This article is edited from a story shared exclusively with members of The Masthead, the membership program from The Atlantic (find out more). In part one, we explore how fringe groups on the internet have assimilated into the mainstream. In part two, we dive deep into one particular online group often associated with the alt-right, tracking how it’s grown since its inception.
Whitney Phillips, a professor of literary studies at Mercer University, has been researching the culture of online trolls—people who post intentionally provocative or offensive material on the internet—for 10 years. For most of her career, she had to convince her colleagues that the members of fringe communities on websites like 4Chan and Reddit who traffic in racist, sexist, and homophobic jokes were worth studying. “They’d say, who cares? They’re just jerks on the internet.” But over the last 18 months, what was once the fringe has penetrated the mainstream.
According to a study published last week, these fringe communities have a disproportionate impact on more mainstream media platforms like Twitter, influencing the larger public conversation. Jeremy Blackburn, assistant professor of computer science at UAB College of Arts and Sciences, and a team of other professors studied a variety of groups on Reddit, an aggregation site that organizes posts based on “up” and “down” votes from the community, and 4Chan, an image-based discussion platform, that, in his view, lean toward the alt-right. Many self-identify as alt-right—others nurture ideas widely associated with that movement, which often espouses white supremacist, misogynistic, or anti-semitic views. “It was especially interesting, considering the size of these communities. They seem insignificant,” Blackburn said. “And yet they had the power to really push things on Twitter.”