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Sloppy Sourcing Plagues ‘Kill All Normies’ Alt-Right Book
An author widely praised for delving into the darkest corners of internet culture appears to have taken some of her material on it from online sources.
Editor's note: This story has been updated, including to remove the phrases "verbatim," "lifted" and "copying and pasting."
Did the excesses of politically correct leftists on the internet—the sort derided for their focus on identity and pronouns—help fuel the rise of white supremacy and the “alt-right” in the United States? That’s the premise of Angela Nagle's Kill All Normies: Online Culture Wars from 4chan and Tumblr to Trump and the Alt-Right, and it is one found persuasive by liberals and conservatives alike, the work widely praised for its author’s unique expertise.
“[S]he’s the only one willing to descend into the grimiest of Internet grottos,” says a reviewer quoted in the opening page of the book.
Well, not the only one: A review of the book by The Daily Beast—spurred by allegations first published on Libcom, a left-wing website highly critical of Nagle’s arguments—finds that several passages in her 120-page work are similar to entries in Wikipedia and another online encyclopedia, RationalWiki. Attribution is haphazard throughout, sometimes creating the impression that others’ research is the author’s own. This also leads the author to repeat others’ mistakes.
In a section on campus culture wars, for example, Nagle writes: “Central to the undermining of the Western canon was the relativism of figures like literary theorist Stanley Fish.” She then quotes the famous professor: “The only way we can hope to interpret a literary work is by knowing the vantage point from which we form the act of interpretation.”
This is not a quote from Stanley Fish, however; these are the words of writer James Atlas, who, covered the debate over the centering of white male authors on college reading lists in a 1988 piece for The New York Times Magazine.
This same error—miscasting a journalist’s description of Stanley Fish’s opinion as a Stanley Fish quote—is made by Andrew Hartman in his 2015 book, A War for the Soul of America: A History of the Culture Wars. Nagle mentions Hartman in the previous paragraph, and cites him elsewhere in the book, but it is not apparent that she is summarizing his own summary of Atlas’ piece. Hartman, by contrast, shows his work: a footnote in his book explains that his retelling is based on the New York Times Magazine piece.
Mistakes happen, which speaks to the value of attribution: It facilitates verification. It also ensures that people are not left with the impression that the author has conducted more original research than they actually have. But this happens more than infrequently in Nagle’s book.
Few professional reviewers seemed to have noticed, however. The book has been widely hailed in the mainstream press, and that parlayed into a status as a go-to expert on the alt-right and the excesses liberals on the internet.
In a piece this month, “How the Online Left Fuels the Right,” New York Times columnist Michelle Goldberg hinged her argument on Kill All Normies. “The leftist writer Angela Nagle captured this phenomenon in her 2017 book,” she wrote. “Long before the alt-right ‘bubbled up to the surface of college campuses, and even Twitter and YouTube,’ [Nagle] wrote, it developed in opposition ‘to its enemy online culture of the new identity politics typified by platforms like Tumblr.’”
Ross Douthat, a right-wing columnist at the Times, likewise recommended “Nagle’s portrait of the online culture war” as a helpful explainer “of how identitarian extremism found a new foothold on the right.” The Washington Post, National Review, and Vice all positively reviewed the work, with Nagle becoming a go-to commentator on the online identity wars, cited everywhere from The Guardian to Rolling Stone to Vox.
But that this expertise on internet culture is seen, from the book’s opening statement of purpose, to be frequently based on the first page of a given Wikipedia entry. Nagle sets out by stating that she plans to “map a trajectory through the dominant [internet] styles from virtue to cynical inscrutable irony, roughly from Kony 2012 to the Harambe meme explosion in 2016.”
To wit, she explains: “The Kony 2012 film’s purpose was to promote the charity campaign Stop Kony, which itself aimed to have the Ugandan militia leader Joseph Kony arrested by the end of 2012.”
The Wikipedia entry for Kony 2012, released by the group Invisible Children, states: “The film’s purpose was to promote the charity’s movement to make Uganda cult and militia leader… Joseph Kony globally known in order to have him arrested by the end of 2012.”
Nagle writes that, “The Film received over 100 million views and went so viral that one poll suggested half of young adult Americans heard about it in the days following the video’s release, causing its website to crash.”
Wikipedia, for comparison, states that “the film has received over 101 million views… The intense exposure of the video caused the ‘Kony 2012’ website to crash shortly after it began gaining widespread popularity. A poll suggested that more than half of young adult Americans heard about Kony 2012 in the days following the video’s release.”
Libcom editor Mike Harman was the first to write up allegations of plagiarism against Nagle. “One consistent barrier to reading Kill All Normies is the lack of citations,” he wrote in a May 3 post.
Three paragraphs after the Stanley Fish misquote, for example, Nagle writes:
In 1996, a famous hoax that still haunts academe was perpetrated by Alan Sokal, a physics professor at New York University and University City College London. He submitted an article to Social Text, an academic journal of postmodern cultural studies, whose editorial collective included stars at the time like Fredric Jameson and Andrew Ross, called “Transgressing the Boundaries: Towards a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity.”
That wording mirrors the relevant entry on Wikipedia:
The Sokal affair, also called the Sokal hoax, was a publishing hoax perpetrated by Alan Sokal, a physics professor at New York University and University College London. In 1996, Sokal submitted an article to Social Text, an academic journal of postmodern cultural studies…. “whose editorial collective includes such luminaries as Fredric Jameson and Andrew Ross….”
Harman also highlighted Nagle’s take on Russian ultra-nationalist Aleksandr Dugin’s “Fourth Political Theory,” which she defines as “an entirely new political ideology that integrates and supersedes liberal democracy, Marxism and fascism.” Dugin was a founder of Russia’s National Bolshevik Party, which is effectively a synthesis of Russian chauvinism and German fascism.
The Wikipedia entry for Dugin’s theory uses the same language as Nagle, with a key difference: It makes clear this is not a neutral observer’s definition, but the description put forward by Dugin himself. “Dugin states that he is laying the foundations for an entirely new political ideology, the fourth political theory, which integrates and supersedes the three past ‘theories’ of liberal democracy, Marxism, and fascism,” the entry notes.
In a statement provided to The Daily Beast, Douglas Lain, the publisher of Kill All Normies, said “we do not require (or even encourage) that our authors cite sources and abide by the standards of academic publishing,” adding that “concerns about proper citation don’t exist at Zero Books. However, we are concerned about plagiarism and copyright infringement.”
With respect to Wikipedia, copyright infringement is not a concern—all text is free to be copied, legally speaking.
As for plagiarism, “We’ll stop publication or pulp a book if we discover it is not the author’s own work or that the author doesn’t have the right to republish another author’s work,” Lain wrote. “What Nagle is accused of doing has nothing in common with this sort of plagiarism. Her work is her own. Five consecutive words do not constitute a copyright violation,” he stated. Furthermore, “In Nagle’s case, we were convinced that her ideas and arguments were not only original to her but timely and important. We stand by that assessment.”
“The real story here isn’t about Nagle and her writing,” Lain added, “but about a group of people who have become obsessed with Nagle and who prefer to settle political differences and disagreements through personal attacks and attempts [at] personal destruction.”
At other points, though, Nagle does cite the online encyclopedia. When describing “otherkin,” an internet subculture comprised of people who claim to identify as something other than human, Nagle writes that she is relying on “the Wikipedia definition.”
But Nagle never mentions RationalWiki, another online encyclopedia that bills itself as dedicated to “refuting pseudoscience” and documenting “the full range of crank ideas.” She does, however, liberally borrow from it, as first pointed out on social media.
In her chapter on the anti-feminist “manosphere” of “men’s rights” and “pick-up artists,” she describes self-styled men’s rights activist Paul Elam thusly:
In 2011, Elam established the vigilante doxxing site Register-Her.com, which publishes the personal information of women the site claims “have caused significant harm to innocent individuals either by the direct action of crimes like rape, assault, child molestation and murder, or by the false accusation of crimes against others’.... While the list included women who have been sent to prison for various crimes, it also included others who were acquitted and lists female rape victims whose court cases didn’t result in a full conviction as a “false accuser.”
The entry on RationalWiki is nearly identical:
In 2011, Elam established the site Register-Her.com, which publishes the personal information of women the site claims “have caused significant harm to innocent individuals either by the direct action of crimes like rape, assault, child molestation and murder, or by the false accusation of crimes against others.” While the list includes women who have been sent to prison for various crimes, it also includes others who were acquitted... It also lists any rape victim whose court case results in anything but a full conviction and sentencing as a “false accuser.”
Elsewhere in the chapter, Nagle discusses the pro-rape “pick-up artist” who goes by “Roosh V.” She writes that posts on his website, Return of Kings, have “included titles such as ‘Biology Says People on Welfare Should Die’, ‘Don’t Work for a Female Boss’ and ‘5 Reasons to Date a Girl With an Eating Disorder.’”
Those are the same three examples, in a different order, that Caitlin Dewey provided in a January 2014 article for The Washington Post. That section of Dewey’s article is quoted in the Wikipedia entry on Roosh.
When Nagle writes that, “Roosh V doesn’t identify with equality-based men’s rights activism or the MGTOW movement, calling them ‘sexual losers’ and ‘bitter virgins,” that too is parroting his Wikipedia entry. That entry states that Roosh “does not consider himself” to be a men’s rights activist, having “called men’s rights activists ‘sexual losers’ and ‘bitter virgins.’”
Another graf reads:
He also saw Trump’s win as a victory for his movement, saying: ‘I’m in a state of exuberance that we now have a President who rates women on a 1–10 scale in the same way that we do and evaluates women by their appearance and feminine attitude,’ adding ‘We may have to institute a new feature called “Would Trump bang?” to signify the importance of feminine beauty ideals that cultivate effort and class above sloth and vulgarity.’
At The Cut, in a Dec. 14, 2016 article entitled, “Men’s Rights Activists Are Finding a New Home With the Alt-Right,” journalist Claire Landsbaum wrote:
When Trump won, RooshV saw it as a victory for the PUA movement. “I’m in a state of exuberance that we now have a President who rates women on a 1-10 scale in the same way that we do and evaluates women by their appearance and feminine attitude,” he wrote. “We may have to institute a new feature called ‘Would Trump bang?’ to signify the importance of feminine beauty ideals that cultivate effort and class above sloth and vulgarity.”
Later in the chapter, Nagle echoes RationalWiki’s entry on “Chateau Heartiste,” a virulently misogynistic and racist “pick-up artist” blog. The site’s proprietor, James C. Weidmann, “believes white civilization is being destroyed by miscegenation, immigration and low white female birth rates owing to feminism,” Nagle writes. “This decline can only be undone, he thinks, by deporting minorities and restoring patriarchy.”
The RationalWiki entry states that Weidmann “thinks ‘white civilization’ is getting destroyed as it is ‘overrun by Uruk-hai,’” a reference to the dark, anonymous “orcs” of J.R.R. Tolkien. “The only solution to the terrible prospect of Whites becoming a minority is, according to Weidmann, to forcefully deport all minorities.”
Nagle is hardly the first writer to be found taking from Wikipedia. In 2014, BuzzFeed fired its listicle creator, Benny Johnson, after he was found to have copied from the online encyclopedia dozens of times. And in late 2017, poet Jill Bialosky was caught borrowing phrases and biographical information in her memoir. Bialosky responded by saying the revelation “should not distract from the thesis” of her book. Simon & Schuster also stood by the work, the publisher saying it would “work with the author to make any necessary corrections for future editions of the book,” The New York Times reported.
Nagle, however, also describes events based on news articles she does not cite. This lack of attribution once again hinders verification, with errors and omissions subtly bolstering her argument that campus leftists are increasingly unreasonable.
Discussing an October 2016 incident involving Jordan Peterson, a University of Toronto professor whose popular online lectures criticizing “political correctness” have made him an intellectual hero on the right, Nagle states: “At an event to protest him, he appeared to speak to those who had gathered, and was drowned out by a white noise machine and was yelled at by members of the crowd.”
This account appears to be based on a November 2016 article published by the BBC. The protest came after Peterson refused to abide by a university rule requiring lecturers to respect the claimed gender identities of their students and, accordingly, to use properly gendered terms when referring to them (for example, using the pronoun “they,” if requested, in place of “he” or “she”).
But Peterson did not appear at an event protesting himself, a detail that suggests an unreciprocated willingness to engage the other side. Instead, he was speaking at a controversial “free-speech rally” where he shared a platform with Lauren Southern, an “alt-right” extremist barred from entering the United Kingdom due to her anti-Muslim, anti-refugee organizing. There, he indeed “was drowned out by a white noise machine,” according to the BBC, whose report does not mention an attempt to engage the protesters in Socratic dialogue.
Both Nagle and the BBC state that Peterson “says the lock on his office door was glued shut.” But Nagle omits the following sentence: “At the same time, the University of Toronto said it had received complaints of threats against trans people on campus.”
The BBC and Nagle, however, both note that students and faculty members found Peterson’s views on gender and pronouns to be “unacceptable, emotionally disturbing and painful.” They both attribute this to the University of Toronto, though the language actually comes from a letter, leaked by Peterson, that was signed by a dean and a vice provost. The letter asked Peterson to use pronouns conforming with a person’s gender identity. It also noted that transgender students had expressed fears for their safety, the university itself having recently decried “the targeting of individuals and communities on the basis of gender identity.”
The BBC report notes Peterson’s employers “support his right to academic freedom and free speech,” which Nagle rephrases as “platitudinous support for his right to academic freedom and free speech.” The BBC reports the university “warned that... he could run afoul of the Ontario Human Rights Code and his faculty responsibilities should he refuse to use alternative pronouns when requested,” which Nagle truncates to: “warned he could get in legal trouble with the Ontario Human Rights Code.”
Similarly, a user on Goodreads, a website for cataloguing and reviewing books, notes that Nagle’s account of an infamous episode of 4chan-led “trolling” after a teen suicide is based on an uncredited news story: a New York Times piece by Mattathias Schwartz. And her account of of the vicious trolling directed at tech journalist Kathy Sierra is based on a 2013 article published by The Verge.
Sierra, writes Nagle, “supported a call to moderate reader comments, which… has since become standard.” Journalist Greg Sandoval, for comparison, wrote that Sierra drew ire for “supporting a call to moderate reader comments, which is of course common practice now.” (Both write that, “In 2009,” neo-Nazi hacker Andrew Auernheimer, who spearheaded the trolling campaign, “claimed to have hacked into Amazon’s system and reclassified books about homosexuality as porn.”)
Nagle also recounts news events based on the retellings of right-wing columnists. Nagle’s account of a 2015 “no-platforming” incident at Cardiff University involving Australian writer Germaine Greer uses the same structure, facts and phrasing as Claire Lehman, a conservative author not credited in Nagle’s account.
After discussing a student’s “petition calling for the event’s cancellation,” Nagle and Lehman both note that Greer has “not published any comment about transgenderism for over 15 years,” though Nagle omits the fact Greer has indeed answered questions about the issue, the source of the controversy (transgender women are “not women,” Greer told the BBC). Both, however, note Greer says it is “not my issue.”
It is true, as Nagle’s publisher noted in their statement, that those who first alleged plagiarism in Kill Are Normies are by no means fans of Nagle or her book. Libcom, for instance, has been unsparing in its criticism of Nagle, seeing her as advancing a socially conservative form of leftism. Harman, an editor there, told The Daily Beast he thinks “she recycles right-wing talking points about ‘identity politics,’” arguing that her reliance on the self-definition of a Russian extremist, Aleksandr Dugin, illustrates this.
In the case of Nagle describing a Russian fascist’s politics in his own words, the problem is almost certainly not a conscious decision to parrot a right-wing nationalist but an unforced error born of haste—one that demonstrates the maxim, “Everyone needs an editor,” with the best viewing a writer’s work with an eye as skeptical as that of their harshest critic.
There is some irony here: an author critical of what she portrays as increasingly silly left-wing transgressions of societal norms, for the alleged sake of transgression alone, herself showing little regard for the traditional norms of citation.
Some rules exist for a reason.