How Internet Trolls Won the 2016 Presidential Election

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Last weekend, the Hillary Clinton campaign did something extremely controversial: It published an explainer devoted entirely to Pepe the frog. Pepe, a popular cartoon frog who first showed up in a web comic by Matt Furie back in 2005, has been embraced en masse by the wider internet, mutating over the last ten years into a zillion different forms that have invaded 4chan, Tumblr, Twitter, and dozens of other online venues.

The Clinton campaign’s explainer was about Pepe’s darkest, most recent iteration: Far-Right Pepe. For months, now, Pepe has been showing up online as a Trump supporter, a Nazi, a white nationalist, or sometimes Trump himself — in one popular version of the image, he’s even got Trump’s hair. This, the Clinton campaign explained, is a “horrifying” turn of events, a clear sign of Trump’s depravity, of the extent to which we have slid into alt-right, racist, anti-Semitic madness. “Pepe’s been almost entirely co-opted by the white supremacists who call themselves the ‘alt-right,’” the explainer explained. “They’ve decided to take back Pepe by adding swastikas and other symbols of anti-semitism and white supremacy.”

For those of us who spend too much time on the internet and write about or otherwise engage with the alt-right, it may feel like this iteration of Pepe and his adherents are everywhere. (In particular because his visage is frequently used as a Twitter avatar by Trump’s most vocal and extreme supporters.) In reality, they constitute a fairly small slice over the overall population, their apparent numbers inflated by how active they are online. And there’s effectively no sign, with the sporadic exception here and there, they engage in any actual political activism that doesn’t involve slinging dank memes. For all anyone knows, many of them aren’t old enough to vote or don’t have any desire to; they certainly don’t act like people who plan on participating in the democratic process.

So how the hell did they gain so much notoriety the Hillary Clinton campaign felt a need to respond to their memes? What happened?

It all stems from an interesting collision between those trolls and another group of people — political journalists and operatives — who have very different incentive systems. Journalists and political operatives have coherent beliefs and politics and goals, and spend a lot of time thinking and writing about other people’s coherent beliefs and politics and goals, and the strategies those people will use to achieve those goals. Internet trolls, on the other hand, either don’t have beliefs or goals in the traditional sense, or aren’t constrained by any of the incentives that guide most of the rest of humanity’s behavior. Their main goal is just to elicit as much outrage and draw as much attention as possible. And that’s exactly what they’ve been able to do, to great effect.

For a good example of how they do this, take a Daily Caller piece by Jonah Bennett published Wednesday entitled “Here’s How Two Twitter Pranksters Convinced The World That Pepe The Frog Meme Is Just A Front For White Nationalism.” The “pranksters” in question are Jared Taylor Swift (@jaredtswift) and Paul Town (@PaulTown_), two alt-right Twitter personalities who have helped spread the problematic version of Pepe (Swift’s handle is a takeoff on Jared Taylor, a well-known white nationalist).

In Bennett’s telling, Swift and Town successfully conned the Daily Beast’s Olivia Nuzzi into believing that there had been an actual organized effort to establish a genocide-lovin’ version of Pepe and “seed the meme on various imageboards,” complete with a meet-up over drinks to hash out strategy — a story line she laid out in May.

But Swift and Town now say these were all lies, reports Bennett:

“There was no ‘plot’ to take a cartoon frog and make it a symbol of white supremacy,” Paul Town told [the Daily Caller News Foundation]. “That’s absurd on the face of it.”

It doesn’t get much better from there for Nuzzi’s narrative.

There was no Frog Twitter meet-up — they did not meet for drinks to discuss green frogs. They did not plot in 2015. There was no group experiment. They did not coordinate efforts on /r9k/ or /pol/, two image boards on 4chan and 8chan, where memes are born and subsequently end up in the public. Jared Taylor Swift says he isn’t actually 19. He doesn’t live on the West Coast. They didn’t turn Taylor Swift, the pop singer, into an “Aryan Goddess.”

The two also ridiculed Nuzzi, to Bennett, for having included some of their more outlandish quotes in her story.

Bennett overreaches a fair amount in his piece — not all of its claims are backed up by Nuzzi’s actual article. Take this quote from Swift: “The idea that every major Trump supporter online is secretly a neo-Nazi, for one. I mean, it’s just not true. But it’s the kind of thing that a journalist will readily believe.” The clear implication here is that Nuzzi believed that, but nowhere in Nuzzi’s piece did she come close to expressing that belief. Nuzzi also did not accept Swift and Town’s claims in as wide-eyed a manner as Bennett suggests — she wrote that Swift “claims to be 19 years old and in school someplace on the West Coast” (emphasis mine), and elsewhere she noted that “on /r9k/, a controversial 4chan board” where she says the dark version of the Pepe meme originated, “it can be difficult to discern how serious commenters are being or if they’re just fucking around entirely.” And when a journalist includes a crazy-sounding quote from an anonymous Twitter personality — “He’s a reflection of our souls, to most of us,” Swift told Nuzzi — that doesn’t mean they believe the personality in question actually believes that.

Nuzzi did, however, uncritically report that the meet-up and the planning efforts had taken place. But there’s a sort of internet-fog-of-war hanging about the whole thing. As Bennett himself notes, for all he knows the Twitter duo are now lying to him about having not engaged in strategy sessions to Nazify Pepe. “The stewards of this Twitter world are notoriously capricious and trolltastic,” he writes. “They could even retract this mea culpa of sorts.”

So what really happened? Was there a coordinated effort? The only correct answer is Who cares? Any answer other than Who cares? buys right into these trolls’ hands, and explains why they are this election cycle’s only clear winners so far.

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You can’t understand this stuff without trying to grasp the Chanterculture. That’s the term coined by Joe Bernstein, the BuzzFeed reporter who explained late last year that 4chan, 8chan, and other anonymous and pseudonymous online communities traditionally peopled mostly (but by no means entirely) by frustrated young white men appear to be in the midst of a reactionary upheaval geared at fighting back against the culture of inclusion and diversity that has — in their view — infected mainstream life.

Specifically, they’ve reacted in a rather batshit manner: by acting as ostentatiously racist and hateful as possible. This has included everything from a ginned-up online campaign to “protest” John Boyega’s role in the new Star Wars trilogy, since he’s black, to a comic called “the Adventures of Christ Chan” in which the titular protagonist fights to keep her hometown of “New Bethlehem free of blacks, gays, atheists, and the fearsome Jew King. Her weapon is a katana; her insignia, the swastika.” The Chanterculture predates the rise of Trump by years (Gamergate was obviously a big moment for it), but suffice it to say that the emergence of Trump, a larger-than-life walking middle finger to political correctness, hit this subculture like a mainlined bottle of Mountain Dew — Trump is their hero, and like so much else in their online world they have rendered him in cartoonish, superhero hues.

Part of what makes the Chanterculture confusing and difficult for outsiders to penetrate is that, as Bernstein puts it, “It unites two equally irrepressible camps behind an ironclad belief in the duty to say hideous things: the threatened white men of the internet and the ‘I have no soul’ lulzsters.” That is, some proportion of Chanterculture warriors actually believe the things they say — some dedicated real-life internet Nazis like Andrew Auernheimer, a.k.a. weev, came up in chan culture — while others are just in it for the outrage. (Many channers find the idea of having an actual ideology — or expressing it online, at least — rather distasteful, with the only exception being instances in which cloaking one’s online persona in an offensive ideology can elicit lulz.)

The outrage-mongers are motivated in part by the broader, deeply nihilistic ethos of chan culture. Channers, as a group, and long before the Chanterculture emerged in its present form, have always been in it for the lulz, for the satisfaction that comes from fucking with people in general, and more specifically from riling people up into states of outrage by being, well, outrageous. Naturally, anonymous online weirdos hoping to spark outrage and one-up each other’s attempts to do so frequently dabble in, if not embrace, racist and anti-Semitic imagery and language, regardless of what’s going on in the broader culture wars. It’s not an accident that 4chan’s harassment campaigns have, according to the researcher Whitney Phillips, disproportionately targeted women and people of color.

But the point is that there’s more — or less — going on here than “just” racism and misogyny. Underlying chan culture is a fundamental hostility to earnestness and offense that plays out in how its members interact with each other and with outsiders. To wit: If you, a channer, post a meme in which Homer and Lisa Simpson are concentration camp guards about to execute Jewish prisoners, and I respond by pointing out that that’s fucked up, I’m the chump for getting upset. Nothing really matters to the average channer, at least not online. Feeling like stuff matters, in fact, is one of the original sins of “normies,” the people who use the internet but don’t really understand what it’s for (chaos and lulz) the way channers do. Normies, unlike channers — or the identity channers like to embrace — have normal lives and jobs and girlfriends and so on. They’re the boring mainstream. Normies don’t get it, and that’s why they’re so easily upset all the time. Triggering normies is a fundamental good in the chanverse.

And when channer and normie culture collide, normie culture indeed tends to spasm with offense. From the point of view of a normie, why would you post Holocaust imagery unless you actually hate Jews or want them to die? To which the channer responds internally, For the lulz. That is, for the sake of watching normies get outraged, and for recognition from their online buddies. And while channers love to performatively bemoan the fact that their memes — many of which are legitimately clever and have nothing to do with racism or white supremacy — so often get co-opted by the mainstream internet, it isn’t hard to discern that really, channers love the attention, love the outsize influence they have on normie culture, whether the memes they are disseminating are celebrated or reviled. If they didn’t seek and relish this recognition, they wouldn’t spend so much time trying to seed outrage.

Now, in a very important sense it doesn’t matter whether a given offensive tweet or post is earnest. As the conservative pundit and frequent alt-right target Ben Shapiro pointed out, it’s ridiculous to lay on him, or any other target of this bile, the responsibility of separating out the people who really are advocating for him and his family to be put in the ovens, as compared to those who are just doing it “for fun.” If you send me an anti-Semitic meme, I’m going to assume that you’re anti-Semitic. I never agreed to chan culture’s puerile, dumb rules about communication and offense. But: Once you move past the straightforward conversation about whether these memes are offensive and whether the ones containing threatening imagery constitute harassment — of course they are, and of course they do — to the trickier task of understanding why people post these memes, what they mean, and to what extent they represent a genuine threat or a genuine form of politics, it’s actually vital to understand these distinctions.

Take the brouhaha over Pepe. Taylor and Town, two alt-right pranksters, are operating from a perspective that can be extremely difficult for the average normie to understand. From the normie point of view, they must have some sort of agenda; they must really want Trump elected and must really be white nationalists, or why else would they post memes supporting Trump and white nationalism? A political journalist covering this “movement,” then, is going to make certain assumptions about it that would be reasonable in any other context, but which get quickly melted down by the sheer weird lulzy heat of chan culture — namely, that the actions of the participants in these online spectacles are motivated by normal, normie incentives and goals and politics. Nope — they’re just in it for the lulz, and they’re not constrained by normal incentives because, like so many others in the chanverse, they don’t have their real-life identities connected to their online ones. A normal person will or could get punished, at least reputationally, for lying to a journalist, or lying about having lied to a journalist. Not so if no one knows your name and you’re just trying to rack up lulz.

Contra Bennett’s argument, Nuzzi is a web-savvy reporter who understands a lot of this. But many journalists and political operatives don’t, and that’s played right into the trolls’ hands. In some cases, this leads to what could fairly be termed overreactions to every little iteration of offensive chan culture. Nuzzi’s piece itself, for example, reported on staunchly normie journalists who were unfamiliar with Pepe and subsequently misinterpreted the meme itself as being primarily a vehicle for racist, pro-Trump sentiments — in January, Jay Nordlinger asked about it on Twitter, and Politico’s Ben White did the same in May. This was lulz-catnip for the trolls. As soon as Nordlinger and White tweeted out these queries, they were met with replies, some of them featuring Nazi imagery, by Twitter accounts trying to play up the association between Pepe and racist Trump support. This reinforced the notion that something particularly new and sinister was going on, when in reality this was just another normal, stupid, offensive iteration of a meme — an iteration geared much more at provoking outrage than as any sort of coherent or meaningful political statement. Some significant portion of the people trumping up the Trump connection to Nordlinger and White aren’t actual Trump supporters or white nationalists in any sense but their adopted online persona. Rather, they got involved for one thing and one thing only: lulz, lulz, lulz.

But it was the Hillary Clinton campaign that bit the hardest on this nonsense, serving the trolls an inspiring victory this past weekend with its explainer about the “horrifying” use of the Pepe meme. It also referred to Swift, who launched his Twitter account in November of 2015, as a “prominent white supremacist” — which, whatever else you want to say about the guy, he isn’t. You couldn’t imagine a better outcome for these trolls: Suddenly, they went from being anonymous meme-slingers on the internet, simply trying to one-up each other and poke and prod normies into outrage, into “prominent white supremacists” who are “horrifying” and worthy of censure by a major political campaign.

It would be wrong, of course, not to cover what certainly feels like a rise in racist and anti-Semitic online sentiment. But perspective seems to be lacking. There appears to be a baseline assumption among journalists that any manifestation of web culture that is (1) new and (2) offensive on racial or ethnic lines is inherently important, uniquely worrisome, and worthy of coverage. Nazi Pepe is one example, but a similar thing happened earlier this year when anti-Semites and the trolls who enjoy portraying them on Twitter began putting parentheses around Jewish names — (((Jesse Singal))), for example — in an attempt to highlight the fact that they were Jewish, imply Jewish control over the media, and so on. As Mic reported, this idea did originate from a genuinely anti-Semitic source, not from 4chan trollery. But as is true with any offensive content on Twitter, there’s no way to know how often it has been used by hardened Nazi types, and how often it has been used by trolls looking to gin up outrage.

Either way, outrage was indeed ginned up. The media reacted with prolonged shock to the parentheses: Mic speculated that their use was a tactic designed to “hide harassment in plain sight,” since you can’t search for parentheses on Twitter. CBS News, jumping off that report, described the parentheses as “a concerted effort to keep track of Jews in the internet age.” These claims don’t pass the smell test: People explicitly make lists of Jews online, and those looking to target Jews have no shortage of ways of discerning who is and isn’t Jewish without resorting to the clumsy method of searching for triple parentheses. Plus, a primary goal of many anti-Semites and trolls is to get retweeted by the people they are targeting — that is, to get attention, not to shy away from it. In short, the parentheses don’t really seem to do anything other than appear vaguely menacing. But that didn’t matter: Because this was a novel iteration of online anti-Semitic culture, to the normie media it was worthy of deeply concerned coverage that likely gave a bunch of anti-Semites, trolls, and anti-Semitic trolls exactly the attention and visibility they craved. All without any of them having to prove they were actually involved, meaningfully, in anti-Semitic politics. That’s just a lot of power to give to a group of anonymous online idiots without at least knowing how many of them are 15-year-old dweebs rather than, you know, actual Nazis.

So it is with Pepe. The fact that a subset of louder-than-their numbers hyperactive Twitter and image-board users have conscripted the frog for their offensive purposes doesn’t actually mean all that much. It isn’t any more “horrifying” than the fact that there are so many people passing around Nazi imagery online in the first place. This is just how internet culture works, whether the culture in question is an innocent Tumblr fan community or an offense-loving chan subset. It iterates and comes up with new weird ways to communicate information.

It would be inaccurate to say that the media or politicians are entirely getting played here. They, too, benefit from this whole bizarre game. Outrage garners clicks and it turns out voters. To journalists, there’s little incentive to do anything but cover every racist-internet twist and turn like some dangerous new development. To the Clinton campaign, the Pepe explainer was just a useful way of highlighting some perfectly true facts about Trump: He sure does seem to attract a lot of racist and white nationalist support. All the better if they can do so by acting like the internet has produced some weird, new, uniquely racist threat.

In the long run, as journalistic coverage of the internet is increasingly done by people with at least a baseline understanding of web culture, that coverage will improve. For now, though, things are grim: It’s hard not to feel like journalists and politicos are effectively being led around on a leash by a group of anonymous online idiots, many of whom don’t really believe in anything.