Trolling has always existed on the Internet, but it was on 4Chan that it became a fine art. Young, bright and often disaffected teenagers sought out the sensitive, the unstable and the sacred in order to inflame emotions and enjoy the spectacle. Take, for example, the young girl who was subjected to a barrage of insults and whose simple-minded father filmed a video of himself screaming that he had “backtraced” the trolls and would report them to the “cyber police”. “Consequences,” he bellowed, would “never be the same”.
When it comes to the “alt-right” journalists have been playing the role of the father.
The alt-right is smaller than its reputation might suggest. A motley collection of cynical teenagers, eccentric conservatives and opportunistic fascists, its “members”, such as they are, must be no more than a few thousand.
What is the alt-right? Its ideological elements are diffuse – ranging from outright neo-Nazis to anarcho-capitalists – but cohere around opposition to multiculturalism, egalitarianism and political correctness. What distinguishes its members from millions of Trump supporters is less what they think that what they do: troll. Just as young men on 4Chan enjoyed flouting sacred values by, say, laughing at young people who had committed suicide, young men on the blogs and message boards of the alt-right enjoy flouting sacred values such as the taboos against discrimination, racial epithets, historical revisionism and abusiveness. This is not to say that their beliefs are a mere pose but that their energy is the product of the amusement that they find in pissing people off. Just as trolls of old exploited oversensitive and self-involved young men and women, the alt-right targets oversensitive, self-involved journalists and political strategists.
How, in a world where billions are spent on marketing, have a few thousand schoolkids, students, hackers, programmers and self-published authors made themselves so infamous that Hillary Clinton was prompted to devote a speech to them? They ensured that every time media and political insiders opened their Twitter notifications they were met not with praise for their latest articles and adverts but insults that targeted, with experienced precision, not just their sacred values but their self-image. Take the word “cuckservative”: peculiar in content but so rich in provocational connotations, demeaning, as it does, both the political effectiveness and masculine credentials of mainstream conservatives that aggrieved right-leaning journalists to fire off essay after earnest essay on the outrageousness of this spiteful little Twitter trend. As few things endear one to people less than humourlessness and overreaction this just popularised the alt-right.
I suspect that Ms Clinton’s campaigning on this issue had a similar genesis. Her advisers and supporters were so angry about waking every morning to find cartoons of Pepe the Frog doing awful things to them that they were moved to upload an “explainer” insisting that this “cartoon frog is more sinister than you might realize”. It is true, of course, that Pepe is used by white supremacists as an avatar but the genius of the alt-right’s online activism is that their memes are so absurd and mischievous that to complain about them makes you look more silly than they look sinister. A swing voter with no real awareness of cyberculture will assume that Hillary has gone a little mad.
Memes are the future of campaigning, I suppose. It makes me sad, as one who likes to talk about political theory, and who believes in reasonable discourse in politics, but attention spans are too short and people are too tribalistic for much more than slogans, rumours and insults. In this at least the alt-right is ahead of the game.