As online platforms like Twitter and Facebook become increasingly important for the dissemination of breaking news, extremist leaders are recognizing the power of subverting mainstream coverage in the service of their own agendas.
Ammon Bundy, the figure at the center of an extremist antigovernment occupation of a federal wildlife refuge in Oregon, appeared to make an announcement on Twitter yesterday –– his struggle against the federal government was in the same tradition as Rosa Parks’ civil disobedience.
Coverage of the occupation of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge until then included many articles on the racial double standard between armed whites threatening violence while protesting the government and the peaceful, if confrontational tactics, of racial justice protests like Black Lives Matter.
The tweet about Rosa Parks hit a nerve for observers everywhere. Publications including The Washington Post, USA Today, Mediate, and The New Republic ran stories with headlines like “Oregon 'militia' leader says he's doing the 'same thing' as Rosa Parks." The problem? The Twitter account was a total fake.
Gizmodo was the first to discover another Twitter account, @TheSaintNegro29, that was crowing about the success of their fraud and posting correspondences they had via the account with journalists. That account, with its obviously racist name, was marked with racist images of the major players in the Oregon standoff. Diving deeper into other images the account tweeted, the racist images got worse and worse.
The publications that ran stories on the fake account soon ran corrections. But this was not the first time a racist troll was successful in hijacking a media moment. And in all likelihood, it won’t be the last.
As online platforms like Twitter and Facebook become increasingly important for the dissemination of breaking news, extremist leaders are quickly recognizing the power of subverting mainstream coverage in the service of their own agendas.
So far, this subversion has manifested itself in two major campaign styles: overtly, with memes and images designed to elicit outrage and disrupt messaging, and covertly, through the spread of disinformation, fraudulent eyewitness accounts and fake news reports.
But no matter the method, the racists behind the tactics have one goal: hijacking the media in the service of more “racially awakened” minds.
One of the foremost practitioners of both types of campaign is Andrew Anglin, administrator of The Daily Stormer, a neo-Nazi website that thrives on the type of vicious racism formerly confined to anonymous boards such as 4Chan and 8chan. In recent years, the site has originated racist campaigns targeting both the mainstream media and social justice organizers.
During last fall’s protests calling for the resignation of Tim Wolfe, president of the University of Missouri, over his handling of a series of racist incidents on campus, Anglin was able to generate thousands of retweets and “likes” for false information purportedly coming from the demonstrations.
Using the hashtags #Mizzou and #PrayForMizzou, Anglin manipulated the audience following the situation online to unwittingly spread reports that the University of Missouri police were complicit with the Ku Klux Klan and that crosses were being burned on the university lawn — an effort apparently meant to show that overly sensitive anti-racist protesters will believe anything. When his efforts were discovered, Twitter banned his username. But the damage had been done. Anglin touted his efforts as a major success and called for similar campaigns as soon as possible.
It didn’t take long for copycats to follow suit.
Several weeks after Anglin’s trolling of the Mizzou protests, dozens of White Student Union (WSU) pages began appearing on Facebook. The reaction from students and administrations alike was predictable condemnation and outrage. After one such response from the administration at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, Anglin copied the idea for another one of his own campaigns of organized subversion.
“So, guys. Here’s the plan: Make more of the White Student Union pages on Facebook for various universities. You don’t have to go there. Make one for Dartmouth, Princeton, etc.,” Anglin wrote on his website. “If they won’t let it on Facebook, put it on tumblr or wordpress or whatever. Get it up, then forward the links to local media.”
What followed was massive media coverage — from ABC News, USA Today, The Washington Post and others — all asking if the pages were authentic. Only a handful of the WSUs seemed to be real groups. However, in a matter of a day, Anglin was able to help propel extremist ideas from the neo-Nazi fringe into the mainstream, and it took no time for other white supremacists to take notice.
‘Sock Puppets’ and the Klan
“It doesn’t matter who started them or why, whether it was ‘real’ or a satire, spontaneous or coordinated: A few dozen Facebook pages made the concept of White Student Unions real through manipulated tension and predictable media amplification,” wrote Abigail James on the white nationalist journal Radix. “Worst-case scenario, this particular incident fizzles out and we learn a few new tricks. If we’re sensitive to opportunities and smart about it, it can be done again.”
Radix’s endorsement of tactics popularized by the comparatively lowbrow Daily Stormer is perhaps even more remarkable than the media coverage itself. Radix and its publisher Richard Spencer claim to be the bourgeois thought catalog of the “new right,” and they were suddenly heaping praise and taking cues from neo-Nazi Anglin’s legion of anonymous Internet trolls. (To get a sense of Anglin, consider that his website is named for Der Stürmer, the obscene and gutturally anti-Semitic rag published by Julius Streicher, a Nazi leader who was executed for crimes against humanity after being tried in Nuremberg.)
“You are having a quite remarkable effect. I would say that this recent trolling campaign of yours, I thought, was pretty incredible to get all of that mainstream coverage and all of that absolute hysteria about Ku Klux Klan on the Mizzou [University of Missouri] campus,” Anglin’s Radio Stormer co-host Sven Longshanks said. “Apart from being hilarious, it really did make a point of how easy it was to stir these blacks up.”
Using platforms like Twitter is old hat for the more savvy Internet racists who have long taken advantage of online anonymity to spread racist messages like “#WhiteGenocide” and “The Mantra,” a screed devised by Bob Whitaker, the 2016 presidential candidate for the American Freedom Party (AFP), that reads, in part, “Asia for the Asians, Africa for the Africans, White countries for everybody!”
Seeding false news stories on this scale, however, is new for racists like Anglin.
“I’m just one guy. This could have been done by anybody,” Anglin said. “What I’m saying about the Holocaust, and joking about ‘Gas the K----’ is that you’re using the same methods they used to destroy our traditional systems against them. … In many ways, it’s the whole concept behind the Daily Stormer.”
Acknowledging that he has his own “sock puppet” accounts — accounts registered to a fake name — Anglin and his co-host encouraged listeners to strike out on their own and impersonate people of color and women in order to conduct “culture jamming.” Longshanks went as far as to suggest purchasing disposable mobile phones to avoid detection and banishment from social media platforms like Twitter.
Culture jamming is a tactic normally associated with anti-consumerist movements, and typically uses satire and irony to discredit commercial or political messages and claims. In that context, it has sometimes been referred to as “subvertising” or “guerrilla communication.”
“Anglin’s tactics, really a bastardized form of cultural jamming, have many effects. One of them is to discredit the official narrative. Another one is to sow seeds of doubt and to suggest a false equivalency between viewpoints and positions where there truly is a right and a wrong,” Mark Dery, a culture critic who writes about the dark side of the American psyche, told Hatewatch.
“Another tactical move Anglin is attempting is to simply stress the mainstream media. … It’s never been less economically viable to run a really rigorous investigative news operation. If you can just distract reporters and stretch their resources thin, sending them on a wild goose chase for what is effectively a media hoax, in a sense you’ve already won because they’re not covering stories that need to be covered, and they’re squandering resources on something that doesn’t pan out.”
Last month, using more overt tactics, racists from around the globe managed to get the hashtag #BoycottStarWarsVII to trend over a supposed “anti-white” agenda — based on the casting of a female and a black man as the film’s leads — without the help of the mainstream media. Director J.J. Abrams was the primary target for supposedly leading a campaign of “white genocide” through his casting choices. The attack generated enough attention to elicit headlines from news organizations like The Guardian, the Daily Mail, Wired and the Daily Beast.
Another popular series of memes has been built around attaching anti-Semitic quotes, including some from Hitler, to images of Taylor Swift. Although primarily born in noxious environments such as the depths of Reddit, as well as 4chan and 8chan’s /pol/ sections, they can be found with some frequency in the comment threads of mainstream sites.
Anonymity binds most of these campaigns together. With the exception of known leaders on the radical right who often organize and initiate them, these projects rely on the velocity and strength of legions of anonymous users disseminating memes and using hashtags simultaneously. Perceived humor, often of the darkest variety, is what allows them to be perpetuated so effectively. Reactions of outrage by the targeted demographics only add fuel to the fire.
“My inclination is that ‘gas the k----’ is ridiculous enough that it will immediately be recognized as humor — if dark humor — by any normal person who hears it, and that the media repeating this phrase would desensitize the public to Holocaust humor,” Anglin wrote.
The culture jamming tactics co-opted by Anglin present a Catch-22 for the mainstream media. Writing about their campaigns generates precisely the publicity and desensitization that bad actors with nothing to lose, like Anglin, are after. His hypothesis is that regular viewers exposed to a tide of seemingly hyperbolic images will eventually begin to laugh, even if reluctantly, creating a new status quo for what passes as acceptable content across the mainstream Internet and ostensibly redefining the rules of the debate.
“They’re actually doing what the conservative-, mainstream-, corporate- or ideologue-funded right, that is to say the GOP and its fellow travellers, have been doing for decades, which is simply sowing the seeds of doubt in the media narrative,” Dery explained. “In other words, you don’t have to win the climate change debate, you don’t have to win the fracking debate, you don’t have to win the debate on rape in the military, if you just create the illusion that there’s another side to this.”
As Angelo John Gage, the former congressional candidate for AFP, pointed out during the #BoycottStarWarsVII campaign, “no one cares about a black dude having the lead in #BoycottStarWarsVII, the whole point was to seed the meme #whitegenocide & it worked lol.”
Indeed, Anglin, Gage and their legions of followers are simply making a scene to force an audience, wittingly or not, to consider an extreme political position. Given the anonymity of those exposed to their handiwork, it’s difficult to measure their efficacy outside of the headlines they have managed to generate.
But Dery has doubts about the prowess of ringleaders like Gage and Anglin.
“I wouldn’t exalt [Anglin’s] perspicacity and penetration of these issues too much. He isn’t framing it consciously in terms of its effects. He’s loaded his blunderbuss up with every bent nail and twisted screw in his drawer and is kind of firing away at the broadside of the barn culturally, but there’s no nuance to the analysis.”
Anglin did not respond to an E-mail from the Intelligence Report requesting comment.
The existence of these campaigns, nuanced or otherwise, as well as the energy expended by the perpetrators, serves as one more example of the Internet as the new battleground for organized racism. Whether covertly derailing social justice campaigns or attacking perceived hypocrisy in the mainstream through overt memes, the battle for hearts and minds is being fought online.
What used to exclusively dwell in the darkest corners of the web has now crept into the mainstream. Understanding the tactics being deployed is essential in countering these racist campaigns, and a trained eye is the only feasible way to flush these subversions out of the mainstream and back to the swamps in which they bred.
This article also appeared in the Spring 2016 issue of the Intelligence Report.