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.”
There is no demographic data on these fringe online communities, but Blackburn believes they’re led by a group of men—the groups are notoriously misogynistic—in their mid-to-late 20s who grew up reading 4Chan, which has been around for over a decade. “They’ve become very good at curating content and enticing people in the information-overload culture we live in today. These guys have spent ten years figuring out how to get their message out.” Typically, they use short, catchy messages, jokes, or memes—content that is easy to share on Twitter and Facebook. The best-known meme to come out of these communities is Pepe the Frog, a cartoon frog often juxtaposed with racist words or symbols. In September 2016, the Anti-Defamation League identified Pepe as a hate symbol.
“In my class a few years ago, I’d always be able to identify subcultural trolls. They were the only ones who knew this particular set of jokes or memes. But now more and more trolling references have been integrated into the broader internet lexicon. Now, one of my students might just have seen the joke on Facebook,” Phillips said.
The election lent a degree of legitimacy to these fringe online communities. In turn, these communities helped Trump to win the election, a victory that has empowered them further. Throughout his campaign, Donald Trump’s campaign engaged with forums on Reddit, particularly The_Donald, the most popular subreddit (a subject-specific group) started by Trump supporters, often associated with the alt-right. About a year before the election, Trump shared a meme of Pepe the Frog’s face superimposed on his body. The following July, Trump hosted an AMA, or “Ask Me Anything,” on Reddit, inviting user questions. Instead of hosting the interview on the traditional /r/IAmA subreddit, as past presidential candidates have done, however, he chose to publish it on The_Donald. As Trump engaged directly with this subreddit, the media began to report on the forum—which, in turn, attracted more people to it.
Since Trump’s election, these communities have become journalistic go-tos for a range of political stories. When tragedies happen—mass shootings or the violence in Charlottesville—Phillips said journalists have started going straight to communities within 4Chan with links to the alt-right. “It’s easy to write a story about people on 4Chan because they’re always saying something terrible,” Phillips said. “There has been an extreme amount of sharing and amplifying that crystallized what we understand to be the alt-right.”
Phillips argues that these communities started moving into the mainstream even before the 2016 campaigns. Memes, she said, have always been central to trolling subculture. But since 4Chan deletes content after just a few days, in order to understand the jokes, users had to be active in its communities. That changed in 2012 with the creation of Know Your Meme, an online database devoted to cataloguing memes from all over the internet. “Know Your Meme lowered the bar of entry, and allowed people to participate in the funny parts of trolling subculture,” said Phillips. Once people felt like they were in on the joke, Phillips told me, they became more likely to engage with them in other ways.
Video-game forums offered another transmission mechanism for fringe groups. In a recent study for FiveThirtyEight, Ph.D. candidate Trevor Martin found a strong correlation between people who subscribe to The_Donald and people who subscribe to popular gaming subreddits. Particularly after Gamergate, a controversy around sexual harassment in the predominantly male online gaming community, many online gamers felt they were being treated unfairly by a media obsessed with political correctness. In response, many took refuge in alt-right communities, or formed new, heavily misogynistic communities of their own.
“All of these young men felt they were under attack from the politically correct sphere. You saw this radicalization of people you wouldn’t expect to be that political,” Martin said.
Over the last five years, Phillips has shifted from seeking more attention for these groups to seeking less. She’s still not sure that the media has struck the right balance. After the shooting at the church in Sutherland Springs, Texas, Phillips said she knew exactly what media requests to expect. Journalists would want to know how online alt-right communities were responding to the tragedy. She always takes their calls, but worries about giving trolls an even louder mouthpiece. “Even if you’re condemning it, you’re amplifying it.”
HOW THE_DONALD DOMINATED THE INTERNET
Before the 2016 presidential election, supporters created Reddit forums called subreddits for every major candidate in the race. On election night, Hillary Clinton’s main subreddit had 34,787 subscribers. Donald Trump’s had 280,012. Today, Trump’s subreddit—“The_Donald”—has swelled to over 520,000 accounts. Its trajectory mirrors the recent growth—in size and impact—of other fringe groups.
- June 2015: The_Donald is founded. Martin and Phillips both told me that when The_Donald was created, the Reddit community largely wrote it off as a joke. Because The_Donald didn’t have an official-sounding name, the original moderator thought it wouldn’t take off as Trump’s main Reddit community. “I actually figured it would just be a nice place for a small group of supporters to have fun triggering anti-Trump people and, frankly, laughing with Trump at the same time,” an anonymous moderator going by jcm267 told Motherboard.
- October 2015: Donald Trump tweets a meme from The_Donald (~1,200 subscribers). When Trump tweeted an image of Pepe’s face on the president’s body, along with the text “You Can’t Stop the Trump”—a meme that had circulated on The_Donald—the subreddit erupted. “They were amazed at this accomplishment,” Blackburn said. “They had an explicit example of how they had affected the world.”
- December 2015: Reddit’s other communities begin a concerted effort to “infiltrate” The_Donald (~2,900 subscribers). When much larger political communities like Reddit’s and 4Chan’s main politics groups became aware of The_Donald, they invaded the subreddit, downvoted all its posts, and harassed its users. Some of them ended up sticking around.
- April 2016: Mainstream media begins publishing articles about The_Donald (~114,000 subscribers). As Trump won a string of primaries, The_Donald amassed over 100,000 new subscribers. Responding to this growth, The New York Times, Mashable, and Vice covered the community.
- June 2016: After the Pulse nightclub shooting, The_Donald attracted 11,712 subscribers in one day (~155,900 subscribers). When Reddit censored news about shooter Omar Mateen, trying to prevent racist speculation around the event, users on The_Donald were furious about what they saw as a concession to political correctness (in the past, Reddit has been criticized for allowing users to mistakenly identify people they believed to be perpetrators of an attack). Frustrated by the censorship, many new subscribers posted on The_Donald to complain.
- July 2016: When Trump came under fire for sharing an image with a Star of David photoshopped onto Hillary Clinton, he adopted a defense that originated on The_Donald. (~172,000 subscribers). The_Donald users argued that the same Star of David symbol had been used on the cover of a popular children’s coloring book. Trump’s reference to a theme popular in the online community brought it further attention.
- July 2016: The_Donald hosts Donald Trump for an AMA (~192,700 subscribers).
- November 2016: The_Donald celebrates Trump’s victory in the presidential election (~280,000 subscribers). After the election, this message from one of The_Donald’s moderators quickly became the most popular post in the group: "How does it feel, centipedes? The God Emperor said that we would get tired of winning. Are you tired of winning yet? Feel vindicated, centipedes. It's over and there is nothing they can do about it. We are the future."
- September 2017: The_Donald hits 500,000 subscribers. There is no sign of its growth slowing.