Joke’s On Who?

Dylann Roof, 4chan, and the New Online Racism

4chan’s trolling culture didn’t just birth Guy Fawkes hacktivism—it also inspired the racist and neo-fascist sites where the Charleston terrorist lurked.

06.29.15 9:25 AM ET

To understand Dylann Roof’s thinking, he tells us, we have to go back to 2012. To Trayvon Martin and George Zimmerman. That was the moment, Roof writes in his manifesto, when he was reborn as a white nationalist. Roof’s inspirations are clear in a way that his psychology is not. They go back further than the Martin case into centuries of American history and, along another path, less clearly marked, to the peak years of a now widespread Internet culture, when a new kind of reactionary sensibility was hatched.

A reactionary, defiantly anti-social politics has been emerging for the last decade. It was well known under the auspices of “trolling” and well hidden by its pretense of trickstersism. It was actually juvenile fascism and vitriolic racism but, because it grinned and operated in cyberspace, it was a sensation when it first appeared less than a decade ago. Excitable theorists, bored journalists and naive political activists looked at its strange, adolescent face and pronounced on its revolutionary potential. 

According to the accepted wisdom, trolls were fiercely apolitical pranksters up until they put on Guy Fawkes masks and became the radical progressives known as “Anonymous.” But Anonymous doesn’t have a monopoly on trolling’s political legacy. They are only its nominally left-wing manifestation. Something else has been growing in the online ferment they came out of—something that Anonymous and its supporters want to disown—a politics that is temperamentally of the right, not quite coherent, though Anonymous isn’t always either, but unified by certain passions, a conspiratorial bigotry and anti-black racism above all.

This is another legacy of 4chan, the infamous online message board that spawned trolling culture. It is a different branch of politics than the hackitivism associated with Occupy Wall Street and the Arab Spring, but its roots are the same. While Anonymous has gotten most of the attention, the trolls they left behind on 4chan have seen their influence spread as well, though without a catch-all name or striking avatar to easily refer to them. You can see this other side of trolling’s inheritance spreading on popular sites like Reddit and in the widespread adoption of the rhetorical style they developed: using bombast and absurdism to hide racist tropes in conceptual riddles.

If Roof was not directly shaped by that Internet culture, he nonetheless moved in the world it helped create.

We know that Dylann Roof had a history of taking drugs and that friends say he had expressed interest in committing a mass shooting, but little else about his psychological state leading up to his massacre. We know from what he told the woman he left alive to explain what he’d done, since he apparently intended to kill himself, and from his manifesto that he believed he had no choice but to murder defenseless black people—he specified defenseless; he wanted a slaughter, not a fight—in service to his white nationalist ideology. And we know where the ideas in Dylann Roof’s manifesto first appeared: almost verbatim on a neo-fascist website inspired by 4chan’s politics.

Back to Trayvon Martin. If there is a single event that sparked the current period of social unrest, the national controversy around race and policing, and the largest protest movement of President Obama’s second term, it is the night in February 2012 when a mixed-race Florida man, alarmed by the presence of an unarmed black teenager in his community, confronted and killed him after a struggle.

The fault line exposed by the killing of Martin is still sending out aftershocks. It inspired the Black Lives Matter movement and its more radical offshoots, including a group that named itself after Martin, despite objections from his family, and became notorious after leading a chant calling for “Dead cops” in New York.

The Martin case, and the mainstream media’s handling of it—marred by both casual slanders of Martin and outright distortions about Zimmerman—reverberated in the Internet’s ideological echo chambers, the former inspiring the nascent protest movement that reemerged in Ferguson, the latter inspiring a right-wing counter-movement online.

A story that had started on Twitter before it was picked up by news continued to spread on the populist Internet.

The racial and political divisions revealed by perceptions of Martin’s death and the media’s handling of it attracted activists to the cause. Some organized protests. One anonymous Internet user hacked Martin’s email and social media accounts and posted the results online in an effort to depict him as a thug and drug user, and justify his shooting death. The hacker, who went by the name Klanklannon, posted an edited, slideshow version of the messages stolen from Martin’s accounts. Klanklannon, as the name suggested, was a white supremacist, and a member of 4chan’s political message board, "/pol/," which is where the hacks were first posted.

“The event that truly awakened me,” Dylann Roof wrote before walking into a church in South Carolina and killing nine of the black parishioners who had invited him into their Bible study group, “was the Trayvon Martin case.”

It’s not all that far from the mainstream of American discourse to the places where Roof dwelled online, but the distances get skewed by perspective.

The organized political groups that inspired Roof, like the Council of Conservative Citizens, have, while courting influence, been considered disreputable for decades. That’s a far cry from the kind of ambivalent, if not adulatory treatment, offered to the avatars of 4chan’s bleeding-edge web culture, who were fêted by academics and journalists even as their much pondered trolling cleared out a space online for a new breed of fascist websites, like the one Roof appears to have visited online.

There’s something immediately familiar about The Daily Stormer, where whole passages from Roof’s manifesto first appeared. Its name is taken from Hitler’s paper of record, the Nazi propaganda organ Der Stürmer. The site owes as much, perhaps more, to the style and mode of political rhetoric developed on the 4chan message board as it does to any tract published by the KKK or American Nazi party.

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The parallels between Roof’s manifesto and the comments on The Daily Stormer, written under the name aryanblood88, suggest that either Roof was the commenter or he visited the site often enough to have plagiarized from it for his manifesto. In response to the connection, the site’s proprietor, Andrew Anglin, has repudiated Roof’s crime and publicly disavowed violence, while endorsing many of Roof’s views. Anglin did not respond to multiple requests for an interview.

Before running The Daily Stormer, the 30-year-old Anglin ran a site called Total Fascism. Like many other Americans his age, he is fluent in digital culture and its unique approach to racial hatred. His popularity—the site’s traffic has grown continually since 2013, the L.A. Times reported—comes as much from knowing his audience as from his ideas.

“A lot of people on the Internet prefer to write long essays, which a lot of people don’t read, which have a limited audience,” he told the L.A. Times about the founding of The Daily Stormer, sounding like any other online editor. “I wanted something punchy and funny and enjoyable to read.”

Then he added: “I believe white people deserve their own country.”

Anglin, who occasionally writes the white nationalist version of media criticism, and devotes much of his coverage to what he sees as the Jewish-controlled liberal establishment’s cover-up of black-on-white crime, has studied the digital landscape. He cites 4chan as a touchstone and looks to Reddit as the natural arena in which to expand his neo-fascist enterprise. His site exists in a feedback loop with both of them, exchanging ideas and members alike.

“Daily Stormer is a perfect example for me of the influence 4chan has had on the rest of the messaging machine for white supremacy,” Keegan Hankes of the Southern Poverty Law Center, which tracks hate groups, tells me. Hankes has written about Reddit’s emergence as the single largest gathering place for racists online and how he first sussed out the connection between Roof and The Daily Stormer. He sees the style of racism originally perfected on 4Chan’s message boards—where the racism is only as effective as the meme that spreads it—as a template for Anglin’s site. “A lot of the same images, a lot of the same rhetorical styles are being emulated on Daily Stormer and it’s pretty successful. The website has taken off.”

The Daily Stormer has succeeded by marketing itself to younger people who prefer droll commentary to the stern politics of an older generation of racist sites—and, crucially, by hitching its fascism to a wider reaction against political correctness and left-wing activism. Even the most rabid Gamergaters, men’s rights activists and anti-social justice warriors tend not to think of themselves as fascists. Anglin and others like him want to change that by radicalizing the center and moving the discourse on to their own grounds. That effort has been aided invaluably by the anonymous shock troops on Internet message boards.

                                                                        ***

Like an incantation, the word “trolling” has been used for years to put observers in a trance where they can’t see what’s in front of them. Trolls, meanwhile, have been remarkably predictable creatures. A staple of the form is the over-the-top embrace of racial epithets and old blood libels. Nominally, the trolls, like punk rockers, Dadaists, and countless others before them, were reveling in breaking taboos. It was never clear to what end. Were those bad words and old slanders being bandied around as a kind of satire, demystifying ingrained prejudices, or were they the sharp points at the edge of free speech, a way of insisting that no idea could be off limits? No one was quite sure, perhaps not even the trolls.

From that brew of sincerity and irony, 4chan members, under the watchful eye of the press and the Internet’s self-appointed experts, figured out how to make ancient blood hatreds feel like something new again. Redditors, as the cycle goes, then took those ideas and helped popularize them.

4chan and Reddit are not the only places that have incubated and helped normalize racism online. Nor are these two vast and varied communities reducible to their most vile members or their worst innovations. Reddit contains exponentially more posts that helpfully explain scientific concepts than racist screeds. 4chan, which loves to be hated only up to the point where it squirms away and insists it was just joking, has a board devoted to literature that has produced some of the sharpest and most inventive literary criticism I’ve read online, in threads that improvised their brilliance then disappeared. But they are also, as fascists and white nationalists clearly understand, powerful laboratories for inseminating and spreading darker ideas.

It’s hard to talk about the Internet at all without talking about 4chan and Reddit. They are two of its largest communities, and exert an outsized influence in their respective roles as the Web’s myth and mall. Both are welcoming to bigots. Frothing-at-the-mouth racists, calm racists who just want to make endless posts about black-on-white violence and genetic inferiority, and every variety of bigotry in between.

Reddit defends the existence of communities like r/gasthekikes, r/watchniggersdie, and r/rapingwomen on free-speech grounds. That atmosphere has attracted right-wing extremists who left or were booted from other more established sites like Stormfront, where moderators, aware of scrutiny from law enforcement, have stricter posting rules.

When I ask Brad Griffin, who runs the website Occidental Dissent and whose father-in-law formerly ran the Council of Conservative Citizens that Roof cited in his manifesto, about white nationalism, he tells me, “I consider myself more of a southern nationalist but I wouldn’t get too picky about the distinction.” 

“By 2001,” Griffin says, “the [white nationalist] movement was already mostly online and it’s been that way ever since … People who are more extreme have a harder time posting and commenting on Stormfront so they migrate to other websites.” Those sites include Reddit and 4chan, according to Griffin.

The atmosphere on the newer sites is “more guttural,” Griffin says. “It’s not so much white nationalist as it becomes anti-Black. People who are just interested in the complete dehumanization of black people tend to migrate to sites like Reddit, which is less controlled.”

“I believe 4chan is more of a troll forum,” Griffin says, using the indeterminate language shared by its enemies and defenders. “I’m a lot less familiar with it.”

4chan, insofar as anyone can speak for its anonymous, double-talking membership, has long maintained that much of its racism is really just performance designed to rattle the mainstream.

Which brings us back to the troll, the totemic figure of the last great Internet epoch that peaked five or so years ago.

The troll was a creature largely born out of 4chan’s /b/ board. 4chan’s many boards have spawned countless memes, like rickrolling and lolcats, which came to define a dominant online sensibility. The /b/ board, intended for random posts that didn’t fit anywhere else, became known as the “anything goes” forum and the home of the trolls.

In its wider use on the web, trolling was a kind of cruel prank enabled by the Internet’s anonymity. On 4chan, because trolling was central to members’ identities, an ethos of one-upmanship evolved with pranksters always looking for more boundaries to transgress and new nerve endings to poke to maintain their edge and capacity for amusement.

Early on, after 4chan formed in 2003, its users swarmed an online video game. The largely teenaged players of Habbo Hotel watched 4channers fill their screens with racist invective while they marched their characters into a swastika in the middle of the game. The Habbo Hotel raid, as it’s known by 4chan members and the countless websites dedicated to chronicling their exploits, became a key event in the site’s lore. That was one kind of trolling. Another version involved gang stalking an 11-year-old girl online, posting her name and address online, and turning her ritual abuse into a popular meme.  

As reports of the trolls bubbled up into the mainstream news, it inspired two dominant reactions. The first was tabloid alarmism about the Internet’s unfathomable cruelty. 4chan members mocked the sensationalism, implicitly for exaggerating their power—a running gag on the site is that all of its members are hopeless losers—but were also flattered by it and took to calling themselves the “Internet Hate Machine.”

The second kind of reaction to the trolls developed when a faction of 4chan took on its first real cause, the Church of Scientology.

In 2008 when The Church of Scientology began suing websites, forcing them to remove videos the Church considered private or defamatory, 4chan turned its attention to trolling the Scientologists. Eventually that produced a schism on 4chan. Some members, inspired by their success going after Scientology and the attention it brought, wanted to take a more activist role. The dedicated trolls rebelled. The activists splintered off and became the collective represented by a Guy Fawkes mask, known as Anonymous.

The question—what is trolling?—was muddied after Anonymous split off and began operating in the political realm. Diffuse by nature, Anonymous has spread globally, and while its impact is debatable, the group has staked out a place for itself as an heir to Wikileaks’ transparency and anti-state activism and as an advocate for rape victims and political dissidents.

Anonymous is one face of trolling’s political legacy. The other is preserved on /pol/, or politically incorrect, the 4chan message board devoted to politics. /Pol/ started after 4chan’s original news board became a shouting match between anonymous racists and Nazis trying to outdo each other. After a ban, the board returned as /pol/.

Most days, /pol/ resembles nothing so much as The Daily Stormer with the signal to noise dial turned only slightly.

                                                                        ***

On June 22, days after Dylann Roof’s arrest, the South Carolina murders still dominated the conversation on /pol/. One thread asked, “what made you racist?” In it, the top commenter wrote, “I became racist because my wife was killed by a nigger in an urban area while coming home from work. I was left to raise my only son by myself. I am not that well off financially. It caused a great deal of hardship. I was already pretty racist though.”

Below that appeared a number of in-jokes, a popular meme showing a crying frog meant to mock self-pity, at least one person saying they weren’t a racist, one identifying as Asian before explaining how he or she became a racist, and a litany of racism coming-out stories.

“/Pol/ played a big part in it” one poster wrote about his own racist beginnings. “I came here and just lurked for months. I was astonished at all these terrible racists but they kept referring to things I had no idea about (black on white crime, Zionists, WW2, etc.)…long story short you destroyed my perception of the world.”

It continued, “I’m reading a lot, thinking about starting a garden, arming myself, and looking for a woman who I can make my wife and move off into the country with.” It’s a bit on the nose, but maybe it’s trolling. And this, the last line: “Or I’ll go out in a streak of violence.” It ends, “Haven’t decided.”

If that’s a joke, it’s awfully dry for one joke being told anonymously in a cloistered room among one’s peers.

How would Roof have been received as a poster on /pol/? He would have been mocked and encouraged, the mockery making the encouragement that much easier to offer.

The most famous troll was Andrew Auernheimer, a hacker who called himself Weev and became something of a celebrity before he was imprisoned for identity fraud and conspiracy to access a computer without authorization. The thing to know about Weev is that throughout his trolling, as he was being fêted by academics and members of the press, he was also spouting off often and publicly about the evils of Jews and blacks.

Now that he’s had his 41-month sentence vacated and he’s out of prison, Aurenheimer is sporting a swastika tattoo. The image of the swastika is tilted, one of his friends told me, to suggest that maybe it’s just a troll; that it doesn’t mean what it means. That same friend, Gregg Housh, a former regular on 4chan who left to help start Anonymous, also told me that away from any audience, Auernheimer fulminates about the dangers of Jewish power in private chat rooms they both use.

And last October, after he got out of prison, Aurenheimer wrote an article for The Daily Stormer. That piece prompted a confession from a former troll lamenting trolling’s transformation into a festival of reactionary hatred. And that in turn produced a response from The Daily Stormer’s Anglin entitled “Weev and the Nazi Troll Army.”

“Trolling, as a concept, was always a form of social commentary, intended to expose the weakness and hypocrisy of our age,” Anglin writes. The language is markedly similar to the description of trolling offered by the academic Gabriella Coleman, whose recent book about Anonymous made her the group’s most prominent theorist and advocate.

“Any presumption of our world’s inviolability becomes a weapon,” Coleman wrote. “Trolls invalidate that world by gesturing toward the possibility for Internet geeks to destroy it—to pull the carpet from under us whenever they feel the urge.”

Anglin’s own reverie for trolling continues:

“The fact that it has been refined into a hardcore right-wing system of Jew-hatred and the mockery of self-righteous feminists merely demonstrates that we now know our enemy much better than we did a decade ago. And presumably, that we know ourselves a lot better too.

It was a natural evolution of a medium and a community which surrounded it.”

So we’ve come full circle, and it’s getting harder to pretend that the trolling culture that 4chan created, whatever else it has led to, hasn’t also provided a template for neo-fascists. “You can’t understate 4chan’s role,” says the SPLC’s Keegan Hankes.  “I constantly see 4chan being mentioned by the more Internet- and tech-savvy guys in the white nationalist movement. They’re getting their content from 4chan.”

Users there created a large and influential body of work online, ur-texts of anonymous racism for other anonymous racists to parse and develop. Maybe the early users meant to skewer the thought police when they screamed racial epithets over and over and made “Jews did 9/11” a punch line. But for the people who came after them, those influential trolls—and their high-toned defenders—made it that much easier to use those same words and ideas without even the pretense of trolling.

Eventually people showed up, on /pol/ and the racist subreddits, who never knew or cared whether there was a joke to begin with. They came for the racism and have built on that enterprise. 

Whitney Phillips, an academic who has studied 4chan and wrote a book about trolling, contends that the commonly applied idea of trolling is misleading, as it focuses on intention rather than impact. Phillips argues that trolls, despite their reputation as innovators, have never invented anything. “Trolls are cultural scavengers,” she wrote. Trolls “engage in a process I describe as cultural digestion: They take in, regurgitate, and subsequently weaponize existing tropes and cultural sensitivities.”

The Daily Stormer’s approach is to scavenge the culture while incorporating satire as both a skewer and a defense in service of an explicitly racist political program.

Meanwhile, Reddit, the self-declared front page on the Internet, now hosts what might be the web’s largest network of racist forums. Members on those sites spent days cheering Roof’s crime, while others debated whether or not the killings were a good thing for the racist cause.

That’s one reason Anglin called Reddit “fertile ground for recruitment,” in a post about how to draw more of its users into the white nationalist orbit. In it, he wrote: “We brought 4chan over to our side long ago. Now we need to focus on redpilling Reddit.” Redpilling in this context means awakening the users to racist beliefs. Reddit and 4chan both come up repeatedly on Anglin’s site as sources of inspiration.

Where Reddit is “fertile ground for recruitment,” 4chan is treated as a kindred spirit to The Daily Stormer.

On 4chan’s /pol/ there have been a number of startling posts straightforwardly backing Roof’s worldview and advocating white nationalism. Not startling for the racism, which has defined the board since it began, but for their earnestness. A lot of them don’t seem to be bothering much with anarchic tricksterism. Many users are indistinguishable from doctrinaire cultural conservatives of the racist variety—they just happen to curse more.

“At the beginning, Anonymous was just about lashing out at everything,” Northwestern Professor Peter Ludlow was quoted in January 2014 telling the writer of an Esquire article about the group’s future and Aurenheimer’s imminent imprisonment. “Now, they’ve grown up, politically,” he continued. “They’re starting to understand the real priorities. It’s not about lulz and pranks anymore.”

Lashing out at everything brings to mind another word that came up often when people discussed Anonymous: nihilism. That by itself should have set off alarms. There are no packs of nihilists. There might be a few scattered in the wild but never in a group. Any social order committed to the total renunciation of every belief wouldn’t be around long enough to tell its story, let alone gather day after day to chat on the Internet. People who say they want to burn down everything invariably choose where to set their fires.

The fact that 4chan and its trolls staked their expressive rights and aesthetic identity to tormenting women and black people is perhaps not surprising. Bright young things who felt smarter than a society that marginalized them, they used the Internet’s emancipatory anonymity to abuse people who at once scared them and whom they took to be weaker. How that was ever taken to be something new or revolutionary is another story.

What’s long been clear to the fascists has eluded the rest of us for a few reasons. The self-serving deceptions embedded in the idea of trolling, for one. And our persistent difficulty in grasping, despite all evidence to the contrary offered by governments and Silicon Valley plutocrats, that the Internet was not built to liberate us. And lastly, there was the underling fear and excitement of all of us looking in on 4chan, watching something become aware of itself, afraid we didn’t get it and that it might turn on us. Much of it was easy enough to appreciate and not really all that new and if we didn’t call it what it was, maybe it’s because we fell for an old trap, that to take it too seriously was to make yourself the punch line.

In his essay for The Nation, Adrian Chen makes the case for why progressives ought to be wary of Anonymous. There is reason for people elsewhere in the political sphere to practice their own skepticism. Strange bedfellows are made in times like this when people fear that the center can’t hold. A new round of battles in the culture war over gamer gate, policing, and rape culture are also about the country’s changing demographics and shifts in political influence and cultural values, and have opened up fault lines that are useful to people like Andrew Anglin.

“Right now,” Anglin wrote, “a divide is happening. And there are only going to be two sides. Either you are with the SJWs [social justice warriors] or you are with the Fascists.” That’s the gambit. We’ll see who falls for it.