Sometimes, as a reporter covering digital culture, I feel like I live in a world disparate from my friends and family. How do you, for instance, explain the vagaries and subsets of alt-TikTok to people who, at most, know TikTok as the app where the kids dance?
Culture at large — things like music, film, news — reckoned with a digital invasion long ago. The Trump regime hastened that process for the staid world of politics. Was there ever — will there ever be — a more Online president than Donald Trump, who spent his days in office live-tweeting his every whim?
It’s obvious now: There is no distinction, not really, between the world online and the world offline. They bleed into and feed one another, now explicitly so when it comes to extremist political movements. You can’t understand one without the other.
For instance: If you don’t, offhand, immediately understand the acronym WWG1WGA — pro-Trump conspiracy group QAnon’s motto where we go one, we go all — it’s difficult to truly comprehend the Jan. 6 storming of the Capitol, which was, in part, a real-life meet-up of desperate Q believers.
The Jan. 6 insurrection is only the most obvious example of how this works. A witch’s brew of right-wingers — Proud Boys, Q supporters, garden-variety Trumpers, militia groups, and others — transformed online organizing and conspiracy theorizing into real-life action. Lots of Q backers took literal oaths to be “digital soldiers” over the summer — is it any wonder they were willing to literally fight?
“What they basically are saying [is] we’re ready to fight on the information battlefields. So they’re already taking an oath to fight somewhere,” said Jack Bratich, a professor of media studies at Rutgers University who has researched conspiracies and QAnon. “And then you have, obviously something like Trump’s campaign, which had this whole sector called the Army for Trump… So I think you have a convergence around November of these kinds of different levels of soldiers, in their minds. These people are ready for action.”
But if you weren’t online — sorry, like, Online online — in the lead-up to the riots, you would’ve had no idea that it was possible. It’s not that regular people, the un-Online, are at fault. Large swaths of media and news sources missed the chance to explain just how dangerous this all was. How deadly it could prove.
this has been planned and discussed for weeks on end. only after it happened did people take notice. this is so similar to G*mergate and YourSlipIsShowing. If your newsroom doesn’t have a desk that is routinely monitoring far right channels, get one now. https://t.co/YRZTNfSDxV
— caroline sinders (@carolinesinders) January 8, 2021
And what about non-Q extremists? We could spend all day walking through the odds and ends of how memes infect real life — but suffice it to say groups like the Boogaloo Boys and Proud Boys have morphed online organizing and irony into IRL violence and action. To understand how these memes came into being requires at least a passing knowledge of 4Chan, a forum that has played a part in launching pretty much every recent rightwing movement.
Talia Lavin — author of the book Culture Warlords, which investigates and uncovers white supremacist spaces online via Lavin taking on invented online personas — said a central point of the book is that online extremism isn’t new. Rather, the internet is convenient way of organizing that hate.
“Overall, what I was trying to communicate was that the internet, with the complicity and aid of many tech companies, has essentially become the means of the metastasis of a pre-existing societal disease,” Lavin said in a phone interview.
There’s an instinct to write-off online extremists as a kind of joke. Even after people died at the riots, one article called them a collection of “deadbeat dads, YouPorn enthusiasts, slow students, and MMA fans.”
It’s an easy impulse to indulge. To make these people other. Laugh it off: Look there’s some dude dressed up in a viking shaman outfit. There’s the Boogaloo movement wearing silly Hawaiian shirts while toting assault weapons. But to separate the so-called LARPing from people who are Online from the real world is a fool’s errand. The online world is the real world. When people talk about wanting a civil war online, many of them actually believe it.
You’ll miss it all if you’re not Logged On. It’s what people who monitored these spaces had been saying for ages, but it’s tough for normal folks to surf through years of jargon, in-jokes, and layers of irony.
“He regrets very very much having…just been duped by the president,” said Al Watkins, attorney for Jacob Chansley also known as the ‘Qanon Shaman’ https://t.co/guyjEnUmAW
— Jim Acosta (@Acosta) January 23, 2021
“What’s really happening is people are, are transforming themselves through these things — sometimes they’re games, sometimes they’re alternate reality performances, cosplay — even if they seem playful, they’re not superficial or light,” Bratich said. “They’re actually serious business when it comes to ways of pushing action into the world… [People] think of it as a kind of entertainment part of the world, when actually it’s culture. And culture is how people develop themselves and develop relationships to each other.”
Yes, there were some funny-looking extremists who raided the Capitol, but as Lavin noted, there were also lawyers, police officers, soldiers, doctors, and people from pretty much any other profession. Your uncle who posts bonkers shit on Facebook? He’s either posting even more bonkers stuff elsewhere, or his bonkers opinions have filtered to him through those places.
“There’s a really well established 4Chan to Fox News pipeline,” Lavin said. “I mean QAnon sounds insane when you try to explain to someone who’s never heard of it. And it was born in the fever swamps of 8Chan.”
But Q’s tentacles, as an example, soon spread to boomers on Facebook, shitposters on Reddit, and pretty much everywhere else. You’d seen it winked at on Fox. Then you’d see it at Trump campaign rallies. Then you’d see it on Trump’s own Twitter feed. Then you’d see it in Congress and in positions of power. Then finally you saw it tearing into the Capitol.
Extremism online isn’t silo’d off from you. It doesn’t matter who you are. But if you rely on Sunday news shows, cable TV, or front-page stories for your info — maybe if you’re of an older generation — you probably don’t get that fact. Again, using QAnon as an example, the coverage of the cult-like movement leading up to the 2020 election mostly did not reflect the severity of what was taking place.
“It was seen then as a curiosity, as an extreme and completely kooky belief system. And occasionally they would talk about it terms of a handful of electoral candidates who were flirting with QAnon,” Bratich said. “But what [corporate media] wasn’t examining is how rooted in culture and how rooted in everyday life [Q is] for some people. It’s fringe in a way — for sure, in terms of numbers — but it’s not marginal in the sense of its effects, or its meaningfulness to the people who are into it. The casual way that red flags were raised by corporate platforms…they don’t take it as seriously as someone devoted to analysis.”
In short: Online extremism isn’t an oddity. It’s a pervasive force. The things some people wrote off as “edgy jokes” are real, at least sometimes. And the folks who devote their time to this sort of thing have been telling us that for years. We all might have to get a little bit more online, or at least be aware of what’s happening online, to understand our IRL world.
“It’s not going away,” Lavin said.
A new president does not change what has come to be our new reality. Trump might’ve been an accelerant. His Twitter feed was a megaphone and millions heard his rallying cry. But now these groups are the real-life opposition, and they’ve got powerful people just itching for their support.
“It’s really hard to make yourself see a dangerous, ugly, and sort of intractable reality,” Lavin added. “I recognize there is a certain feeling of oxygen rushing back into a room after Donald Trump kind of sucked it all up for the past four years. We’re all a little heavy. We all want to move on. But it’s dangerous to slip back into complacency.”