrative. But what actually happened—what has been happening for the last several years—isn't so straightforward. Pro-Trump antagonism during the election may have been omnipresent, and may have helped amplify Trump's message. But it cannot and should not be tethered to online communities of the past. It was, instead, symptomatic of much deeper, much more immediate cultural malaise.
We can make this claim, because we've been studying online communities and subcultures for years; the three of us, Jessica Beyer, Gabriella Coleman, and Whitney Phillips, have each published books on hacking and/or trolling cultures, with a particular focus on 4chan and Anonymous between 2008-2014. We're not alone; ours joins the work of other researchers and journalists also writing about trolling and Anonymous at the time, including David Auerbach, Burcu Bakioğlu, Michael Bernstein et.al., Julian Dibbell, Lee Knuttila, Ryan Milner, Quinn Norton, Parmy Olson, Molly Sauter, Luke Simcoe, and others.
Our combined total of over thirty years of research experience—which draws from and is in dialogue with the above research—puts us in a unique position to challenge the assumptions made about 4chan, alt-right trolling, and their role in the election. We are also in a unique position to assert why these assumptions are worth challenging, well beyond issues of semantics, well beyond research quibbles, well beyond academic flag planting. As our work on the contexts and impacts of online mobilization shows, getting these stories right is critical to navigating the overall media landscape.
Now, more than ever, this landscape must be plotted. White nationalism isn't going away. Donald Trump isn't going away. The internet isn't going away. And in this era of fake news, disintegrating public trust—in journalism, in institutions, in basic objective truth—certainly isn't going away. It is therefore imperative that we, that all of us, are clear about what is known, what has precedent, and what in the hell we are even talking about when we talk about "trolling" in 2017.
The Variety of Trolling Experiences
The first and most basic point to contest is the idea that "trolling" is an appropriate descriptor for the white nationalist alt-right. Phillips is particularly resistant to this framing (especially when applied to Donald Trump). Though the word "trolling" rose to prominence in the early-mid 2000s as a specific, bounded point of subcultural self-identification, the term has been applied to so many different kinds of behaviors in so many different contexts over the last ten years that big and small, damaging and harmless, progressive and reactionary, are now flattened into one slippery category vaguely suggesting disruptiveness. Forwarding hateful opinions and calling the President out for hypocrisy. Signaling feminist solidarity and signaling violent misogyny. All, somehow, the same underlying thing.
In 2017, the term "trolling" doesn't mean much. And yet it is thrown around as easy shorthand, both to explain what something is and to defend why it's done.
When used to explain or defend the kinds of behavior favored by the alt-right, "I was just trolling" doesn't just muddle the definitional waters. It also gives bigots an easy way to deflect personal responsibility for hateful action, as Aja Romano thoughtfully unpacks. In fact, it allows them to redirect that responsibility to the person who "let" themselves get trolled, despite the truth—equally applicable to offline violence, particularly sexual violence—that the only person responsible for an attack is the person responsible.
This, in turn, normalizes an antagonist-centered worldview, in which the aggressor gets to choose their own terms and assert what the appropriate reaction to their behavior might be—an especially troublesome proposition when the behaviors in question are violently racist, misogynist, and anti-Semitic, as is often the case in alt-right circles. As Phillips argues, "I was just trolling" is, in these instances, the worst kind of cop-out. Alt-right antagonisms—really any antagonisms—should instead be described in terms of the impact they have on targets, not what the antagonists want people to think.
It's not just that the term "trolling" is slippery at best and ideologically toxic at worst. It's that use of the term "troll" when referring to contemporary 4chan users posits a false equivalency—and false uniformity—between those who were described as trolls in the past and those who are described as trolls in the present. As if trolling (or what's referred to as trolling) now is the same thing as what was referred to as trolling then. The fact is, even back then—in the ancient civilization of 2007—trolls were a heterogeneous bunch. Self-identifying trolls could be harmless pranksters, less harmless troublemakers, and merciless abusers. Some expressed vicious bigotries; some expressed more ambivalent bigotries; and some didn't express any bigotries. Some even trolled bigots.
Calling antagonists—particularly white nationalist antagonists—"trolls" in 2017, and furthermore linking these "trolls" to the trolls of yesteryear, overwrites the fracture that always existed within early trolling subculture. This doesn't just tie contemporary "trolls" to a homogenous legacy that never existed, it implicitly suggests that we've been here before; that online trolling is same as it ever was. But we haven't, and it isn't. Trolling never was any one thing, and it certainly wasn't the thing the alt-right has metastasized into. We don't have a blueprint for any of this.
The second claim warranting pushback is the false assumption that alt-right "trolling" is equally interchangeable with 4chan and Anonymous, an assumption that posits static, ahistorical framings of both. Making this claim, either explicitly or implicitly, obscures the one basic, unifying fact of 4chan and Anonymous: that they change, both in terms of demographics and ideologically .
Certain vernacular norms have, of course, persisted over time; components of geek culture, meme culture, and rhetorical strategies associated with early trolling subculture and other forms of transgressive humor can still be found on contemporary 4chan and within groups of Anons, although the same could be said for many spaces and communities steeped in the broader category of internet culture, such as reddit (which itself is home to a number of pro-Trump alt-right boards—most notably r/the_donald—often discussed alongside 4chan's "politically incorrect" /pol/ board).
But beyond these more aesthetic—and sometimes rhetorical—through-lines, the 4chan and Anonymous of 2017 is not the same as the 4chan and Anonymous of 2008. On 4chan, this shift is most directly attributable to changes within its userbase.
That white supremacists from Stormfront decided to recruit on 4chan's /pol/ board, for example, in the process drawing new participants into the 4chan fold, speaks to this variability . So too does the exodus of many users in 2014 to places such as 8chan, when Chris Poole (aka moot), the site's founder and head administrator, decided to ban all discussion of the GamerGate hate and harassment campaign.
Even if the individuals using 4chan had remained absolutely invariable, however, those who were 20 in 2008 would be nearly 30 today, precipitating its own kind of change. Building on these shifting demographics, the site has seen a number of shifts in on-site affordances, policies, and ownership; and as Beyer highlights, such structural changes directly impact participant behavior.
Members of Anonymous ruthlessly hacked governments and corporations, and eventually embraced domestic social justice, drawing attention both to rape culture and police brutality across North America
The same holds for Anonymous, which emerged not just from 4chan, but a constellation of chans and IRC conversations. Anonymous' organizing quickly moved beyond the chans and 4chan in particular, in large part because many people who did not frequent 4chan began to join, and 4chan didn't meet their needs (which is why, as Coleman shows, some were already talking elsewhere, such as IRC channels). The influx and departure of new Anons from different populations with different objectives over many years (here is an example from 2012) resulted in a number of profound shifts, sometimes in opposing ideological directions, sometimes simultaneously, as Beyer's and Coleman's work both illustrates.
Indeed, the assertion—most conspicuously forwarded in Dale Beran's widely shared "4chan: The Skeleton Key to the Rise of Trump" article—that there exists a fundamental continuity between the 4chan and Anonymous of today and the 4chan and Anonymous of ten years ago is complicated by just how much progressive activism has been undertaken by Anonymous since 2008. Contrary to Beran's account, which grossly minimizes Anonymous' role in Occupy Wall Street, the Anonymous of 2008-2015 displayed an ever growing commitment to social justice issues.
As Beyer's and Coleman's work chronicles, contributions made by Anonymous from this period were substantial, legion, and reverberated around the world: along with assisting every single occupation and revolution in 2011, from the 15-M movement gripping Spain to the first Tunisian flickering of the Arab and African Spring, members of Anonymous ruthlessly hacked governments and corporations, and eventually embraced domestic social justice, drawing attention both to rape culture and police brutality across North America.
These political behaviors, in full swing by 2011, even predated Anonymous' emergence as an activist force in 2008. In 2006, for example, Anons famously attacked the racist radio host Hal Turner, and over the next few years engaged in a number of proto-political raids that blurred the line between trolling and political action.
This faction was never a "skeleton key" to Donald Trump's Presidential ascension —but they sure as hell want people to think they were
4chan, Anonymous, and their freewheeling, offensive culture of lulz thus managed to hatch—or at least served as the breeding ground for the expression of—progressive and violently bigoted ideals alike (not to mention a whole range of ambivalent, hard to place expression) over the span of the same decade. The idea that 4chan and its presumably interchangeable spawn Anonymous is fundamentally "united by a common culture and set of values, fuzzy around the edges, but solid at the core," as Beran argues, just doesn't hold up in the face of the verifiable historical record.
Taken together, all these factors—from shifts in participant demographics to shifts in community norms to shifts within the broader culture—mean that, when it comes to 4chan and Anonymous, none of us can step in the same river twice. Any argument to the contrary is simply false. Furthermore, any arguments to the contrary—like those presented in Beran's article—simply cannot explain how the same cultural bullion has been the stock for such diametrically opposed political soups.
The Dangers of Amplifying False Narratives
The third issue to address is the seemingly explanatory (and, admittedly, tidily appealing) idea that 4chan—and its alt-right trolls—were the lynchpin for securing Trump's Presidential victory.
It is certainly true that the alt-right's pro-Trump "shitposting"—the act of flooding social media with memes and commentary designed to bolster their "God Emperor" Trump—raised the public visibility of the alt-right and its memetic handiwork. And it is also true that this uptick in public visibility forced people to focus on Trump more than they would have otherwise. The shitpost connection reached critical mass in August 2016, when Hillary Clinton held a press conference (precipitated, in part, by Pepe the Frog) denouncing Trump's ties to the white nationalist group—much to the delight of precisely those white nationalists. Without a doubt, this speech and all the alt-right activity that preceded and followed it contributed to the overall momentum of Trump's campaign.
To assert that alt-right shitposters were a deciding factor in Trump's victory risks minimizing the broader cultural, societal, and media trends that influenced their influence
But that activity didn't happen in a vacuum, and wasn't self-propelling. "Trolls" and the alt-right may have played a prominent role in the 2016 election, but that fact is dependent upon and cannot be untangled from journalistic coverage that amplified their messaging—shitpost memes very much included. Phillips describes how media coverage—even coverage condemning alt-right antagonisms—helped conjure this monster, and how that conjuring, in turn, helped amplify Trump's overall platform (which itself was a series of memes).
The fact that alt-right participants received so much coverage speaks to an even deeper issue, perhaps the weightiest issue, influencing Donald Trump's rise. More than fake news, more than filter bubbles, more than insane conspiracy theories about child sex rings operating out of the backs of Washington DC pizza shops, the biggest media story to emerge from the 2016 election was the degree to which far-right media were able to set the narrative agenda for mainstream media outlets. (This point is ably argued by internet scholars Yochai Benkler, Robert Faris, Hal Roberts, and Ethan Zuckerman).
What Breitbart did, what conspiratorial far-right radio programs did, what Donald Trump himself did (to say nothing of what the silent contributors to the political landscape did), was ensure that what far-right pundits were talking about became what everyone was talking about, what everyone had to talk about, if they wanted to keep abreast of the day's news cycle. Alt-right antagonisms—their "trolling"—was one cloud among many in this gathering storm, one roaring towards the mainstream from the far-far right. Shitpost participants adeptly harnessed this energy, were thrust into prominence because of this energy, and were able to transfer greater attention to Trump through this energy. But they didn't create this energy.
Consequently, to assert that alt-right shitposters were a deciding factor in Trump's victory risks minimizing the broader cultural, societal, and media trends that influenced their influence. Worse, when coupled with the aforementioned assumptions about the interchangeable relationship between the alt-right, "trolling," 4chan, and Anonymous, the claim that "trolls caused Trump" bestows a kind of atemporal, almost godlike power to what is no more and no less than a bigoted subset of a faction of an ever-evolving, ever-unstable, ever-reactive anonymous online collective. This faction was never a "skeleton key" to Donald Trump's Presidential ascension—but they sure as hell want people to think they were.
And this gets to the heart of why any of this matters. Taking the time to map—to accurately map—the repeated, fractured, reconfiguring mobilizations emerging from anonymous and pseudo-anonymous spaces online allows us to understand where we are and how we got here. It also allows us to anticipate where we might be going next, for better and for worse. But more importantly, fully contextualizing our present moment—particularly given how tenuous facts in our present moment have become—puts us in a better position to safeguard the actual record, and to carefully parse symptom from disease. All the better to resist doublethink with; all the better to stand up to those who attempt to hijack the narrative.