Updated at 7:42 p.m. ET on June 23, 2020.
My Little Pony fans have had a Nazi problem for a long time.
That sounds just as strange no matter how many times you say it. My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic is a cartoon television show about friendship, compassion, and a group of magical horses with names such as Twilight Sparkle and Fluttershy who live in a fantastical land called Equestria. It’s marketed to children. Nevertheless, it has an extremely dedicated adult fandom, which is mostly made up of men, or “bronies,” as they’ve been referred to for nearly a decade. Most of these men are white. Some of these men are vocal white supremacists.
The brony subculture is about as niche as they come, born in internet forums in the early 2010s, an era when hyper-specific interests were the organizing principle of social media. Even so, bronies have long captured the world’s attention. They hold well-attended fan conventions; they’ve been the stars of multiple documentaries. Many of the show’s adult fans genuinely enjoy My Little Pony and the wholesome escapism it provides. Others, however, delight in the irony of their fandom. To them, it’s edgy and provocative to be an adult obsessed with cartoon ponies.
That’s where the Nazis come in. My Little Pony fans primarily express their enthusiasm for the show by sharing their own cartoon drawings of the main characters, which they usually upload to the image boards. The most popular of these sites is called Derpibooru, a combination of a character’s name and a common term for image boards. Derpibooru hosts millions of My Little Pony artworks, plenty of which are simple tributes to magic, friendship, and magical friendship. But a substantial number of them are extremely, jarringly violent. An image that I recently viewed on the site depicts a My Little Pony character presiding over three lynchings and one beheading of cartoons drawn to represent various marginalized groups. Derpibooru even lists “racist” as a searchable category, and more than 900 pieces of art are tagged as such.
For years, this has been the status quo in the world of My Little Pony. In supposed deference to principles of free speech and openness on the internet, the presence of self-described Nazis within a fandom that idolizes compassion-oriented cartoon characters has become a coolly accepted fact. The community has sorted itself largely into two camps: those who think anything goes as long as someone finds it funny, and those who would rather ignore toxic elements than admit that not everything is perfect.
Until now. Following a new wave of Black Lives Matter protests across the United States, the fandom is in an all-out civil war, forced to either confront or deny what it’s let go on for so long. The abrupt reckoning has raised an existential question for internet spaces large and small: If you’ve gone online to live in a fantasy space, can you avoid taking responsibility when the real world finds its way in?
Even a quick glance at the history of My Little Pony fandom serves as a valuable template for how not to build an online community. The fandom was born on 4chan, the largest den of chaos and toxic beliefs available on the internet. In 2012, a message board called /mlp/ was set up because My Little Pony conversation was taking up too much space on boards for TV and comics. It took off because there is nothing 4chan likes better than things spiraling out of control.
Derpibooru, which was created that same year as an easy place for bronies to share their art, hosts a wider range of the My Little Pony fandom, including friendly and inclusive fans who don’t feel any personal loyalty to the slur-ridden forums of 4chan. But the site still borrowed from the 4chan ethos by billing itself as an archive in the absolutist sense of the word: Everything would be allowed; nothing would be destroyed. The sites’ rules are respectful of copyright and other laws, but otherwise do not restrict the content of artwork at all. In fact, they actively forbid complaining about content and instead instruct visitors to use the site’s filtering tools to avoid images they don’t want to see.
“Derpibooru became a playground for the right-wing posters [from /mlp/] who could upload their art,” Blake Henry, a 27-year-old musician and a My Little Pony fan—known as Wootmaster in fandom spaces—told me. Around the same time, a blog called My Nationalist Pony started attracting a readership. Its author, who was known only as Buttercup Dew, wrote at length about My Little Pony as a subculture—“as implicitly white as NASCAR, country music, and the Republican Party”—that could be used to spread white-nationalist ideas. The show became an alt-right in-joke, and stayed that way, spreading, for a time, to the little-known white-nationalist spaces on Tumblr as well.
Now the real world and Equestria are colliding. Over the past few weeks, some My Little Pony fans have mocked the protests with racist fan art, most of which was posted to Derpibooru, then massively upvoted by /mlp/ users. One much-discussed image was a pony version of a white-nationalist meme that circulated after the launch of a SpaceX rocket to the International Space Station: a photo of the two white astronauts side by side with a photo of black protesters “rioting.” The artist replaced the black people in the image with cartoon zebras—which are awkwardly coded as African in the real My Little Pony universe, but often referred to on 4chan with a portmanteau of zebra and the N-word. “Beautiful,” one user responded to the image. “Perfect for subtle messaging.”
At the same time, My Little Pony art that was supportive of the Black Lives Matter protests was being hit with hundreds of downvotes—an apparently coordinated action that is against the site’s rules. The conflict was a fraction of what was happening on the site, which was still dominated by its usual memes and comic strips and adoring portraits, and whose users typically discourage “political” work. But it sparked a significant conversation about racism in the fandom for the first time.
Henry was the first member of the Derpibooru community to start tweeting about the problem, calling on the site’s owners to take action. Others quickly chimed in. “What happened to George Floyd has been so utterly disruptive and so impossible to ignore,” a 26-year-old My Little Pony fan who goes by Acesential, told me. “It’s not something you can politely tuck away anymore.” (Acesential asked to go by their fandom name to avoid harassment.)
So far, Henry and his allies have had mild success. On June 4, the owners of Derpibooru tweeted a statement in support of Black Lives Matter. They also announced a new site-wide policy: They banned uploading images that were created for no reason other than to incite controversy, and removed images making fun of the protests. They did not ban expressions of racism.
In an email, the owners told me that the presence of white nationalists in the My Little Pony fandom is “unfortunate.” They insisted that they have always tried “to act against content [that] displays genuine racist intent on behalf of the poster,” adding “we have not always been as strict as we would have liked to be.” They also clarified that the removed images would be gone only temporarily, because of the moderation headache the images have been causing. They will later be restored to the site, the owners said, “as an artifact of the moment.”
Moderation is always complicated, but never more so than when a community is unsure of what it wants to be or what it’s willing to play host to. Derpibooru’s tiny policy change has led to an uproar in the site’s forums, and disgruntled users insist that it will lead to “a purity spiral,” or a slippery slope to “censorship” and “authoritarianism” (the standard set of arguments that come up in every major moderation dispute, which tend to conflate site rules and deplatforming with government crackdowns on free speech). Meanwhile, supporters of a stricter content policy point out that the update is toothless, and will do almost nothing to curb racism on the site.
What’s clearest from talking with those on either side of the argument is that the My Little Pony fandom has developed a totally nonsensical hodgepodge of values. Many fans who specifically support Black Lives Matter, for example, are also fans of Aryanne, a fan-invented Nazi pony with a pink swastika on her hip. They do not acknowledge a contradiction. “I love Aryanne,” a 25-year-old My Little Pony fan named Sam told me. “It’s just cute, funny, sexy art.” Then he added, “Black Lives Matter art is great. I welcome it.” (Sam asked to go only by his first name to avoid harassment.)
When Acesential posted a drawing of a pony holding an “I Can’t Breathe” flag, and when Henry posted art containing the initialism “ACAB,” for “All Cops Are Bastards,” commenters spat back that ponies shouldn’t be used as a “mouthpiece” for politics, even though some of those same commenters have loved it when ponies wear “Make America Great Again” hats. This idea of what counts as political and what doesn’t is another thing the fandom took from 4chan—where racial slurs are just jokes but anti-racism makes you a “social justice warrior.”
“This is a fan community that has prided itself on a permissiveness and pushing boundaries and cloaking themselves in irony and the idea that they can make the mainstream uncomfortable,” Anne Gilbert, an assistant media-studies professor at the University of Georgia who has studied the My Little Pony fandom, told me. “That has been a source of pride.”
That pride makes the My Little Pony fandom’s problem twofold. Members who want to tear the fan community away from the active racists will also have to disentangle themselves from a long-held commitment to anything-goes uploading and a willful ignorance of the significance of political imagery. The concept of complicity has become clearer to a greater percentage of white Americans in the past several weeks, Gilbert said. A fandom that used to “ignore” politics is now being asked to acknowledge that it actually has made political choices—by valuing the “free speech” of some over the comfort and safety of many others.
As illustrated by the massive revolt on Reddit earlier this month, Black Lives Matter has led to a rethinking of what online communities are for and whom they serve on a very basic level. That the conversation has managed to penetrate one of the most head-in-the-sand groups on the whole internet speaks to how far the movement has already gone in challenging people where they are—in their imaginary worlds, in their anonymous message threads, and in all of the places where there have long been no rules.
“The fandom has to recognize that it doesn’t exist purely within the vacuum of an online fantasy,” Acesential said. “It exists in a world where these problems are still here.”