HNH explains… trolling and the alt-right

Simon Murdoch - 10 10 17

One of the things that marks this movement out from the traditional far right is the way it operates online.

Though the traditional far right has, of course, used the internet as a tool, the Alternative Right uses a specific online subculture that has allowed it to advance its cultural war and attract a younger audience than most existing far right movements. That subculture is called ‘trolling’ which is the act of being deliberately offensive or provocative online with the aim eliciting a hostile, negative, outraged reaction.

Trolling dates as far back as the late 1980s but it is the community of self-identifying trolls emerging from the imageboard, especially the sub-forum founded in 2011, which have been integral to the Alternative Right’s online activity. Drawing from 4chan, similar communities have sprung up on sites like 8chan, Reddit, Voat, and Gab. Their tactics are now also commonplace on mainstream platforms like Facebook, Twitter and YouTube.

How the Alternative Right weaponise trolling

A troll can simply be someone who sends offensive messages to people to start arguments and can be of any political persuasion or none. However, the Alternative Right have weaponised this form of online engagement more than any other to advance their political position.

The Alternative Right’s trolling can take the form of organised harassment campaigns, notably that of female gaming journalists during the ‘Gamergate’ fiasco in 2014 (which would prove important in bringing together disparate elements within the Alternative Right), and more recently in the case of Andrew Anglin of the nazi Daily Stormer website who led his personal “Troll Army” in an antisemitic harassment campaign of a Jewish woman. Similar online organisational strategies are used by the Alternative Right to stir up controversy and manipulate the media. This is especially employed for the purposes of amplifying fake news, often through using extensive social media networks of users who quickly organise online campaigns. Often this is carried out alongside the use of bots: computer software which interacts with systems and users and so can be used on social media to spread information.

For example, Jack Posobiec, former correspondent for the alt-light Rebel Media site was pivotal in amplifying the #MacronLeaks disinformation campaign. The attack was a deliberate attempt to misinform the French electorate prior to the final round of their presidential election by mixing in fake documents with hacked documents from Emmanuelle Macron’s campaign team.

Trolling, sincerity and far right sympathies

Trolling has also shaped the Alternative Right’s broader rhetorical strategies of offensively stereotyping and ridiculing minority groups and opponents on the left and right (consider the Breitbart headline, “Would you rather your child had Feminism or Cancer?”). From this a central

confusion has emerged over whether the Alternative Right’s hateful and bigoted trolling reflects sincerely held beliefs or is just an effective means of getting a rise out of those they consider politically correct and overly-sensitive. This is often explained by way of the supposed ‘disinhibiting’ effect: the tendency for people to dissociate themselves from the consequences of their actions online – especially where the web affords anonymity.

Yet, as internet scholars Whitney Phillips and Ryan Milner point out in The Ambivalent Internet (2017) “the disinhibiting effects of anonymity can also facilitate compassion and emotional openness”.

So whilst external pressures can play a role online – such as the norms of the communities trolls are a part of – we nevertheless choose the views we express and actions we take. The Alternative Right’s trolling is no different, and so should be understood as a reflection of what, at some level, they sincerely believe.


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