Big Swinging Brains and fashy trolls: how the world fell into a clickbait death spiral

February 07, 2020 at 06:00AM

In the years leading up to Trump’s election, traditional media gatekeepers found themselves shoved aside by trolls and tech companies who told us they were only giving us what we wanted. By Andrew Marantz

In 2012, a small group of young men, former supporters of the libertarian Republican congressman Ron Paul, started a blog called The Right Stuff. They soon began calling themselves “post-libertarians,” although they weren’t yet sure what would come next. By 2014, they’d started to self-identify as “alt-right”. They developed a countercultural tone – arch, antic, floridly offensive – that appealed to a growing cohort of disaffected young men, searching for meaning and addicted to the internet. These young men often referred to The Right Stuff, approvingly, as a key part of a “libertarian-to-far-right pipeline”, a path by which “normies” could advance, through a series of epiphanies, toward “full radicalisation”. As with everything the alt-right said, it was hard to tell whether they were joking, half-joking or not joking at all.

The Right Stuff ’s founders came up with talking points – narratives, they called them – that their followers then disseminated through various social networks. On Facebook, they posted Photoshopped images, or parody songs, or “countersignal memes” – sardonic line drawings designed to spark just enough cognitive dissonance to shock normies out of their complacency. On Twitter, the alt-right trolled and harassed mainstream journalists, hoping to work the referees of the national discourse while capturing the attention of the wider public. On Reddit and 4chan and 8chan, where the content moderation was so lax as to be almost non-existent, the memes were more overtly vile. Many alt-right trolls started calling themselves “fashy”, or “fash-ist”. They referred to all liberals and traditional conservatives as communists, or “degenerates”; they posted pro-Pinochet propaganda; they baited normies into arguments by insisting that “Hitler did nothing wrong”.

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