“Don’t feed the trolls” remains indispensable guidance for the internet, if only because trolls exist solely to get a reaction out of you. Ignore them and they lose all power. But the most fiendish trolls are evolving from weekend anglers who occasionally reel people in to Deadliest Catch-level professionals using bait so effective that people can’t seem to help biting.
These master baiters represent the so-called alt-right, the meme-fluent arm of American white nationalism. Even as their memes morph into militaristic propaganda, this loosely organized troll army inhabiting extremist corners of social media, 4chan, and Reddit has adopted a new tactic: claiming mundane objects like milk, the peace symbol, and the LGBTQ flag as symbols of white supremacy. Every reappropriation provides another reminder that a troll’s greatest strength lies in weaponizing your anger.
This goes beyond sowing irritation and confusion among “normies” and “snowflakes.” The alt-right is attempting to normalize itself and its ideas. If anybody who drinks milk might be a Nazi, the idea of someone being a Nazi starts looking more pedestrian.
Fighting Osteoporosis and Progress
Conspiracy theorists always see secret symbols and gestures. President Obama and Women’s March organizer Linda Sarsour regularly make the one-finger ISIS salute. Beyoncé’s hand gestures announce her membership in the Illuminati. But the alt-right turned this upside down, then inside out: Rather than accuse other people of secretly communicating an evil agenda, seed the idea that you’re doing it.
It looks like this started in February, when users on 4chan, using an image lifted from a 2013 Nature article about lactose intolerance, seized on the idea that Northern Europeans adults have no trouble with lactose. From there, it was but a short hop to some racist poetry and the idea of making milk a symbol for whiteness. A couple of weeks later, neo-Nazis drank milk while trolling Shia LaBeouf’s anti-Trump performance art piece, He Will Not Divide Us. The media took it from there.
They repeated this cycle—make a joke, perform the joke in real life, watch the media report on the joke as a real menace—with the OK sign. A number of media sites recently claimed that the alt-right adopted it as a symbol of white power, and that ultra-conservative commentators like Mike Cernovich use it as a dogwhistle. None of that is true. Cernovich was indeed using it, but only to rile up people convinced that he and others on the far right use it to convey white supremacy. All of this, in the eyes of the trolls, makes the mainstream media look like buffoons.
But as those false symbols add up, it gives people downstream of 4chan, like Infowars’ Paul Joseph Watson—a prominent member of the alt-right’s relatively mild-mannered sibling the “alt-lite”—a seemingly inexhaustible stockpile of ammunition.
I’m eating Asian food, drinking milk, not looking you in the eye AND doing the OK sign.
TRIGGERING INTENSIFIES. 😄👌🏻 pic.twitter.com/eIX8fWn3a6
— Paul Joseph Watson (@PrisonPlanet) May 1, 2017
This is a trolling quadruple-lutz. The OK sign and milk, you get. The eye contact is a bit more esoteric. It refers to the decision by Oxford University deeming avoiding eye contact a racist microaggression. And the sushi speaks to the notion that social media snapshots of non-Western foods fetishize other cultures. Taken together, it’s all one big signal boost for alt-righties. “It affirms the narrative in their heads, and allows them to march forward with a greater sense of self-aggrandizement,” says Whitney Phillips, author of This Is Why We Can’t Have Nice Things: Mapping the Relationship Between Online Trolling and Internet Culture. Again and again, the mainstream media—which the alt-right deems a liberal apparatus—unwittingly amplifies a message designed to make it look foolish.
Yet, it seems only natural that people would take the alt-right at its word. This loosely defined movement is notoriously ironic, with few outside sources capable of discerning irony from sincerity, and enough slang and inside jokes to make you think they speak another language. So 4chan continues engineering new versions of symbol pollution with attempts to reappropriate the peace symbol and Facebook’s “like” icon:
The alt-right’s 14/88 riff on the “like” requires an understanding of two common white supremacist callsigns. The numeral 14 refers to a white supremacist rallying cry known as the 14 words, while 88 is code for Heil Hitler because H is the eighth letter in the alphabet. The alt-right applies similar thinking to other symbols of progressive resistance and LGBTQ pride:
What’s at Stake Here
The real threat is not the annoyance, but the risk of seeing innocuous, even positive symbols so thoroughly coopted that they create confusion, or even die. That’s exactly what happened last weekend when cartoonist Matt Furie killed off Pepe the Frog, the cartoon character he saw the alt-right adopt as an unofficial mascot.
Things haven’t reached the point where anyone equates dairy products with intolerance. “As popular as the Pepe meme was prior to being coopted by white supremacists, it was not as well known as a carton of milk or the OK hand sign,” says Oren Segal, director of the Center on Extremism for the Anti-Defamation League, which designated the cartoon frog as a hate symbol last year. “Safe to say people’s first encounter with milk is not going to be in a hateful context. Mere coverage of a these hoax hate symbols will not necessarily make them real.”
But even sham symbols can bring real results by stoking paranoia. And the media’s participation in this cycle erodes its credibility: If the alt-right can bamboozle reporters into declaring the OK sign a symbol of white supremacy, its reporting on other topics—and other gestures, like that ISIS one-finger salute—starts to look suspect. Already he conspiracy-minded are making that leap. It’s not much better if you take duped journalists at their word, either, because the internet they see is an ideological minefield where Instagramming your breakfast cereal could be tantamount to having 1488 tattooed across your knuckles. Either way, the alt-right wins—unless the internet starves the trolls trying to feed it.