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How Message-Board Culture Remade the Left

Mathias Pastwa / Flickr

According to a narrative that’s currently popular in the mainstream media and the more lowbrow end of academia, the recent surge in popularity of the American nationalist right was caused by the radicalization of nerds. Dweeby white manchildren, so the story goes, retreated into video games, the science fiction fandom, and anonymous online forums like 4chan, and formed misogynistic, resentment-fueled subcultures within them. These neckbearded neo-Nazis gradually coalesced into the ‘alt-right,’ an internet hate machine that contributed greatly to Toupee Hitler’s otherwise inexplicable rise.

There are many versions of this narrative. The common feature is the ascription of Trump’s electoral victory — and, in some cases, the surge in right-populism all across the Western world — to the vile machinations of movements of fascistic, internet-based nerds; but the details vary. One version, laid down in a popular Tumblr post (at the time of writing, it has over 22,000 notes), ascribes the rise of the alt-right to a successful campaign by Stormfront to turn 4chan Nazi. Another version blames it on Gamergate, allegedly a hate campaign born out of a misogynist’s attempt to “punish his ex-girlfriend” that served as a breeding ground for far-right extremism, and as the petri dish that they organized in before taking over America. The Z-list Youtube celebrity Zinnia Jones has described Gamergate as “one of the worst things ever to happen” because it “enabled Trump” — apparently, a piece of fandom drama ranks up there with the Spanish flu pandemic, the Mongol conquests, the Black Death, the invention of the nuclear bomb, the post-Columbian plagues that depopulated the Americas, and the unfortunate events of the 1940s.

Deployments of the narrative abound. A popular Medium “32-minute read” bears the headline, “4chan: The Skeleton Key to the Rise of Trump.” Politico insists that “the Trump campaign … paid rapt attention to meme culture from the start.” CNET helpfully explains that “what began as a backlash to a debate about how video games portray women led to an internet culture that ultimately helped sweep Donald Trump into office.” Chris Grant, editor-in-chief of Polygon, complains that “the overlap between Gamergate and Trump(ism) is astounding. GG was like the trial run for this whole mess.” The Independent, a British paper, speaks out against the “very geeky” Trump supporters of the alt-right, and claims that “The uncomfortable truth, that should worry anyone praying for a Trump defeat, is that the Alt-right following he has tapped into are more numerous and unpredictable than traditional political commentators understand.” And so on. And for every article that explicitly draws a connection between internet-based youth countercultures and Trump, there are a dozen more that simply make a point of mentioning them in the same breath, and let the reader work out the connection for himself. Trump… Gamergate… Trump… neckbeards… Trump… 4chan… Trump!

At this point, it’s worth taking a step back from the phenomenon of heavy internet users failing for the first time to line up in lockstep behind the Democrats, and looking at the bigger picture. Trump’s electoral success was not driven by the alt-right; it was driven by the usual factors. To make a long story short, Trump won because Clinton ran a bad campaign and took unpopular positions on the issues. Insofar as the election was unusual, it wasn’t because Trump posted a picture of a cartoon frog — Clinton made her own bids for pop-cultural relevance, as did her husband when he took out his saxophone on Arsenio Hall’s show in 1992 — but because Clinton, in violation of a long-standing norm, directly insulted large swathes of the voting population with her “basket of deplorables” line.

Trump’s success is also not unusual in a global context. In recent years, Viktor Orbán’s Fidesz won a supermajority in Hungary and proceeded to rewrite the Hungarian constitution to declare Hungary a Christian nation and ensure the electoral dominance of Fidesz for the foreseeable future. Britain voted to leave the European Union, and politicians like Marine Le Pen, Nigel Farage, and Andrzej Duda became household names among the set that pays attention to international politics. Trump is not a uniquely American phenomenon; if anything, he’ll likely prove to be a more moderate parallel to the trends sweeping Europe, just as FDR paralleled the European extremists of the Depression years. Of course, these trends are not just sweeping Europe, as is proven by the victories in Asia of politicians like Narendra Modi and Rodrigo Duterte.

This global trend simply could not have been caused by an obscure piece of American fandom drama. Gamergate and 4chan cannot have contributed to the rise of the right, because the rise of the right happened to approximately the same extent in countries outside the Anglosphere and outside the cultural reach of Anglosphere nerd culture. Even Vox, which once described Trump as “the first Republican nominee whose ethos owes more to 4chan and Gamergate than it does the Bible,” has found that “polarization is accelerating fastest among those using the internet the least.”

Nor could Trump’s rise to power have been substantially helped along by pictures of cartoon frogs. A full analysis of Trump’s victory is beyond the scope of this article, but it borders on delusion to believe that Michigan, Wisconsin, and Pennsylvania were flipped by 4chan trolls, rather than by such ordinary factors as Trump’s more popular positions on the key issues of immigration and trade and Clinton’s failure to run a functional campaign.

The internet has, however, reshaped American politics; just not in the way pundits say it has. The main effects have been on the left, not the right.

The most obvious effect is that leftists, especially those in the fields that shape and promulgate leftist doctrine, spend a lot of time online. Journalists spend less time cultivating networks of sources and more time ‘building their brand’ and interacting with other journalists; academics network on Twitter; and so on. Connection matters more than ever, and the internet has weakened local scenes and replaced them with placeless ones. Indie game developers from all over the world, for example, can compete for the attention of the largely U.S.-coastal ‘mainstream’ games journalism industry, whose writers are of course all on the same mailing lists, not to mention following each other on Twitter. Journalists, academics, political advisors and the like disappear into their own world — a world where it’s acceptable to wage war on large parts of one’s own audience, or to lead a mainstream presidential candidate to insult a large part of the voting population. And the scenes that are best able to capture the attention of this world will gain power, influence, and the propagation of their norms.

One scene that has been markedly successful in capturing the attention of the journalistic world is the one that developed from the pay-to-post forum Something Awful. Originally a humor site, it became one of the most influential sites on the internet — you probably know that 4chan was created by a Something Awful regular, and that its initial userbase drew heavily from SA. Its influence on politics, however, extends far beyond 4chan. Buckle up, folks: you’re in for a long, confusing, and terrible ride.

In the essay “Exiting the Vampire Castle,” Mark Fisher, who was roundly condemned for writing it and killed himself three years later, attacked not only the identitarianism that has metastasized in academia since the ’60s, an identitarianism in which “the sheer mention of class is now automatically treated as if that means one is trying to downgrade the importance of race and gender,” but also the “paralysing feeling of guilt and suspicion which hangs over left-wing twitter like an acrid, stifling fog” and the “kangaroo courts and character assassinations” that are, as anyone who has observed the state of the left today, overwhelmingly common. This guilt and suspicion, these kangaroo courts and character assassinations, need not have anything to do with politics; in one memorable instance, a once-popular Tumblr communist blogger with the sadly real URL of “fuckyeahmarxismleninism” was dogpiled and laughed into irrelevance for admitting to watching My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic with his daughters. This was seen as a far worse faux pas than even his support of North Korea. I am, unfortunately, not making this up; I saw it all happen firsthand.

These aren’t the kangaroo courts of Stalin. What they are is the schoolyard courts of Helldump, a Something Awful subforum created for the strange purpose of being a schoolyard court. The Something Awful wiki speaks for itself here: “The official birth of Helldump 2000 spawned a new creative outlet for pedophiles, racists, bigots, Ron Paul supporters, gun zealots, defenders of anime and otherwise crap posters to be outed in a thorough, convincing manner by an astute civilian task force. Essentially, it checks and balances the stupidity that seeps its way into the forums as a whole, although (unfortunately) it does not function as a preventive treatment (shit posters still propagate at an alarming rate). Rather, the modus operandi of Helldump is to profile and insult the (assumed) poor goon for his questionable views, and in turn function as a virtual tourniquet in an attempt to stop the bleeding, as well as force said shit poster into online anonymity and/or reclusiveness.” In practice, most of what Helldump did was dogpile furries.

As a side note, internet lore has it that the population of Helldump regulars itself skewed furry. This is not terribly out of the norm for Something Awful, the admin of which employed Shmorky for ten years before firing him on the sensible grounds that he was “secretly into pedophilia incest diaper shitting roleplay” and allegedly “would get way too excited over [SA admin Lowtax’s kids] coming to the office.” (Shmorky has also been reported to at least have once been friends with Rebecca Sugar, the creator of the TV show Steven Universe, which has a remarkably Shmorky-like art style and has as its target demographic the same Tumblr crowd that Shmorky fell in with.)

Zoe Quinn herself was a SA member under the username Eris, and participated in at least one Helldump dogpile. It’s often believed that Gamergate began when her ex-boyfriend posted a ‘callout’ of her abusive behaviors, cheating, and so on — the “Zoe Post” — on 4chan, but he actually joined Something Awful to post it there first. He was quickly banned for it, and the ban message reads: “Thank you for joining the Something Awful Forums in order to post a giant loving psychopathic helldump about your ex-girlfriend in the forum about video games.” (The original phrasing was “giant fucking psychopathic helldump,” but SA has wordfilters.) The belief in a connection between Helldump and ‘callout culture’ is held by the SA moderators themselves.

Helldump was closed after two years, and many of its regulars migrated to a different subforum, Laissez’s Fair, “the original Dirtbag Left.” The SA wiki entry for LF helpfully explains that it was “opened up to put all the Ron Paul shit” and became a “refugee holding bay” for Helldump after the latter was closed. “Over time people started making effort posts about such things the nightmare that is our criminal justice system, social justice in general, as well as the ideas of Karl Marx. The lack of moderation was made up for by basically shouting people out of the forum who were stupid MRAs and concern trolls. Gradually the complexion of the forum shifted from liberal to socialist.” Eventually, LF was closed, because “LF posters went internet detective on mods and posted death threats,” including several to then-President Obama.

At least two regulars on Helldump and LF went on to get careers in journalism. Jeb Lund, who wrote a vague and rambling essay about his posting career for Gawker, went by “Boniface” and “Mobutu Sese Seko” on Something Awful. Under the former pseudonym, he threatened a Helldump victim: “how about you promise never to post here again on pain of being permabanned, otherwise there’s no reason for all the posters here with lexis-nexis to stop at just your email addresses and not go straight for driver’s license photos and info, tax records… the list goes on and on.” Sam Kriss was (or at least was widely believed to be) Dead Ken, as well as Red Ken, Dub Mapocho, Agenbite Inwit, Dead Skeng, and presumably other accounts. After LF was removed from SA, its regulars established and migrated to explicitly Communist forums offsite; he was a regular on one such forum, “tHE rHizzonE”, which was later given some sort of contest by the leftist magazine The Baffler, whose editor was “a fan” of said forum. (Sam Kriss has written for the Baffler.)

Many people from the more leftist parts of SA went on to become “Weird Twitter,” which was puffed by outlets like Buzzfeed. John Herrman and Katie Notopoulos, the authors of the linked piece, gravitated toward LF superstars on Twitter and tried to replicate their style. Some of them, such as Lund, Kriss, David Thorpe (who had a regular column on SA and is now a music journalist), Virgil Texas, Jon Hendren (who was, as docevil, once an admin of the “Fuck You And Die” (FYAD) subforum, but was shamed off the site after a bizarre incident involving a charity event featuring Smash Mouth and Guy Fieri), and Alex Nichols, parlayed those connections into posting careers.

Herrman also profiled a Weird Twitter poster, @CelestialBeard, whose claim to fame was tweeting a lot, and being followed by Herrman on Twitter. @CelestialBeard has since become a transgender brony.

From Weird Twitter, which attracted and assimilated people who weren’t active in SA’s leftist cliques (such as Felix Biederman and Virgil Texas, who just lurked), came Chapo Trap House, darling of every obscure Slate clone from Brooklyn to Queens. Chapo has featured several SA regulars, including Alex Nichols (@Lowenaffchen), who was active on LF as Golden Lion Tamarin (his Twitter username used to be @GLDNLNTMRN), and Dan O’Sullivan (@Bro_Pair), a now-banned former SA moderator whose username is now Fat Curtain Dweller. It’s interesting that a podcast heralded for ‘actually giving a shit’ comes from a subculture that began as pure trolling.

Providing a precise accounting of the impact of Something Awful on the Anglosphere left is difficult, as it would be with any subculture. The history is oral, largely lost, deliberately obfuscated, and shrouded in irony. It is likely that nothing will come of it, and that, in the end, it will be the farce mirroring the tragedy of neoconservatism: an insane political movement that developed out of a bizarre and insular clique in a world where having the right connections matters above all else, writing things that very few people care about but doing a great deal of damage along the way. It seems that the norms of Helldump have become callout culture, SA users’ trolling of the libertarians corralled in LF have become the dirtbag left, and some of those responsible have written for not only Gawker and Buzzfeed, but also The New York Times.

At the very least, the overlap in population is clear and suggestive. Someone can go from being repeatedly banned from a pay-to-post forum for something involving the word “nigger” to writing for the Guardian, the Atlantic and the New York Times, largely on the dubious strength of his Twitter account and forum fame. There are few lessons that can be drawn from this; the obvious one is that perhaps the media rewards expertise less than connectedness.

I’m told that this is what Gamergate was about. But there are many things I’ve been told Gamergate was about. The internet is something awful indeed. And it’s only going to get worse.