If you didn’t spend 2016 lurking in the dark corners of the internet, you may still be scratching your head over the connection between Donald Trump, cartoon “hate symbol” Pepe, deceased zoo gorilla Harambe, and the alt-right. Not Angela Nagle, an Irish author who has been meticulously studying what’s happening on infamous anonymous forum sites like 4chan and 8chan (and, later, Reddit’s Trump-supporter forum r/TheDonald) for years, and who has seen more of these seedy domains than you might be able to stomach. And she’s well beyond over all the memes.
“I’m tired, really, of the constant use of irony,” she recently told me as we considered just how seriously (and literally) we ought to take the worst kind of trolling memelords whose influence can now be seen in the White House. Or rather, the president’s Twitter account. (As if there’s a difference.)
“There’s really gravity to all this now. People are actually getting into violent confrontations and this is turning into something that could be quite dangerous," Nagle says.
In Nagle’s new book, “Kill All Normies: Online Culture Wars from 4chan and Tumblr to Trump and the Alt-Right” from Zero Books, Nagle paints a harrowing portrait of what can happen when internet culture enters the political realm. The author, who started her career eight years ago researching the online anti-feminist movement on the “chan” forums that birthed it, meticulously chronicles every twist and turn from President Obama’s social media hype machine slinging “hope” to the anti-sentimental celebration of Harambe.
Spanning the ideological extremes on both sides of aisle, “Kill All Normies” leaves no one off the hook. Though Nagle shows the alt-right and its little brother the alt-light as abhorrent in both their means and end, she also stipulates that the identity politicking, virtue signaling “Tumblr left” on the opposite end of the spectrum are certainly not blameless. They were, after all, preoccupied with online infighting as a means of desperately performing their wokeness while they could’ve been standing guard against the alt-right’s burgeoning extremism.
Though she says she’s optimistic for the left’s future — should people begin abandoning and speaking out against this small but vocal and surprisingly vengeful sect — there’s no questioning the fact that undoing the now-inflated and emboldened alt-right will be as challenging as it is critical.
I guess it’s kind of perfect in a way that our interview comes on the heels of President Trump tweeting that WWE meme, which originated on r/The_Donald. Do you think there’s a larger cultural meaning we should take from that?
Actually, any question that has to do with the last three weeks, I’m likely to be pretty bad on because I’ve kind of switched off. I’ve been traveling and on holiday, and I’ve also switched off because of the anticipation of the backlash online.
Can you tell me more about the backlash?
I could see that the book was getting a lot of attention and things were about to get explosive. Because of the fact the book has criticisms about a certain subsection of the left, which tends to not take criticism very well, I knew things were going to get kind of ugly.
But I don’t want to give the impression that I was bullied off Twitter. I haven’t been harassed or anything like that, and I’ll probably go back to it at some point. [Note: Nagle has returned to Twitter since this conversation took place.] I just looked at it and thought, “This is unlikely to be a productive conversation.” As a platform, [Twitter] is very conducive to snarky, personalized gangs ganging up on people.
One of the many ways the internet has failed to deliver on the cyber-utopia your book reflects on as having been once prophesied.
Yeah, it certainly hasn’t brought out the best in people.
In light of what’s going on on these platforms, there seems to be a resurgence in the hope that they can still fulfill that vision. Like using algorithms to identify “fake news” or “information operations” on Facebook, or abusive content on Instagram. What do you think of those efforts?
I wouldn’t want to dismiss things like that entirely, but I’m very suspicious of anyone who thinks that we don’t need to deal with these timeless moral, political, philosophical questions and we can just kind of instead replace them with technological solution. Essentially what the online world did was put to the test the question, “Would people behave morally if they didn’t have to suffer any consequences?” The results are not very flattering. I don’t think technology is going to allow us to bypass what are moral failings.
Right. It reminds me of the strategy a lot of liberals seemed to think we could use to delegitimize or tamp down the alt-right during the election. By, say, putting the term alt-right in quotation marks, or refusing to use it altogether.
If the alt-right wants to call itself the alt-right, I don’t see why that’s a problem necessarily. What they’re trying to signal with that, I suppose is, that they’re something distinct from establishment conservatism. Which they are. Now, some people would rather we call them fascist, but in most cases they’re not fascist. They’re most certainly racist, and they’re definitely misogynist, but I don’t see what’s to be gained from replacing their term — which isn’t a particularly flattering term, in my view — with a more inaccurate one. I actually think calling them alt-right is more useful.
If you use their strict definition, they demand you define [the alt-right] by its placing race at the center of its politics. It explicitly states race primarily is a biological category at the center of everything and explicitly states goals of wanting a white ethno-state and even a white empire, which would of course necessitate war at the very least and probably genocide if it were ever to actually happen. They’ve already given us that, so why not use their own definition when it’s so incriminating already?
Since we’re discussing the usage of the term fascists, it’s probably worth talking about the growing anti-fascist movement in the U.S. that’s formed in response to that perception.
It’s not something to be welcomed. From all of the stuff I’ve read and watched, I’m not sure that antifa are necessarily up to the task, physically. If [they’re up against] a bunch of nerds with Kekistan flags, that’s fine. But if those people start making connections with more gun-obsessed militia movement types, that could get very dangerous.
I don’t have good intuitive sense of antifa in America. I have much more of a sense of what they are in Europe, particularly Britain. There’s a whole history of antifascist groups stopping actual fascists from marching through immigrant neighborhoods to intimidate people. These were often quite tough guys who had connections to the socialist left and football clubs and things like that. It was very different. My sense of antifa in America is that it’s a bit more anarchist-hinged and a bit younger. It is connected, maybe, more to an identity politics movement. It feels more like a subculture, and one that maybe isn’t ready for the level of violence that may be on the way.
It seems that even online, American antifa are not prepared for this battle. Because that’s where 4chan has been for a long time, and have become quite proficient.
The right are using really dirty tactics. You’re seeing things like college professors being intimidated and doxxed and, in many cases, quite scared and fearful of stalking. This is happening all over the place.
It’s bad news for everyone. But in the alt-right they feel this is a civilizational battle. So they’re willing to be as nasty as they can possibly be.
Having followed the chan boards before it became so intertwined with the alt-right movement, what can you say about how this has happened?
What I was looking at early on was /b/, the random board, which was then more important and influential. Now, a lot of the focus is on the politics board [/pol/].
I mean, 4chan was always horrible. There is this theory that there was two generations, completely distinct on 4chan, and that the first was sort of politically progressive, hacker, connected to Occupy, and so on, and the next was just fascist. But I think the transition was much more gradual and not as extreme as that shift. 4chan was always about trolling and transgression, and a kind of anti-moral, anti-sentimental sensibility. It was also about posting or saying the most shockingly horrible thing you could think of. It’s not surprising that it would eventually take on a more formal political set of principles. Because of course, particularly in America, manners have to be based around the fact it is such a mixed multi-ethnic society. These are the kind of things that these guys would be transgressing. It was always about transgressing liberal political correctness.
What do you think that these mounting problems are going to lead to?
It’s very hard to say. One of the goals of the alt-right was about moving over the window to the right. And they have achieved that, all of them put together, not just the alt-right in the strict sense, but everything. Breitbart, Bannon, Milo, Trump. They’ve definitely made ways of talking about immigration and race that would have been inconceivable a few years ago normalized. And there will be some kind of serious consequences from that.
I think that it’s going to be very hard to actually make the case for free movement, and I also find that maybe the left is very much on the back foot, so they’re responding defensively only. And the reality is that we have to make a positive case for things instead of just being against racism, against the Muslim ban, or whatever. For instance, who now openly describes themselves as politically cosmopolitan?
I kind of have a sense that one of the reasons we’re seeing all these movements is an absence that has been left by the whole discredited pro-Iraq War, pro-military intervention kind of section of the intelligentsia. On the right, you had the neo-cons, on the left you had the people like Christopher Hitchens. Because [those on the left] all came from socialist backgrounds, they had a kind of internationalism, and they made the case for a really devastating and terrible thing using very internationalist language and ideas.
Now, there’s a general kind of closing down. Even people who are not that political, I get a sense everyone wants to return to the past in some way. There’s more of a sympathetic audience for someone who wants to say we need to close the borders because of that.
We’re living in the period after all these kind of liberal interventions, military interventions, humanitarian interventions, in some cases, so we’re living in a time of great cynicism... where the whole idea that there’s some kind of universal set of principles that all human beings want now feels ridiculous in the aftermath of those wars. It’s a weird time, and in many ways, focusing on the emergence of these weird movements in the margins distracts from the real problem, which is that there isn’t really an alternative out there.
The best alternative the left has come up with is reviving these 70-year-old socialists. And don’t get me wrong, I love Corbyn and I love Sanders, but it is telling that the most exciting thing to happen on the left has been a kind of almost intentional return to the past. Essentially, I don’t see any vision of the future that is out there right now that makes people optimistic. Instead, everyone is very cynical and very inclined to develop this kind of bunker mentality that everything is in decline, so you have to grab on to what you have and be defensive. And that’s the much bigger problem. The alt-right, teenagers on the internet, are just expressing it in a way.