Scroll with me here. Somebody named BeatlesBaby makes “a very badass chicken curry.” Look, there’s a nice sepia-tinted pencil drawing of Ned Stark from Game of Thrones. Apparently, “Walking is the new smoking #Health #Fitness,” and some guy’s wife loves her treadmill desk. Read this: A Marine gives his beloved bomb-sniffing dog a hero’s farewell.
You could find these posts anywhere, on Facebook or Instagram or some homey subreddit. But that’s not how they ended up on my screen. I saw them on Gab, a Twitter-like social media platform catering to the so-called alt-right, the web-incubated white-nationalist movement that shot to prominence during the last election and made international headlines for its violent rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, earlier this year. I was on Gab because, not long ago, I spent a week of my online life exclusively in the alt-right’s domain, a network of copycat sites collectively known as Alt-Tech.
On Gab, when people aren’t chatting about exercise equipment, they swap jokes, revel in the camaraderie of the expanding #GabFam, and complain about the “normies” on other social media sites. I spot Alex Jones, host of the far-right radio show Infowars, using his (active, verified) account to sell merchandise and plug his website. Media commentator Mike Cernovich is there too, pushing his YouTube channel, Medium articles, and T-shirts. Gabbers love promotion. If they’re not elevating themselves, they’re supporting the cause, buying stuff and sending followers to Fox News and Breitbart—but also to places I don’t recognize, like Voat and Infogalactic and WeSearchr.
I click. Voat is Reddit with different fonts—and is in fact home to many communities banned from Reddit. Clicking “Random” brings me to pages like /v/manspreading, then /v/MasculinePhilosophy (“A space to discuss the nature of masculinity and the condition of both contemporary men and men throughout history”), and then /v/SwedenYes (“A place to discuss all the problems of multiculturalism in Sweden and Europe in general”). On Infogalactic, the alt-right’s corrective to Wikipedia, I read that the extremist movement has been “widely adopted by mainstream conservative and center-right parties in the USA and Europe”; the entry for the widely debunked Pizzagate conspiracy theory calls it a “crowdsourced investigation.” And WeSearchr? Users there ask for money (known as “posting bounty”) to track down anti-Trump protesters. The site also operates as a sort of GoFundMe. Thousands of users contributed more than $150,000 to help neo-Nazi news site The Daily Stormer with its many legal bills.
Since many of these people have been excommunicated from mainstream websites, Alt-Tech serves as something like a safe space, where they can just “be themselves.” The smirking cartoon Pepe the Frog is, of course, everywhere—in usernames, posts, even lurking in Gab’s logo. Sometimes he’s advocating for a balanced diet; other times he’s part of a goose-stepping army headed off to fight in what the alt-right has dubbed the “meme war.” Are memes weapons? In Alt-Tech, very much so. “Memes,” writes self-described white nationalist Christopher Cantwell, “are just a gateway drug to the alt-right.” (In late August, Cantwell surrendered to police to face felony charges of attacking counterprotesters in Charlottesville.)
Last September, the Anti-Defamation League declared Pepe the Frog a hate symbol, and Alt-Tech had a conniption. Posters responded with furious, red-eyed, screaming Pepes and “DON’T TREAD ON MEME” flags, complete with Pepe-headed snakes. One user said he was “just another apathetic individual” until he heard Hillary Clinton badmouth Pepe. “Now all I want to do is laugh at the #LeftyLunacy,” he wrote. That’s what Cantwell means by gateway drug. Memes focus people’s attention. When I mention to Alice Marwick, a social media scholar at UNC Chapel Hill, that extremists are using memes for recruitment, she suggests that the technique “is not that different from Islamic radicalization.” People come for the edgy aesthetic; some stay for the ideology.
Then I watch a version of this meme-machining in real time. Starting on Reddit, an alt-righter wonders if there’s a symbol “that liberals love that the right can co-opt into an ‘alt-right’ white power Nazi meme.” In short order, Alt-Tech picks up the thread and begins workshopping ideas. The black power fist? The peace sign? The rainbow flag? Each suggestion comes with a battery of hashtags that Alt-Techies could use to disseminate the misinformation. The winning idea originates on 4chan: the “OK” hand gesture, innocuous enough that Alt-Techies think they can convince “libtards” it’s really a symbol of white power. Eventually the meme finds its way to Twitter, where Mike Cernovich is seen flashing the gesture at the White House. That’s when Fusion reporter Emma Roller calls him out for what she thinks is a genuine instance of white supremacy. “We have successfully false-flagged,” one 4channer proudly declares.
In the aftermath, observers describe the effort as a “hoax.” After all, what immediate harm can come from people erroneously thinking a hand gesture is secretly hateful? More than you might think. You might not be susceptible, your friends might not be susceptible, but someone out there will start Googling phrases they never have before—“white supremacy,” “globalism,” “ethnostate.” Then they’ll find their way to Gab, where people are chatting about curries and posting funny cartoons. Hey, they’ll think. These folks are just like me. I’ll follow them to WeSearchr.
hat’s how it starts. Maybe they’ll leave disgusted. Maybe they’ll share a few Pepe memes. Maybe they’ll find themselves holding a tiki torch at a rally.
Emma Grey Ellis (@EmmaGreyEllis) writes about extremism and online movements for WIRED.
This article appears in the October issue. Subscribe now.