Two defining characteristics of the alt-right, the loosely organized online coalition of meme-loving racists, are that its members like being weird online and aren’t particularly fond of Jews. Keep those two things in mind, and the following discussion of a punctuation meme might make more sense.
Yesterday, Mic published an article in which Cooper Fleishman and Anthony Smith traced the history of a weird thing some alt-righters do online: They’ll put multiple parentheses around Twitter-targets’ names to indicate that they’re Jewish. It’s never happened to me, but as the New York Times’ Jonathan Weisman explained in a recent column, he got a tweet which read “Hello ((Weisman)).” It seems to be a way of saying something like “Ha, look at this Jew!,” and is often followed by a wave of the alt-right’s now-standard meme-drenched anti-Semitism.
As Fleishman and Smith explain, “The symbol comes from right-wing blog the Right Stuff, whose podcast The Daily Shoah featured a segment called ‘Merchant Minute’ that gave Jewish names a cartoonish ‘echo’ sound effect when uttered. The ‘parenthesis meme,’ as Right Stuff editors call it, is a visual pun.” As the Mic authors note, that same blog also explains on one page that “all Jewish surnames echo through history,” meaning that — and this is Fleishman and Smith again — “the supposed damage caused by Jewish people reverberates from decade to decade.” The idea is that it’s a “silly” way to make Jewish names sound evil and sinister, in other words.
It’s an interesting — if that’s the right word — origin story and a good rundown. But Fleishman and Smith end up overanalyzing things a bit when they argue that the parentheses help alt-right folks obscure their online anti-Semitism. “To the public, the symbol is not easily searchable on most sites and social networks; search engines strip punctuation from results,” they write at one point. “This means that trolls committed to uncovering, labeling and harassing Jewish users can do so in relative obscurity: No one can search those threats to find who’s sending them.” In a subheadline farther down in the piece, they ask “How have these trolls been able to hide harassment in plain sight?,” and then answer their own question by referring back to the parentheses-search issue. Then, toward the end of the article, they write that “Whether they know it or not, Neo-Nazis on Twitter have discovered a brilliant loophole — a code that’s difficult to filter whose meaning incites waves of hate before the target realizes what’s happening.”
None of this jibes with what we know about how the alt-right operates on Twitter. For one thing, this group loves the attention they get from their online anti-Semitism — its members have no interest in “obscurity,” relative or otherwise. In fact, when Weisman asked the person who tweeted the parentheses at him what it meant, they explained and seemed quite impressed with themselves. For another thing, plenty of the tweets that use the parentheses — including one embedded in the Mic article itself — are explicitly anti-Semitic, or if they aren’t they are quickly followed by tweets which are. Plus, Twitter accounts dedicated to online anti-Semitism don’t tend to hide that fact in their online handles and profiles. All of this renders the parentheses’ mystery a lot less mysterious. (And this is all ignoring the fact that there’s little need to “hide” anti-Semitism on Twitter anyway, since Twitter rarely takes any sort of aggressive action against it — even, anecdotally at least, after it’s been reported.)
The search stuff doesn’t really make sense either. Being able to search for online anti-Semitism on Twitter has never been a useful tool against it anyway — to the extent this garbage-content can be brought under control from an individual users’ perspective, it’s by consistently muting, blocking, and reporting offenders. I guess, in theory, if Twitter were ever going to attempt a mass purge of hate speech based on keyword searches, there might be a small subset of tweets with parentheses but no other indicators of anti-Semitism which would survive as a result, but Twitter is never, ever going to do anything like that (and there are very legitimate reasons to think it shouldn’t).
Perhaps most importantly, all of this gives the alt-right too much credit and misunderstands how memes come about. Memes are weird and evolve organically, and this organic meme-weirdness is part of how the alt-right has been able to get attention. Fleishman and Smith make it clear with their “[w]hether they know it or not” line that they’re not necessarily implying a bunch of online anti-Semites sat around drumming up ways to make their content not-searchable, and yet they still seem to be reaching for some sort of underlying functional logic or purpose to a given meme. But the alt-right isn’t shy and, safely ensconced as its members are behind online anonymity and pseudonymity, they see no need to hide their tweets: They are proud of their dumb, hateful online handiwork.