Over the weekend, the alt-right descended upon Charlottesville, Virginia, in full force: The bearded militiamen, the shield-toting National Vanguard, and of course, the oddly coiffed representatives of the irony wing of the far-right movement. People like Tim Gionet, known under the nom de troll Baked Alaska, and Millennial Matt.
Millennial Matt, who frequently tweets “ironic” jokes about the Holocaust, and Gionet, who is similarly fond of “jokes” like Photoshopping people’s faces into cartoons of concentration-camp ovens, were among the most prominent faces at this weekend’s Unite the Right event. Matt was featured prominently in photographs of Friday night’s terrifying torchlit march; Gionet was so excited that he created hyperstylized meme renditions of the infamous “14 words” of white nationalists (“We must secure the existence of our people and a future for white children”).
By Sunday, after the gathering was shut down by police and a fellow white nationalist careened through a crowd of counterprotesters, killing one person and injuring many more, both Gionet and Matt had adjusted their tone considerably. Gionet, who was maced by unknown assailants, tweeted, “We must come together as a country and try to understand each other peacefully. We can’t continue to scream nazi or sjw back & forth.” Matt, whose account was suspended, posted a video of himself talking to the camera, his voice shaking: “I’m usually a jokester; I do a lot of comedy, but there’s nothing funny about threatening people’s lives, threatening people’s families.”
Over the last few years, the world of the internet and the world outside of it have been slowly merging, especially as media institutions like Twitter, YouTube, and Facebook have become the primary method of communication and organization for most people. It’s hard not to see this in many ways as a disaster, watching the rise of organized white nationalists and the election of a president whose sole talent is demanding attention. But this weekend was also a reminder that the ongoing interconnection of the internet and “meatspace” (as the physical world is known in online vernacular; I’m sorry) doesn’t mean that the offline world has to play by the same rules as the online. It also means that the rules of the real world will increasingly influence the space of the internet.
The early decades of the internet made it easy to separate one’s online personality from one’s offline personality by way of pseudonymity and limited functionality. It used to be that on the internet, nobody knew you were a dog, in part because there just wasn’t a whole lot to do on the internet. But as the network’s function has ballooned to encompass a dominant part of modern society, more attention is being paid to how what happens online affects what happens offline. People aren’t simply chatting behind screen names, they’re organizing and fighting and blurring the line between aspects of life that used to be kept separate. There’s a reason why the Klan wears hoods.
But the shield of online anonymity is still being wielded widely, perhaps no more aggressively than on right-wing gathering spaces online, like 4chan’s /pol/ board and the murkiest corners of Twitter. 4chan is where the concept of the “ironic” Nazi and white nationalist was born — the racist, homophobic, anti-Semitic users who say the awful things they say not necessarily because they believe them, but because it makes other people angry or scared. That’s textbook trolling: saying stuff that is first and foremost intended to get a rise out of other people. This is the discursive tradition that produced Gionet and Millennial Matt.
The Ironic Nazi exists in part because the internet minimizes friction. Friction includes anything that might stop someone from using a particular service; things like having to create a user account, tying that account to an email address, filling out a CAPTCHA, filters that prevent obscene messages from being sent or published, or even long load times. By reducing the mental overhead required for publishing, it becomes easier to act without thinking. Online platforms benefit significantly from this approach, meant to lower inhibitions. Making it easier for people to share and post means making it easier for people to share and post heinous things. It’s why 4chan, which does not require an account, and Twitter, which limits the verbosity of what people say, are thought of as potent breeding grounds for the Ironic Nazi.
The rise of frictionless, anonymous spaces has been an important test for the strength of free speech, because they remove the friction that the real world insists upon — anything from the difficulty of finding a wide audience for your racist pamphlet to the social consequences of spouting hate speech. White nationalists hiding behind the label of “troll” — like Weev, Baked Alaska, Millennial Matt, and their thousands of anonymous comrades — can spout shit online with no work or investment, and when called on it, dance away with more jokes or claims that it’s all just talk. It’s why horrible stances are framed as “satire” or “social experiments” when the blowback happens. After all, you can’t definitively prove the intentions of an anonymous online comment, and there are a lot of bored teenagers (and adults) operating with impunity.
What happens when that modus operandi translates into the physical world, as it did in Charlottesville, when torch-bearing, flag-waving Nazis and white supremacists turned the city into a violent arena? It’s far easier to write “Hitler did nothing wrong” online and send it to nobody in particular than it is to approach someone on the street and say it to their face. The meatspace is all friction. And I don’t mean conflict here; I mean that there are constant barriers of entry. The Ironic Nazi is framed as a product of how easy platforms make it to be an asshole online. The ones who came to Charlottesville were the exact opposite: focused, methodical, and intentional in their efforts. For Gionet, it meant coordinating travel, lodging, and times to meet up with other demonstrators. It meant going out of his way to stand with literal white supremacists, and investing time, money, and possible bodily harm to do so.
Consider the words of college student Peter Cvjetanovic, a picture of whom, mid-shout while holding a tiki torch, circulated widely on social media this weekend. “I hope that the people sharing the photo are willing to listen that I’m not the angry racist they see in that photo,” he told news station KTVN, despite having traveled to Charlottesville specifically to protect the legacy of Confederate general Robert E. Lee. In the real world, it’s not “just talk” anymore.
When you break it down, the only thing people can do on the internet — contained entirely to the internet — is talk. It is all discourse, and hypotheticals, and bluster, and trolling. But it can do real harm, because as soon as that conversation spills into tangible space, the hypothetical vanishes. Even without overt violence, swarming a public space is an act intended to show force and to intimidate. Men carrying guns, wearing swastikas, and performing a Nazi salute isn’t physical violence, but it isn’t peace, either. The physical world is not a Boolean. The rules of online discourse do not translate to the meatspace, despite what trolls (an ill-fitting title for this type of public spectacle) might think. When you stand with white supremacists on the street, you are literally standing with white supremacists. There is nothing ironic about that.
Correction: Due to an editing error, Millennial Matt was identified as a member of Gavin McInnes’s “Proud Boys” organization. He is not.