How the internet spawned 21st-century fascism

In "It Came From Something Awful", Dale Beran explores the origins and the psychology of the alt-right

By Amanda Marcotte

Senior Writer

Published July 30, 2019 5:30PM (EDT)

Most of us who encounter the online alt-right — largely comprised of angry young men with fascist notions and a tendency to speak only in memes — feel repulsed and eager to get as far away as possible. But writer and artist Dale Beran, in an act of curiosity and courage, decided he wanted to learn more about who these budding young fascists are, and how it is that anime message boards spawned an army of keyboard Nazis.

In his new book "It Came From Something Awful: How a Toxic Troll Army Accidentally Memed Donald Trump into Office," Beran bravely dived deep into the alt-right to learn how an internet culture that used to be an organizing force for the left instead birthed a vicious youth culture of fascism. Beran spoke with Salon's Amanda Marcotte about his book, the psychology of the fascist troll, and whether there's any hope of saving these young men from their own worst impulses.

This interview has been lightly edited for clarity and length.

In your book, you quote a buddy of mine, David Neiwert, who says that the alt-right began with "people talking online about Japanese anime." I know this to be true, empirically, because I spend way too much time blocking people with anime characters as avatars on Twitter. It still seems kind of preposterous to me, though. How did that happen? How did Japanese anime chat rooms turn into Neo-Nazism?

Well, that's the story of the book. It's a rather a long, elaborate story, but to put it in a nutshell, there's a great deal of marginalized young men who really never recovered from the 2008 crash.

Even before that, that were gathering on the internet, first on a place called 4chan and then later 8chan, and these were message boards originally devoted to anime. They were also devoted to dropping out and living your life through the screen, through the internet, by indulging and like watching TV shows or anime all day, or playing video games all day.

Then the economic situation declined for young people even more, and more people were doing this. It linked into sort of a spiritual crisis, almost. If you're sitting behind your computer all day, dropped out of life because you feel like it's too difficult or hyper-competitive, you get to this place of extreme nihilism.

That eventually curdled into the alt-right and this idea that, "Oh, well we're just going to become fascists."

Hyper-conservatism gave them an off-the-rack suit of values. That felt like a lifeline to them, where they can bootstrap themselves out of their nihilism, because you can't really be nihilistic forever. So that's sort of the nutshell story of how these groups of obnoxious anime trolls have come to harass everyone on Twitter.

You can't live in a vacuum forever. So they're like, what if I have this set of values where I'm gonna become a breadwinner? So they were suckered by these sort of YouTube personalities and the personalities who are selling this hyper-conservatism as a way to join society and move out of the margins.

Far-right thinking or fascism provides a sense of solidarity because you're like, oh, suddenly all these other guys are liking me. It gives them self-definition, right? It provides everything they lack. It was an easy solution for a value system, which they didn't have.

I mean, it's false, right? It's not a good solution, but it's at least what seduced them.

I visited Germany a couple years ago and did a tour of the Unterwelten, and in one of the exhibits they had a photo of a mural in an uncovered SS hideout. The SS soldiers imagined themselves as brave soldiers protecting women and children from corruption. So yes, with fascism, the people that get involved in it do think that they are promoting a value system.

One of the tenets [of fascism] is hyper-traditionalism, the idea that society is falling apart, and therefore we need to go back to the past and restore a concrete set of values.

Where does fascism come from in the first place? It's not that old. It first arose in the 1930s, because, as I argue in the book, that [is] when the inequities of capitalism got very extreme. Then you get a great deal of people in society who are deeply marginalized, then they imagine the fantasy. That's the fantasy they want.

It's sort of those same underlying forces are creating the same ideological systems again. And this time they're bubbling up on the internet.

A lot of people would reasonably object to the word "marginalized," because these communities are almost exclusively white and straight and middle class people, mostly men. So in a sense, the most privileged identity in our country. You're not seeing people that have actually struggled because of racial discrimination or sexist discrimination turn to fascism. So tell me more about why you use the term "marginalized" in this way.

Well, I'm not quite sure they're middle-class, or at least they're not in a good economic environment. A lot of them are struggling economically. They don't have good access to education. A lot of them don't have good parenting situations. If you're raising yourself online, which is like a what a lot of what these kids have been doing, it's probably not because you're in a really good situation in your life. So I mean that's essentially why I employed the term.

There are many, as I argue in the book, different ways in which American society has marginalized large groups of people.

That's not to say that these have been the worst marginalizeds, but the same forces that shuffle people aside and don't give them access to education, don't give them access to resources where they can become full human beings and realize their potential. Then they end up sitting on the internet 20 hours a day. Those are the forces which have created this sort of a subgroup.

Like you, I also wrote a book about trolling and the right. My thesis is a little different than yours. I think a lot of people picked my book up thinking they were going to read your book.

I thought that, right? I was terrified. I was like, uh-oh, did someone write my book? But yeah, you talk about other issues, though you touched on similar things. There's a lot to write about here. I'm glad that people are writing on it.

The difference is you focus on the role that the internet plays, that youth culture, that counterculture plays. I focused more on the average Trump supporter who's, you know, over 60 and not on 4chan, but maybe more on Facebook and watching Fox News.

But I think that they're drawn by the same impulse, which is not a politics of positivity, so much as a politics of tearing things down, of trolling the libs, of sticking it to the libs. 

I do agree with you that is part of what the right does, not just this subgroup but in general. Fox News is, in a sense, nihilistic, where they really are interested in just tearing apart liberal ideas or leftist ideas. And in the end, it is nihilistic because it's serving a very limited ends and ignoring big problems like climate change or marginalizing all these people.

But the weird thing is that nihilism [when it comes to the alt-right] is the surface level. Then you  go deeper and find these other ideologies. It's a desperate attempt to flee nihilism.

Some of them remained nihilists and there's terminology. "Black pill" means that you're a nihilist forever. You're gonna drop out and play video games forever.

But a "red pill" means you're a new far-right or alt-right conservative.

Fascism gives you this weird set of like mythical absurd traditionalist values that you can then use instead of nihilism. 

Experts who've tracked the radicalization process of these young men have described a fairly standard path. First they start off on places like 4chan and Reddit doing memes. Then they get sucked into misogynist communities, where it's a lot of young men blaming their dating problems on feminism and the lady Ghostbusters. Then they get pulled into white supremacy and fascism and calling Trump their "god emperor". How does that square with your research? Is that what you found when you actually started talking to people involved in this community?

Yes. I would say that description is very accurate. It's surprising how often I talked to a source and that's exactly what has happened.

There are people on the margins, right? There are people who have gone into it and then bumped back out of it, where it became a phase in their life. That happens.

But, for the most part, it's a great deal of kids and mostly young men who have dropped out and they feel then very angry and resentful towards women.

It's group think, right? A bunch of unhealthy people get together and they encourage each other in the unhealthy behavior.

Then the next thing is like, oh, well I'll become a fascist and I'll have this dream that, instead of being on the margins, I'll be at the center of society when this revolution comes. At that point, I'll be exalted at the top of this power pyramid. All the other minorities, we put at the bottom, and I won't be on the margins anymore.

It's such a ridiculous dream. There's really no way out. It just becomes another way to be miserable. It's not a real solution, obviously.

I want to ask you about YouTube. In your book, you focus on 4chan and forums like that, because it's where this started. But a lot of people are really pointing to YouTube these days as a central force in the radicalization of these young men. What did your research turn up about the role that video and YouTube played in this?

If I had time to write another chapter, it would have been on YouTube. Unfortunately, a lot of the sources that I talked to that got radicalized on YouTube, I spoke to after I submitted the book.

I spoke to Caleb Cain, the young man who was the source for the New York Times article on YouTube radicalization. I spoke to him before the New York Times article came out.

The YouTube algorithm convinces these young men that this is a valid ideology. A lot of these young kids get their information on YouTube. It's how they're learning philosophy, how they're learning politics. It's through older men that are erstwhile father figures, telling them how to pull themselves up by the bootstraps and fix their life.

What ends up happening is that, in their efforts to bootstrap their lives, instead of becoming better people, it just ends up radicalizing them and they become angry fascists.

That makes me want to ask you about Jordan Peterson, though I almost don't want to.

I write a lot about him in the book. Unfortunately, I had to read his books for my book.

When you say this erstwhile father figure, obviously, he's the first name that comes to mind. He's real touchy about even the slightest hint that he might be encouraging fascism. What's your opinion on that?

I do think that Peterson's a good example of the phenomenon that I talked about. There's a lot of young men who need to know how to live their life and sort of have this rule-based idea.

I've encountered a lot of people like Peterson who say that they're drawing a bright line. Gavin McInnes might be the other one, right? They say they're drawing a bright line between fascism and their ideas. They don't know what fascism is or they're very ignorant or they haven't really thought a lot about themselves or what they're saying. They essentially speak a lot about things which are very close to fascism, but they don't really understand it themselves.

The most salient example might be that Peterson is essentially a social Darwinist, which is a very foolish position because Darwin himself was not a Social Darwinist. The idea is that life is this competitive hierarchy and the "alpha males" or, Jordan says, people are like lobsters or like walruses and the biggest bully wins.

This is not Darwin. This is a hyper-capitalist ideology. The idea that everyone is a competitive businessman and everyone is a rival. And like Trump, you will be flattered to be called a bloodthirsty animal that is vanquishing your rivals, right?

Hannah Arendt, who wrote "The Origins of Totalitarianism", she says this idea from the 1930s, 1920s onward, created fascism. The next step is what people do we need to put on the bottom for us to get to the top of this competitive zero-sum hierarchy.

So that's what Peterson says and it's part of fascism. He's a fool. He doesn't understand it.

There are a handful of people out there, I think most notably Natalie Wynn of ContraPoints on YouTube, who are actively trying to inject themselves into the streams that appeal to these kind of burgeoning fascists. They  use some of the aesthetics and humor and  memes to offer a counter message. But it's one that's progressive and antifascist. What do you think of that?

I haven't watched all of them, but the ones that I watched, I like. She was a 4chan user. So I cite her in the book, talking about what 4chan was like.

I like this strategy, right? I'm glad that there are people who are willing to do this.

A great deal of the problem is that a lot of these young people are trying to figure themselves out, trying to figure out why they're on the margins or disenfranchised in some way. They're not reading a lot. They have been trained partly by these big corporations, who profit off the internet to go to YouTube, go to these places and they'll just watch videos to try and figure their world out.

There are people in there presenting answers from the left, which are better answers for this group of people. If the left articulates it well, like these people are, the left has real answers for them rather than the track that they're putting themselves in. So I'm happy that ContraPoints is doing it and that other vloggers and Twitch streamers are doing it too.

What I'm getting off of you and from your book is that there's a real sense of hunger out there for meaning, for ethics, for philosophy, for discourse about these things and it's not being met appropriately. And so fascism and fascist-adjacent messages are filling in that void. What do you think could be done, besides like what Wynn's doing to help, to stop that from happening, to fill that void a little better?

Better access to education and programs that would help them economically so that they're not struggling so much.

Caleb Cain dropped out of community college, and then he couldn't go back. He's like, that's too expensive. I can't afford $2,000. So he's sitting in his grandma's basement getting radicalized, watching YouTube, trying to figure out how to fix it.

Outside of those economic issues, I think the left needs to be a little more open.

Everyone hates this message when I give it, for good reason. Because you have to approach them and de-radicalize them. But the last person you ever want to interact with is an anime troll on Twitter.

But Caleb Cain described and other sources I described, that when they're met with disgust, when they're met with anger, which happens all the time in politics, then it drives them deeper, right?

But if you've got someone like Wynn, or other people could do the same thing, where you try to understand where they're coming from and then engage and break apart what they're thinking and take it seriously. That's the better approach, I think.

A lot of people that could also do that say like, oh no, those people are so disgusting. I'm not gonna touch them. Which makes sense because that is their ethos, right? That's how they present themselves, as disgusting. No one ever wants to touch the troll.

By Amanda Marcotte

Amanda Marcotte is a senior politics writer at Salon and the author of "Troll Nation: How The Right Became Trump-Worshipping Monsters Set On Rat-F*cking Liberals, America, and Truth Itself." Follow her on Twitter @AmandaMarcotte and sign up for her biweekly politics newsletter, Standing Room Only.

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