For most of last year, it was hard to avoid the sensation that something had broken somewhere and the internet was leaking into real life. The world seemed to have taken on the punchy, disorderly, darkly playful quality of a message-board fight, in part because the president-to-be insisted on communicating mainly in tweets assembled from detritus found in a Breitbart-comments scrapyard. The subcultures and folkways of the internet had become powerful enough that the entire election apparatus was obligated to attend to and dissect them. In January, the Republican consultant Rick Wilson dismissed a portion of Trump supporters as “childless single men who masturbate to anime”; by September, the Clinton campaign was concerned enough with the threat of meme warfare that it released an explainer denouncing the cartoon frog Pepe under the title “Donald Trump, Pepe the frog, and white supremacists: an explainer.” When Election Night rolled around, it was hard to begrudge the exuberant 4chan poster, thrilling in his candidate’s surprise victory, who bragged that “we actually elected a meme as president.”
It was a shocking turn, and not just because Donald Trump had become president. Somehow the self-proclaimed losers and freaks of 4chan and its ilk had come to great political prominence. The gleaming new real-name internet of Facebook — not to mention the media companies and political machines relying on it — that was supposed to tame the wild territory of the Reddit-style web had instead been infected by it. It was almost a thrilling underdog story — the weirdos and outcasts had stood up for something and won — except that the thing they were standing up for was anti-Enlightenment, anti-democratic, anti-equality politics.
Whatever else the alt-right is, it is a movement born and incubated on the internet, and it couldn’t have existed without that technology. Circulation, discussion, and debate are oxygen to political ideas. Commercial and social mechanisms like “the cost of owning a printing press” and “No one will invite you to parties if you openly praise Hitler” traditionally cut off extreme thinkers from mass circulation. Now, though, you can reproduce your ideas essentially infinitely, for prices so low as to be effectively free, and suffer no ill social effect. In fact, online, toxic ideas are more likely to get attention and social capital (plus, thanks to programmatic ad networks, real capital) that goes along with attention.
And there is a literal army of dissatisfied, disenchanted, mostly male young adults ripe for radicalization. The internet is host to what the writer and programmer David Auerbach calls “the first wide-scale collective gathering of those who are alienated, voiceless, and just plain unsocialized” — seeking freedom from the disappointments of the physical world in places where social interaction is decoupled from material and emotional signals they don’t understand or have access to. “There’s people that are, like, behind the counter at a Pizza Hut or whatever, and their intellect and their skills are not being used in the real world in a way that’s appealing to them,” the web-comic artist and longtime 4chan observer Dale Beran tells me. “The only interesting stuff that’s going on is the internet and video games.”
In February, Beran published a widely circulated 8,000-word essay about his own history with 4chan, which he called the “skeleton key to the rise of Trump.” For Beran, the notorious image board — the most infamous of the message boards and forums that created and defined what we now think of as internet culture — was ripe for right-wing radicalization specifically because it was a gathering place for the people who felt most thwarted by challenges of offline life: “Everyone on 4chan drifts to the right because their lives still aren’t working out,” he says.
4chan and similar communities — like those that arose on Reddit or Something Awful — were never, originally, partisan places. Message-board politics were inchoate, petulant, and largely limited to a single demand: to be left alone to do and say whatever they wanted. The first stirrings of political organizing occurred in 2008, when Anonymous, the now mostly defunct hacker collective, arose out of 4chan to take on Scientology — mostly because the Church of Scientology was attempting to remove a funny video of Tom Cruise from the internet. Such reckless disregard of the border between the free territory of online and the oppressive regime of the external world could not be tolerated.
This was the core value of message-board political consciousness: sovereignty, a concept similarly important to the politics of the far right. Posters and trolls wanted to reserve for themselves on the internet the power and freedom they couldn’t find off it. And as the online and offline spheres slowly merged over the course of the 2010s, that sovereignty expressed itself as an abject refusal to resocialize — the reservation of a sacred right to be cruel. The puckish left-libertarianism that had characterized the early message-board political activity of groups like Anonymous transformed into a revanchism, seemingly intended to protect “Kekistan” — the joking name, from the LOL-like word Kek, for the safe spaces of the frustrated men of the internet.
This was the sensibility galvanized in 2014 by — what else? — a depressed and frustrated man’s rambling, 9,000-word post falsely accusing his game-developer ex-girlfriend Zoë Quinn of exchanging sex for video-game reviews. Quinn came to stand in for all the women who were attempting to carve out roles in an industry where “three-dimensional female character” traditionally referred to modeling breast physics in a graphics engine. That Quinn was innocent of the charges against her was irrelevant. She had become a meme: an endlessly replicable, endlessly remixable referent, a shibboleth for the quasi-religious systems of internet culture. Memes do not make for a particularly compassionate politics. As Whitney Phillips, a professor at Mercer University who specializes in internet culture, explains, “When you’re engaging with a meme, you’re not engaging with a full narrative” — much less with the real person on the receiving end.
And so the keening wail of a rejected boyfriend became a dedicated and highly organized media campaign: Gamergate. Some Gamergaters harassed and insulted journalists and feminist critics of video games in attempts to silence them. The repetitive-task, button-pushing skills developed through years of gaming had paid off in a new, bigger game: ruining people’s lives.
Oddly enough, at the moment of its greatest triumph yet, 4chan itself was splintering. The site’s founder, Christopher Poole, who had always distanced himself from its worst excesses, enlisted moderators to delete any Gamergate threads on the site. And so a diaspora of radicalized, empowered trolls and angry young men fled elsewhere: to the rival site 8chan, hosted in the Philippines; to Reddit; then when Reddit became too censorious, to a less-moderated clone called Voat. And, of course, to Twitter, where they could carry on their campaigns on the same platform as the journalists, critics, feminists, and gamers they were targeting. (And, as Twitter played whack-a-mole with right-wing trolls, to a Twitter clone called Gab.) This multiplatform media apparatus, built during Gamergate, was the same one deployed in service of the Trump campaign in 2016. The skills developed to target Zoë Quinn as a meme were now being used on Hillary Clinton.
This should not have come as a surprise. Message-board culture does more than radicalize the disaffected; it also teaches them how to manipulate the attention economy. Message-board threads only superficially resemble real-world conversations; in fact, public online social interaction is built around competing with your peers for attention from the group as a whole. As Beran puts it to me, “There’s an evolutionary struggle” for ideas to be seen. If a post isn’t clever or catchy enough, “it just dies, and no one ever sees it. The best stuff, in a Darwinian struggle, gets to the top. That’s how memes are created.” 4chan in particular has always had a flair for attracting sensationalist media coverage; its members also liked to “brigade” other platforms and communities to troll and wreak havoc — maybe most famously the adolescent social network Club Penguin, which was routinely invaded by bots that formed swastikas out of penguin bodies. This might seem like a particularly useless skill, but forming swastikas in Club Penguin is structurally not much different from creating digital armies to artificially influence trending topics in Twitter, creating the impression of mass support or mass outrage, as the infamous and anonymous Trump supporter MicroChip is known to do.
As the mainstream media increasingly takes its coverage cues (and its revenue sources) from a small handful of powerful social networks, the news becomes easier and easier for them to influence. The shitlords of the internet don’t create the conditions that lead to reaction, but they are more than happy to exploit them. And skilled at it, too. Earlier this year, BuzzFeed reported on Trump supporters in the anonymous public chat app Discord attempting to manipulate the French election by pretending to be French voters on Twitter; the day after the first round of voting, one poster in 4chan’s /pol/ board could be found suggesting possible rumors the board could seed to undermine Marine Le Pen’s opponent, Emmanuel Macron. Whether it fools anyone is less important than its ultimate effect — to turn the whole world into a nihilistic message board. They’ve got our attention, and they’re making everyone else play by their rules.
*This article appears in the May 1, 2017, issue of New York Magazine.